The story of Rajendra and Nina Mehta is the stuff of Valentine’s Day lore. In 1963, Rajendra met Nina at the All India Radio office in Mumbai. Her guru, Hafiz Ahmad Khan, had asked him to record a song. When Rajendra saw Nina at the studio, their fluttering hearts began to sing a duet.
Rajendra was then working at a restaurant, while Nina belonged to a rich Gujarati family that did not approve of inter-caste marriage. Mehta left his work at the restaurant, joined an electrical company and began performing at ghazal concerts. His increasing popularity brought him work in television programmes and film music. The families warmed up to each other. The ghazal played matchmaker, and they were married in 1967.
In the 1970s, when the ghazal was a rage, the couple sang duets, keeping their choice of poetry simple. Nina Mehta did not follow Urdu, although her husband showed a passion for the language. They decided to focus on their on-stage performances, putting their melodies and harmonium to good use.
This synchronisation can be heard in their rendition of the Prem Warbatoni nazm “Taj Mahal Mein Aa Jaana” from the album Humsafar (1980). It begins with the duo singing together, foiling their “his and hers” voice beautifully. He had a deep texture to her reedy, sweet cadence.
The familiar tropes used in ghazal, such as couplets about partaking wine and spending voluble time in the tavern, were relinquished by the Mehtas. In “Humne Sharab Le Ke Hawa Mein Ucchal Di” from the album Rubaru (1986), they sing about tossing wine into the air, which suggests a preference for poetry that does not dwell on vice and melancholy.
In “Ek Pyara Sa Gaon,” the pair sings about happier times, taking listeners on a memory trail. It is one of their most popular songs, a signature tune of the couple’s shared philosophy.
The Mehtas were not considered ghazal superstars like their contemporaries Jagjit and Chitra Singh. They kept a low-profile, appealing to local listeners. A new generation of duet singers followed in their collective wake, such as Bhupinder-Mitali Singh, Roop Kumar-Sonali Rathod and the brothers, Ahmed and Mohammed Hussain in the eighties.
The monument of love, the Taj Mahal in Agra, became a recurring motif in their songs, such as in “Ban Sakta Hai Taj Mahal Phir,” written by Surinder Malik. The track is from the album Manzar Manzar (1989), which was released at a time when the ghazal was slowly losing out to the return of melody to Hindi film music. The Mehtas are paying tribute to both the monument as well as the ghazal, declaring it as an inviolable sanctuary.