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The 50s Voice

by Chetan Vinchhi

I write this as an unabashed fan of the Lata of the 50s. She has wonderful work in the 60s and beyond, but by the 70s her voice was a faint shadow of its earlier brilliance. The 50s Lata voice was the epitome of perfection. Its tanpura-like resonance could have been the envy of even highly trained classical voices. The epithet "jawaaridaar" aptly describes this quality. Pu.La.Deshpande used to say of Vasantrao Deshpande that he had done his riyaaz "there" (pointing skywards) before coming to earth. This is equally appropriate of Lata for there was nothing this voice could not do!

This voice had openness without being loud, sweetness without being too nasal or too shrill. It was equally comfortable in the upper registers and the lower notes. The mandra reach of that voice is often understated. In the classically oriented songs, Lata could hit the shhaDja so powerfully and perfectly as to take the listener's breath away (e.g. in her rendition of "garajat barasat..." in Malhar. The Sa is heard at "piharawaa".Oof!). The famed upper reach of the voice is showcased in the Rani Roopmati songs "aa jaa bha.Nwar" and "jhananana jhan baaje paayaliyaa" even though this is already 1960 and she has been made to sing at around kaalii-1.

The import of that last phrase is that Lata's natural pitch sits around kaali-5. The kaali-1 fixation of HFM turned out to be detrimental for her voice in the long run. Although she could handle it in her youth it became more and more difficult as the years progressed. By the 70s she struggles to keep up with the demands or simply the upper range of many of her songs.

Coming back to the 50s, there are many anecdotes about how great classical singers complimented Lata for her sur perfection. I used to wonder about this a lot. What is it about her sur that makes even stalwarts like Kumar Gandharva and Bade Ghulam sit up and notice it? The conclusion I have come to is this. Lata sings shabda-pradhaan pieces. The pronunciation is of paramount importance in these forms. While vowels are good carriers of sur, consonants have transitory characteristics and as a result they are not natural carriers of sur. (this is why classical singers seem to slur the words of bandishes, sometimes beyond recognition). To make those consonants seem to carry sur by finding just the right way to pronounce them and to find the perfect balance between consonants and vowels is a fine art form that Lata had perfected (or was a natural at, which is even more amazing).

In some of Lata's very early output and less often in the 50s she used to have harkats that would stand out as harkats. There is an entire school of thought that applauds them and considers them to be the essence of musical genius. I happen to sit on the opposite side of the fence. At the pinnacle of musical sophistication, devices such as harkats, murkis etc. are seamlessly assimilated into the body of the song, making the final product simple at first glance. This sort of highly evolved "simplicity" was the hallmark of the Lata I admire most.

The above philosophy can be extended to emoting as well. I am in favor of understatement in this department. Lata was capable of overt high spiritedness or sorrow. But the subtleness of veiled pathos or the suppressed excitement in her more typical songs is to die for.

Here is a list of songs that I really like. For each song I have attempted to say how it fits into this discussion.

1. Jal ke dil khaak hu_aa aa.Nkh se royaa na gayaa

This Parichay number is an eternal favourite. The way Lata has approached the mandra notes at "khaak hu_aa" is superb. She has carried the Pahadi-ish tune very well and the slightly veiled pathos of her rendition fits in with the mood of the lyrics.

2. RooTh ke tum to chal diye, ab mai.n duaa ko kyaa karoo.N

The same subtler shade of blue shows up here. Full marks to Anil-da for the very unusual slow ektaal theka and the even more unusual playing of a "classical" taal on a Dhol or nagaaDaa type of instrument. The easy gait allows for delicious lingering on many notes which the two exploit to the fullest. The "rooTh", "tum" etc. are reminescent of the hallmark Noor Jahan - Khursheed Anwar mee.nD work (think "dil kaa diyaa jalaayaa").

3. Pyaaraa hamaaraa munnaa naino.n kaa taaraa

Talking of taals, here is an unusal piece in jhaptaal. Unusual because the tune sits anchored at very odd points in the beat cycle. It is extremely difficult to pick up (uThaanaa) a tune at an arbitrary fixed place in a taal cycle. Not only does Lata pick up the different parts of the tune from odd places, but she seems completely at ease while doing it, the discomfiture of the slightly educated listener or the amateur singer notwithstanding! The tune from the Gemini team of E.Sankar Sastry /  M.D.Parthasarthy / B.S.Kalla is very good too (though I don't care too much for the lyrics).

4. Aa jaa bha.Nwar soonii Dagar soonaa hai ghar aa jaa

I deliberately juxtapose another song based on Brindavani Sarang in a bid to explode the myth that composing raaga- based songs somehow exposes some kind of a limitation on the part of the composer. These two songs cannot be more different in the approach to composition! The Rani Roopmati song is tuned like a brisk-paced classical bandish and much mileage is reserved for "variations". Lata shines in these variations and ends with a flourish on a powerfully projected taar pancham.

5. Bhiinii bhiinii hai miiThii miiThii hai

I find this Nausherwan-e-Adil number sweet beyond compare. Lata gives her all to convey the nascent romanticism intended by the poet. The typical CR lilt (accentuated by the small pauses between the phrases) adds a charm of its own to this song. There are many other sweet romantic songs that vied for attention in this slot. The ravishing “beimaan tore nainwa nindiya na aaye” from Tarana or the dulcet duet from Sangdil “dil mein samaa gaye sajan” might as well have led the category.

6. Baa.ndh priiti phool Dor

This is a lovingly crafted tune by Babuji (Sudhir Phadke)! But the way Lata has rendered some of the deceptively simple phrases (man le ke chit chor, door jaanaa naa – with that powerful Sa showing up again) convinces you that she has her fingers firmly on the pulse of Jaijaivanti, a notoriously difficult raag to sing. How that raag could bare its soul to a film song singer but continue to elude even stalwart classical singers is a wonder. There are legends about how she performed this song in front of Bade Ghulam. The purity of her rendition makes you want to believe those legends and associated hyperboles. The very same purity makes those legends redundant.

7. Naar naveli riit naa jaane

This early private Lata song has captivated me for a very special reason. She was probably at a crossroad in her professional career at the time. She was able to capture some of the andaaz of the Thumarii a.nga with an astonishing naturalness in this song. And there is a "pukaar" in her voice that is heard in Purab gayaki! It makes you wonder about that other career graph in a parallel Universe.

(*The writer Mr. Chetan Vinchhi  a technologist and entrepreneur.  His main musical interests are Hindustani Classical and Old Hindi Film music.He is originally from Bombay and currently lives in Bangalore. He spent a number of years in the US, where he actively participated in the usenet newsgroup rec.music.indian.misc, one of the earliest virtual communities dedicated to Indian music. He remains active in modern avatars of such online groups. He occasionally writes classical music reviews and articles about music.)

About the author
Chetan Vinchhi

Chetan is a technologist and entrepreneur.  His main musical interests are Hindustani Classical and Old Hindi Film music.He is originally from Bombay and currently lives in Bangalore. He spent a number of years in the US, where he actively participated in the usenet newsgroup rec.music.indian.misc, one of the earliest virtual communities dedicated to Indian music. He remains active in modern avatars of such online groups. He occasionally writes classical music reviews and articles about music.