It is a career that defies all analysis. Lata Mangeshkar, the Sing Sena Supremo completes, 75 years of singing. Says Lataji, “I started singing five years before India gained independence, it was the year 1942, and I was 13 years old when I became a professional singer. To have lasted so long is nothing short of a miracle, I agree. But it is also a lot of hard work. I don’t want to glorify my childhood struggle. But it wasn’t easy being a professional at that age. Bahot dhakke khaane padte the (I had to bear a lot of humiliation). Sometimes I’d go hungry the whole day. On many occasions I didn’t have money to travel by bus or train. So I’d walk from one end of town to another.”
So where and how did the Lata Mangeshkar saga actually begin?
The Nightingale takes a deep breath and remembers, “There are many versions and stories of who discovered me and who was instrumental in giving me my first big break. Let me tell you the true story. When I came to Mumbai I worked for Master Vinayak. My sister Meena and I stayed with Master Vinayak’s father while the rest of my family lived in my mother’s parents’ home. In 1946, I told Master Vinayak that I needed to live with my family. That’s when we all started living in one home. In 1947 Master Vinayak passed away.”
This is where the story of Lataji’s unparalleled success actually begins. “Ten days after Master Vinayak’s death a photographer who worked in his company took me to a music director Harishchandra Vade. He heard me sing and recorded two songs in my voice for a film called Love Is Blind. That film got shelved. However a junior-artiste supplier, a Pathan, heard me sing. He recommended me to Master Ghulam Haider who has just come from Pakistan. I really respected him for his music in Khazanchi, Shahid, Khandaan, etc. I went to meet him. This was 1947 and I was merely 18. I remember he was recording. He kept me waiting till evening. My cousin sister was with me. He finally called me to sing at around 5 pm. When I went in he was playing the piano. I got frightened when I saw him. I wondered what a music composer who had worked with Noorjehan would think of me. He asked me to sing. I sang one of his songs from the film Humayun. Then he said to sing one more song. I sang a Noorjehan number. Then he wanted to record my voice. During those days songs were recorded on film. There was no tape. He asked me who my guru was. When I told him it was Amanat Ali Khan Saab, he said they were friends. Then Master Ghulam Hyder played my voice to the very successful producer Shashadhar Mukherjee who said, ‘Yeh awaaz nahin chalegi, yeh awaaz bahot patli hai,’ (this voice won’t work, it’s too tinny). Shashadharji needed a playback voice for actress Kamini Kaushal. And he felt my voice didn’t match hers. Master Ghulam Hyder was livid. He ordered me to accompany him to the Bombay Talkies studio in Malad where Majboor was being shot. He was the music composer. He didn’t say anything to me. He just made me rehearse a song. Later when we recorded he said, ‘People will forget everyone including Noorjehan when they hear you.’ The first song he recorded with me was a duet with Mukesh Bhaiyya ‘Angrezi chora chala gaya’. This was my first major break. I recorded 3-4 songs for Majboor.
Composer Khemchand Prakash heard them and signed me for Ziddi. For this film I sang a duet with Kishore Kumar. Then composer Anil Biswas heard me. That’s how my musical journey began. The credit for giving me my first major break goes to Master Ghulam Haider. Incidentally Shashadhar Mukherjee later admitted to me he was wrong about my voice and crazy to have rejected my voice. I sang for many of his films including Anarkali and Nagin.”