Writing a few lines about Lata as a singer in an objective fashion is not easy for me. This is like asking me to write about my own lifeline. Going back as far as I can go in my memory map, I realize that the first song I ever heard was sung by her! And I have been listening to her so affectionately for years ever since! So, a difficult proposition, this. Nevertheless, I made an attempt to be as impassionate as possible. The result is what I am writing below.
Lata, the Singer
I would describe my evaluation with reference to a conceptual model for a playback singer that I have built. The lowest layer is a pre requisite for a playback singer and each layer on top provides a value added function. So from lowest to highest layers will be: Basic Abilities, Pronunciations- Basic Functionality, Quality and range of voice, Efficiency, Pronucnications- Advanced Functionality, Getting under the skin of the character and Embellishments.
Let me begin with the lowest layer, Basic Abilities.
Basic Abilities: Of course, she has the necessary grooming in Classical Music that enables her to sing in sur and taal. “Manamohaha Bade Jhoote” amply demonstrates her basic singing prowess (as also, “Ghiri Ghataye”). A singer not groomed in the foundations of classical music would falter taking those tans (for example, consider the way Rafi falters during the last stages of “Madhuban Me Radhika”).
Pronunciations: Basic Functionality: There is hardly any song sung by her that I recollect where the pronunciations have faltered. I vaguely remember one for SJ where she says “Wade” in place of “Bade” (don’t remember the song right now). But that is all that I can point out by way of a fault in her ability to deliver correct pronunciations. So she more than meets the demands of this layer.
Quality and Range of the Voice: Endowed with a thin and likeable voice, she makes listening to songs a treat. And she has the wide range to cover the demands of singing variety of songs set at different scales, especially in duets with male singers.
Efficiency: We have been told how, at her peak, she recorded up to four songs a day! That speaks a lot for her efficiency at work. This is an aspect that does not reach a common listener and stays behind the scenes. But it does matter to music directors and ultimately to the film producers whose money is on the line. I suspect Lata outdid her rivals (Asha excluded) on this count by a very, very wide margin. For example, I will not be surprised if someone were to tell me Suman K took an awful lot of time recording a final OK take, in contrast to Lata who was known to be very sharp and quick on the uptake.
Pronunciations: Advanced Functionality: She has had an uncanny knack for conveying very succinctly, the feel behind the lyrics of a song. When she sang a happy song, we could feel it come through. When Lata sang a song laden with sarcasm, it made my hair stand on end, as if it were addressed to me, as a listener. Listen to her “Rangila Re” or “ Mujhe Tum Mil Gaye Humdum”. She simply excelled at delivering on this layer, by adding her own ‘punches’ on syllables, and doing so just adequately. This could enliven even an otherwise ordinary song. I can quote off the top of my head, “Tum Jaao Kahin, Tumko Yukhtiyaar” as a fitting example of this. When Lata says “Humne To Kiya Hai Pyar”, with just that little sigh, the pathos comes through, the helpleness makes a lasting impression on you.
And then, there are some special songs where she added her own ‘soft touches’ to bring the underlying anguish through. “Aisi Bhi Baaten Hoti Hai” and “Mere Man Ke Diye” are examples of what this great artiste could do to a song to carry through the pain of the character. On the other hand, who could have sung “ Aurat Ne Janam Diya Mardon ko”, “Tere Bachpan KO Jawani Ki Duwa Deti Hun” any better and moved us deep within as well as Lata has?
Embelishments: Trouble with playback singing is that there is hardly any opportunity for the singer to demonstrate the singing prowess explicitly. For, that is simply not the priority, or put more bluntly, that is the ‘last ‘priority for a playback singer’s function. The singer is required to carry the lyrics through to the audiences, and curb the instinct to break into tans and murkis. And for a talented and groomed artiste that Lata is, this must have been a not-so-easy task. But she handled it so well. I do not recall one song where she breaks into taan- baazi at the expense of distorting the words. She always has had her priority set right. And yet, she has embellished numerous songs in so many subtle ways. As an example consider the “ Tum Jaao Kahin, Tumko Yukhitaar” song I mentioned above. There are three stanzas, each ending with an “aaar”- type of word :“ Iquaraar”., “Dildaar” “Sansaar”. Only Lata could sing all these three words in three different intonations, while at the same time, staying within the gamut of the words and their meanings. And each variation is astonishingly different and appropriate. Or take, the very difficult SJ composition “ Na Chhedo Kal Ke Afsane”. Meant to be sung by a character after downing a few drinks, this is a difficult song to sing, because the slur has to be brought out, without over doing it. And not only did Lata do a great successful job of it, she also brought to the fore, her ability to embellish the stanzas with variations. Everytime she finishes the staza and gets into “the raat ki baate” line, she sings it differently. She does this for “Awara” word of the “Awara Ai Mere Dil” song as well, just to cite another example.
These were but a few examples of the way Lata brought to fore, her tremendous ability to embellish a song and that too, just adequately without over doing it.
Getting under the skin of the character who is to sing the song on screen is one level where Lata may be faulted, if at all. This is on account of her thin voice being a misfit to the looks of the character she may be singing for, on occasions (such as, Geetabali)! Other than that, Lata manages to sing with a child like intonation for songs such as “ Tumhi Ho Maata” with convincing success.
Now take away the “Getting Under the Skin of the Character” layer –function, and you have in Lata, a perfect singer for non- film songs.
If ever there was another singer who comes close to Lata in deliverables, it is Asha. Yet, if one asks me to name my all time favourite, I will unhesitatingly go for Lata.
Lata, the person:
For me, she comes through as a very dignified person, and one with her feet firmly entrenched on terra firma. She can be described as a very self righteous individual, one who is aware of her image and fervently guards it. In the process, she (and those in her immediate vicinity) would suffer, but she is ready to pay the cost for it. Her humility was touching when she told Channel 4 in an interview a few years back , “After all, what am I? I always remember I am but a small individual. Everything that I have today, is bestowed upon me by Him. Should I get arrogant, He would lose no time in taking it all away from me” (not verbatim, but this was the essence).Her demeanour amply bears this out. I recall but one instance when she lost her cool and publicly lambasted an individual. And this individual happened to be Shabana Azmi (and then, I believe, Lata was quite justified in giving out the stick. The lady in question seems to have got the message loud and clear). But this was an exception, as far as I remember. And this, despite the fact that Lata is known to have had disputes with several of her industry colleagues at different points in time. But never has she opened her mouth in public on any of these issues, because they were all of a personal, private nature and she preferred to leave them thus. The one dispute which had wider implications for the industry was fought with Rafi. Since the issue was not personal but ethical, she chose (at a much later date) to talk openly about it.
And all along, people have been taking every possible opportunity to say things about her, to point fingers at her, and to depict her as a cunning, scheming person. Of course, she has had to act tough. Or else, how could a frail Maharashtrian girl with no Godfather to promote her, even survive, much less advance the way she did, in the murky environment of the Hindi film industry? It called for grit, tough attitude and this she learned to develop very quickly in her life. She is a quick learner, and much earlier on in her career, she learnt to carry herself very well, which she does pretty well to this day.
We all knew of her fights with several colleagues at some time or another. And that gives an impression of an egoistic person. I would prefer to ascribe these fights to her self- righteousness, to her attempts to guard herself against the wishes of the wily world around her. Her penchant for ‘fights’ on moral issues could be attributed to her typical Marathi genes. She seems to have inherited from her parents, the no-nonsense attitude that made her take issues with individuals who would in her opinion, go against the strain.
She is an excellent strategist. This is unlike her sister Asha, who believes in living it ‘by the day’ and ‘facing things as they come’. Once she established herself as a playback singer in the HFM industry, she began picking up very astutely on the types of songs she would sing. And in the long run, this stood her in stead. While Asha grabbed (either by design or forced by circumstances…of her own making) every song that came in her way, Lata chose carefully, staying away from songs that would tarnish her established brand image.
Once she began appearing in public (late ‘80s, early ‘90s), questions were inevitably asked about her opinions of those she worked with and those she didn’t work with. All along, she has maintained a cool line, especially answering questions about people she is not known to have had a good rapport with. This may sound a bit set up, a bit ‘crafty’. But I tend to believe that she looks back upon the days gone by, with a philosophical bend of mind. At her age, which is almost 75 now, and considering her religious attitude, it is more likely that she is now in a position to take an impassionate view of events and persons from her past, than being driven by the need to put out the image of a oh-so-nice lady. Thus, today she refers to her problems with OPN only in the light of missed opportunity rather than nursing ill feeling towards the person.
The one thing about her I find difficult to reconcile with is her persistence with singing in public even at this stage. Her voice is shrill now, and one can see her straining as she sang her own songs of the era gone by. (When I watched her sing “Lag Ja Gale” in a Hyderabad concert a year back, I cried. I have always cried when I listened to this song, but this time around, my tears were one of shame and sorrow for this person whom I hold in such high esteem, Why could she not understand this simple thing that even an ordinary nobody like-I did?)
If I were to be asked to point out two role models for one’s total personality and character, that a youth today should emulate, I would unhesitatingly name Lata M and Sunil G as the most obvious choices.