Sometimes class and culture can't take you to the top. In fact they could well spell the doom for you. Talat Mahmood was one such example of this paradox. The likes of him were the casualties of Darwin's theory of natural selection. 'Only the fittest survive'. Classy and cultured Talat just couldn't fit the bill to be the survivor. By no means was he the fittest. To be honest, he was just the softest!
Talat's saga is a strange tale of heady triumph and steady decline. Born on 24th of February 1924 at Lucknow in a conservative Muslim family, Talat grew up watching his father belt out patriotic numbers at top of his strong voice at public meetings. The father - who owned a lamp shop - though didn't want his son to take up music as his profession. So initially Talat had to endure Aligarh Muslim University's Microbiology classes for some time. He soon realised that music attracted him much more than the microscope and left the course to join Morris College of music. Again the traditional musical training didn't appeal much to him and after going through the motions of learning Yaman Kalyan, it was 'Bye-bye Morris college' time!
Talat started off his singing career through private mehfils in Lucknow singing ghazals, thumris and Saigal- songs. Soon he became a regular singer at All India Radio, Lucknow. His growing fame brought him a contract with HMV, Calcutta. P.K.Sanyal of 'New Theatres' spotted this young, handsome singer in Calcutta and presented him as an actor through his film 'Rajlaxmi' (1945). There Talat sang his first ever film song Jaago musafir jaago. A non-film ghazal composed by Kamal Dasgupta – ‘Tasveer teri dil mera bahala na sakegi’ brought real nation-wide popularity for Talat and in 1948 he landed in Bombay to further his career. His rendition of ‘Aye dil mujhe aisi jagah le chal’ for the film 'Aarzoo' immediately set him on a road to success.
Talat's voice was different - in a league of its own. A soft, sweet voice with silken grace and a superb velvety texture. It was a quintessential romantic voice with an innate sadness which touched the heart ever so gently. Then there was this queer quiver in his voice which made it a unique, enticing entity. Veteran composer Anil Biswas describes an incident when Talat - on hearing rumours that his quivering voice made recordist's job difficult - purposely decided to 'correct' the 'flaw'. After listening to his un-inspiring efforts Anilda just said, "Talat, that quiver is your identity. Otherwise what is the difference between a Talat Mahmood and any ordinary singer?" Needless to say, Talat got his message and never tried to sound different!
Talat's tremulous, emotional voice was tailor-made for the golden era of fifties when melody and emotion defined Hindi film music. For a while that voice became synonymous with Dilip Kumar's tragic romantic image. Listen to Aye mere dil kahin aur chal from 'Daag' or Shaam-e-gham ki kasam from 'Footpath' and see how perfectly these vocals matched the screen presence and portrayed the pathos! Unfortunately Talat's vocal association with the then superstar did not last long. A big opportunity to firmly entrench himself as the front-runner among the male singers was thus lost.
Still fifties provided him enough opportunities to show his mastery over soft, emotional, lyrical musical genre. Ghazals and sad, 'blue mood' songs represented his territory. Few could match him there. Jaayein to jaayein kahan, Andhe jahan ke andhe raaste, Aye gham -e- dil kya karoon, Zindagi denewale sun---the list of his soulful numbers is too long to recount. Even his romantic numbers like Main dil hoon ik armaan bhara, Tasveer banata hoon or Bechain nazar, betaab jigar somehow imparted that hard to define 'blue' after-glow. That was his strength and also his weakness as most of his numbers thus seemed strangely one-dimensional.
His duets though dispelled this doubt with their variety and quality. He sang so expressively in Milte hi aankhein dil hua deewana Kisi Ka with Shamshad Beghum, Chali kaunse desh gujariya with Asha Bhosle and Raahi matwaale with Suraiya! And what about those innumerable, memorable songs with Lata like Seene mein sulagate hain armaan, Aha rimzim ke yeh pyare pyare geet liye and Dil mein sama gaye sajan? He was simply amazing there!
Yet versatility was never his forte. Limited vocal range and lack of experimentation proved to be his stumbling blocks. He was distinctly uncomfortable while singing anything outside his domain. How awkward he sounded while giving that inebriated expression in Suno bhai hum ne bhi pee li hai thodi!
With the advent of robust rock 'n' roll style of the sixties Talat's soft style became obsolete. Still talented composers like Madanmohan, Salil Choudhary and Jaidev reserved their worthy tunes for him whenever they could. As a result he could still enthrall with gems like Phir wohi shaam, wohi gham; Aansoo samajh ke kyon mujhe and Dekh li teri khudaai. And who could ever forget the 'Sujata' beauty Jalte hain jiske liye? S.D. Burman had made him rehearse the song fifty times to get that dreamy expression right!
His repeated unsuccessful forays into arena of acting - ('Dil-e-naadan, 'Waris', 'Seema', 'Sone ki chidiya' and 'Ek gaon ki kahani' being some notable exceptions!) - didn't help his cause as a singer. His detractors carefully used that as a tool to systematically weed him out of the way. Even composer of the stature of Naushad just watched with folded arms the injustice of replacing him with another singer even after recording the song in his voice - not once but twice - in 'Palki' and in 'Aadmi'! Apparently the actors and producers insisted on replacing him as he was 'unsuitable'! These must have been a few straws too many for a quiet, decent man like Talat who didn't know much about the mean machinations of the 'industry'!
After the sixties he quickly faded out as a playback singer. His non-film ghazals still kept him in the business for a few years. Then the destiny dealt another cruel blow by taking away his health and confining him to bed. It was 8th May 1998 when the velvet voice was stilled for ever.
Long before he had said through one of his songs:
Meri yaad mein tum na aansoo bahana,
Na jee ko jalana , mujhe bhool jaana!
It's hard to do that!