It is no secret that Lata thought very highly of Madan Mohan as composer. And Madan Mohan lived for Lata’s voice, one that could convey just the right shade of inhibition, which was the hallmark of all Madan Mohan compositions for Lata.

She called him Ghazalon Ka Shehzaada, and you agree with her each time you hear ‘Unko yeh shikayat hain’ from Adalat (1958). What grace, what dignity Lata brought to the act of silent suffering through the song, probably voicing the predicament of a large majority of Indian women!

When sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar tried his hand at composing for films with the award-winning Anuradha (1960), it was but natural that he’d bank on Lata’s vocals. She sang four solos for him in the film, each a beauty, each a reflection of the composer’s and the singer’s finesse in matters classical.

I’d pick ‘Kaise din beete’ as the best, for the complex metre it has, and the tune set to the rare Raag Manjh Khamaj. Lata captures the vulnerability and the loneliness of the protagonist brilliantly. No wonder Pandit Ravi Shankar was left with a sense of loss while composing Gulzar’s Meera (1979), though Vani Jairam gave the songs everything she had. Having sung two non-film records of Meera bhajans for brother Hridaynath, Lata had declared in the 1970s that she would sing Meera only if composed by him.

The story behind ‘Allah Tero Naam’

The year was 1961. The industry was abuzz with the word that Jaidev, who had got the opportunity of a lifetime to compose Navketan’s Hum Dono, was all set to invite classical musician M.S. Subbulakshmi to sing the bhajan he’d tuned for the film.

Lata had parted ways with Dada Burman and assistant Jaidev a few years earlier, but when she heard about this bhajan, she sent a discreet word to Jaidev that she’d be happy to record it for him. And ‘Allah tero naam’ happened. In her voice, it sounds transcendental, making you believe no one, not even MS, could have brought you as close to the sublime in yourself. But the episode also proves that Lata was only human, not beyond feeling a sense of threat and acting on it, despite her twelve years at the top.

Madan Mohan’s ghazal fascination was in full flow in the 1960s, aided staunchly by Lata. Together, they created the really atmospheric gems in Woh Kaun Thi (1964). Has there ever been another ghost story that used ghazals to enhance the mood of suspense?

Lata is scintillating in all the songs, particularly ‘Lag jaa gale’. Her voice captures that moment in eternity when you simultaneously feel the joy of being together and the pain of impending separation. ‘Lag jaa gale’, I’d say, is the peak of the Lata–Madan jugalbandi in film ghazal.

Lata Mangeshkar and Madan Mohan. Courtesy Lata Mangeshkar/Facebook.

Paradoxically, it was around this time that Lata’s singing began to sound a little detached from feelings. The technique was still superb, the perfection intact. But something was missing, perhaps a genuine engagement with the theme of the song, the emotion of the lyric. Could it be that the early 1960s were years when she realized that her music was all she would have? Did her bitter break with C. Ramchandra leave her with a sense of aloneness; a gnawing realization that shores unvisited thus far will only recede further in the horizon?

We can only surmise. What is clear is that ‘Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hain’ (Guide), ‘Tu jahaan jahaan chalega’ (Mera Saaya) and ‘Rehte the kabhi jinke dil mein’ (Mamta) all have something missing. That they all are considered classics only tells us that Lata, even at less than 100 per cent, was better than all others.

Excerpted with permission from Bollywood Melodies, Ganesh Anantharaman, Penguin Random House India.

Also read:

Lata Mangeshkar (1929-2022): Her voice was divine and matchless, warm and familiar

How Lata Mangeshkar learnt to read and write (despite having gone to school for only a day)

Audio master: Gulzar’s ‘Lekin’ is a mystery in an enigma wrapped in raag Maand