Didi, first of all best wishes for your birthday from millions of your fans the world over who may not be as lucky as I am to be able to connect with you?
Sab ko bahot bahot shukriya. Aur mera pranaam. It is the best wishes of my well-wishers and fans of my songs that have brought me so far. I never cease to be humbled by how kind and generous God has been to me. Even today my songs are hummed and loved. Who gets this kind of love and affection for such an uninterrupted span of time.
Nobody! Didi, which songs of yours are the most popular? The ones that people identify with you most?
Kehna mushqil hai (hard to say). When I was still singing on stage the songs most in demand were ‘Ae Mere Watan Ke Logon’, ‘Aayega Aanewala’ (Mahal), ‘Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya’ (Mughal-e-Azam), ‘Bindiya Chamkegi’ (Do Raaste) and so many others. But now I see so many of my other songs gain a special popularity.
Like ‘Lag Ja Gale Se’ from Woh Kaun Thi?
Yes! That song is really popular. When Madan Bhaiyya (composer Madan Mohan) and I recorded it we never imagined that it would hummed and re-mixed 55-60 years later. There were other very good Ghazals in the same film, like Jo humne dastaan apni sunayi aap kyon roye. But it was ‘Lag ja gale se’ jo aage nikal padi (which raced ahead). Who knows what destiny has in store?
Did you know you would become such a huge legend in your lifetime?
Legend? I really don’t know about that. When I started working I was very young. For a girl of 15-16 to go out there on her own was…well, yes it was difficult. But somehow I escaped the difficulties that a majority of working girls face. No one looked at me in a strange way or did anything to make me feel uncomfortable.
What was the one thing that you missed having in your life?
My adolescence. Main seedhe bachpan se jawani mein chali gayi. (I went straight from my childhood to youth). After my father passed away I became the sole bread earner of the family. There was no time to do all the normal things that children do as they grow up. One day I was playing dolls. The next day I was on a train looking for opportunities to sing at various recording studios.
Luckily you didn’t have to struggle long?
No. I think I was lucky. I found my voice in the entertainment business pretty quickly. But it was a lot of hard. A LOT of hard work. It wasn’t easy. I missed my father’s presence. He left us too soon. If I had one thing to rectify in my life it would be the early departure of my father. He never saw what I achieved.
What are the other regrets in a life so spectacularly successful?
(Promptly). Not being able to do enough practice of Hindustani classical music. I missed doing that riyaaz. I learnt classical Hindustani singing from my father. But he left too early. And I was too small to understand the value of what he was teaching me. I’d be running away from him to play while he would be trying to get me to sit and learn music. I was a very naughty child.
But Didi, your control over classical vocals is beyond exceptional in songs like ‘Maann Mohana Bade Jhoothe’ (Seema) and ‘Mose Chal Kiya Jaye’ (Guide)?
But that is filmy classical. Not the same as pure classical singing. The sheer pleasure of being on a live stage with a tanpura doing classical vocals for two hours…I missed out on that.
Didi, you’ve sung in 26 languages. Which was the most difficult?
(Promptly) Tamil and Russian. The Tamil language was really difficult for me to handle. I would note down all the lines in English and then master their pronunciation, as they are very particular about the accent and diction. Singing in Russian on stage was my other big challenge. It was tough. My Russian songs are not to be found anywhere, as they (in Russia) did not allow my renderings to be recorded. What I sang on stage remained there only.
Did you keep track of all the songs that you sang in every language?
No! It was impossible. So many songs in so many languages, many forgotten. I don’t even remember many of the Hindi songs that I sang. You send so many songs of mine to me on whatsapp that I don’t recognize. Arrey, yeh maine kab gaya! But the strangest things were, I’ve sung in Malaysian! This I got to know when a fan sent me my songs sung in Malaysian. There are 8-9 of them, one of them a duet with a local Malaysian singer. I’ve no clue when I sang in Malaysian.
How did you master foreign languages?
Just writing down the lines and practising their pronunciation. Main hamesha perfection chahti tthi (I always strove for perfection).
Which was your most memorable song recording ever?
There were many. But the one that really stood out was for Naushad saab in Baiju Bawra. It was the song ‘Dur Koi Gaye Dhun Yeh Sunaye’ with Shamshad Begum. The set to shoot this dance number had been put up. I had not been able to record the song because I was out of town. Naushad Saab rang me up and said, ‘Aap bas aa jayiye’. Hum record karenge aur woh gana shoot karenge.’ At first I didn’t understand what he meant. What he was saying was, they were waiting to get the song on the set. I had to fly back, record the song and then they were to shoot the song. This was very unusual.
My God, almost like a live recording?
Yes, there was no time to rehearse; Shamshadji has already sung her portions. Everything was done. Only I had to sing. There was no time to lose. It had to be a one-take recording. I asked Naushad Saab if he thought I could do it. ‘Tum kar paogi,’ he was confident.
And you did?
Yes, I did. Faith can move mountains. If composers didn’t believe in my ability I wouldn’t have been able to achieve what I did.
Didi, what is your advice to singers today?
Riyaaz. Learn Indian classical singing. And continue to be a student of music all your life. There are no short cuts to success.