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The reference point

by Shankar Mahadevan

To me, 'Lata Mangeshkar' practically defines the sound of the entire Indian film industry. Her voice has no longer remained just hers; it has come to be recognized as the voice of the Indian films. She has sung with so many different composers and has managed to capture the essence of each master's music through her songs. Through the medium of popular music, she has introduced to the common man the beauty of different ragas like Pahadi, Bhupali, Shivranjani and Hansdhwani and in the process, she has made him appreciate Indian classical music.

As an artist, Lataji has set such high standards and created such a unique sound that she has become the reference point by which everything else in Indian popular music is judged.  I always feel that only when we hear her songs in other good singers' voices, we realize the true greatness of her singing. The ease with which she has sung her milestone songs is so difficult to emulate for any other singer.

Such singing is not possible just through years of classical training, riyaaz and experience, It is beyond human capacity. It comes from above. It is a God-given gift. As a singer and as a composer, whenever I listen to Lataji's songs, I subconsciously keep noticing and admiring many special qualities of her singing. Just like a tuning fork, which resonates with the exact frequency it is tuned for, Lataji's voice  has the ability to hit the very core of the sur to make each musical note resonate clearly in the listeners' hearts. That crystal clear resonance makes her singing special. That is why when other singers try to sing her songs, their effort always seems to be incomplete because we are constantly comparing it to the deep imprint that Lataji's original songs have left on our hearts.

Many contemporary singers and composers needlessly try too hard to 'put' expression into their songs. That makes their songs sound fake and forced. Listening to Lataji's songs should serve as a perfect education for all of them. Her expression in the song never seems artificial because it is exactly according to the inherent demand of that particular melody. Whether it is singing a haunting song like 'Aayegaa Aanewaalaa' or a sensuous romantic song like 'Lag Jaa Gale', she never does some unnecessary things in the name of providing expression. She just uses the natural feel of her voice and the inherent strength of that melody to perfectly portray that expression.

Another thing that I have learned from her singing is about the rhythm within rhythm in a song. While imparting a particular musical inflection to a particular word in a song, Lataji adjusts the length of other words within that line, literally at a micro-millimeter level. It is done in such a beautiful way that she gets enough time for doing full justice to that musical intricacy, without doing any injustice to other words within that line. Most other singers falter badly at such musical hurdles but she does it so effortlessly!

I was just eleven years old, when Khale Kaka (veteran composer Shrinivas Khale) had called me over to play Veena in one of his recordings and I ended up being an instrumentalist for the milestone album- Ram Shyam Gun Gaaan, where Lataji and Pt. Bhimsen Joshi had sung together for the first time. Even though I did not get to meet Lataji at that time, the memory still remains vivid.

Over the last few years, I have had the good fortune of meeting her on various occasions, mostly at some public program or another. She has blessed me with heartfelt compliments whenever I have sung songs at such programs. In one of the concerts, other singers were paying tributes to her by singing her songs but I decided to pay my own tribute to her and I sang the song 'Maa' (from Taare Zameen Par). Lataji was so happy and appreciative after that performance!

Some five years ago, in one of the programs staged in Mumbai's Shanmukhanand Hall, I and my wife, had complimented Lataji on a fabulous diamond ring that she was wearing on the day. Recently I had been invited to sing at one of the concerts organized by the Mangeshkar family. On that day, I was so surprised and touched when  Lataji showed me the same diamond ring and told me that she had specifically worn it because she remembered how much I had liked it earlier! What memory and what a sweet gesture from such a great artist!

(*Shankar Mahadevan is an acclaimed Bollywood singer and composer. This article is an excerpt from his foreword for the book Lata-Voice of the golden era, written by Dr. Mandar V. Bichu and published by Popular Prakashan)

About the author
Shankar Mahadevan

Shankar Mahadevan is an acclaimed Bollywood singer and composer. This article is an excerpt from his foreword for the book Lata-Voice of the golden era, written by Dr. Mandar V. Bichu and published by Popular Prakashan.