I can still recall that moment vividly - the moment I was hooked on Lata's voice. I must have been a pre-schooler then. Aged five, at the most six. I was playing with a friend near my house. Suddenly an ethereal voice wafted through the air caressing my mind ever so gently - O,o, Aa jaa piya tohe pyar doon. gori bainya tope vaar doon. Kis liye tu itna udaas. sukhe sukhe honth, ankhiyon mein pyaas, kis liye, kis liye.
I was too young to understand the lyrics or the meaning of the song but old enough to notice that it was the voice that had made the song so special. My friend who was older to me by a year or so then made me wiser - "It is Lata Mangeshkar. She sings all the songs for the heroines in the films!" What I didn't know then was that over the years my mind would be captivated by the magical beauty of that voice again - and again!
The school years passed without much ado about music. So did the junior college years. Hostel life in the medical college then introduced me to the joy of listening to old Hindi film music. I used to listen to the Urdu service of All India Radio late into the night (much to the chagrin of my studious room partner!). But all this 'hard work' paid rich dividends. From a casual listener, I was soon transformed into a 'knowledgeable' listener who could distinguish between the singers and the composers!
In those nocturnal listening sessions, that voice - which had captured my tender childhood imagination - came back repeatedly to haunt me through innumerable, memorable songs. I knew then that this voice was going to be the guiding spirit of my foray into the wonderland of old Hindi film music. So holding the pallu of Lata's voice I began my musical journey into the past.
When I started exploring the realms of Hindi film music of the 50s, 60s and 70s, the first thing that dawned on me was Lata's unique place in history. Seemingly every great music director of the Golden Era owed most of his musical success to Lata's voice. Be it Naushad, Anil Biswas, Madaanmohan, Shankar-Jaikishan or C.Ramchandra. O.P. Nayyar was one notable exception who succeeded without Lata but the only one to do so. And don't exceptions prove the rule?
What makes Lata unique? It is not a simple question to answer. Is it her exquisitely melodious voice? Is it her virtuosity? Is it her vocal association with almost all the important cinematic milestones? Is it the way she popularised - traditional Indian music through a once-tainted medium of film music? Or is it her phenomenal ability to make ordinary tunes appear extraordinary?
All these qualities have no doubt contributed to the making of the Lata legend. But what really sets her apart is her ability to strike an emotional chord deep within. There is something intangible when you listen to her singing Aa jaa re pardesi, Dheere se aaja rii ankhiyan mein or Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai. Something divine, that lights up the dark corners of the minds burdened with the worldly stress!
Today after spending so many years to track down countless hidden musical gems and coming across the genius of many a talented artist who graced the popular music scene, I am yet to see someone who matches her in terms of class,creativity, consistency, critical acclaim and commercial success. She is the undisputed Melody Queen of India.No wonder the great Bade Ghulam Ali Khan called her ustaadon ki ustaad!
What is mind-boggling about Lata's achievement is the amazing time-frame of her successful career. She was at the top when people gathered around a gramophone playing Aayega aanewala to celebrate India's independence and she is still there at the top 50 years later to regale the young teenyboppers carrying Walkmans with Arre re arre yeh kya hua! No doubt the passing years have taken their toll but her golden touch is still intact.
In a constantly changing world her timeless existence is so reassuring! That is why she is so special. She always will be!