Lata Mangeshkar Curated
Bharat Ratna winner & Indian Playback Singer
CURATED BY :
Whom do you worship?
Well, my kul guru (family God) is Mangesh (Lord Shiva). But I worship Krishna a lot. I empathise with Mirabai.
Don't you feel lonely? Do you ever regret this decision to stay single?
No. I never feel lonely and I don't regret it. I am happy the way I am. Who knows, if I had got married, it would have ended in a divorce! I love living alone, doing my puja and riyaaz.
May I ask a personal question? Why did you not marry?
I never got time to think about it. I started working at 13 and I had the responsibility of ensuring the livelihood of nine people. It never occurred to me.
I believe you lived in a chawl in Bombay when you were a struggling singer?
No, it was not a chawl. Nine of us -- we five(my brother and sisters), my mother, my mother's sister and two of her children -- used to live in one room. I used to walk rather than take buses to save money.
Did you start laying down these conditions when you were still struggling -- telling music directors what lyrics were acceptable and which songs you would sing? Or did it come later when you established a monopoly in the music industry?
No, in the beginning it was really difficult. I worked for six years and then my father died. I began acting and singing in films. But I was so young that it was very difficult for anyone to use me for playback.
I think you were once travelling abroad and you had a recording and you told the composer to hire Vani Jairam for that song.
Yes this happened several times. The film -- Naushadsaab's -- was being made and I had a duet. I was to travel to America. So I told him you take someone else for this song. He got very angry with me. He said what will I do now? I said take Suman for the song. So he took her.
So all these things were said on your behalf and no one even asked you what you felt?
Yes, some people didn't like these girls coming here and singing..
Which song was this?
I don't remember now, but the music was by Mohammad Shafi. I was sitting with Shafi one day -- his wife is Vilayat Khansaab's sister. I used to go to tea to their house. One day, Suman came there. He told me, "Tai, this girl sings well." I knew Suman because she used to sing Marathi songs and would often come to our house. I said, "Shafibhaiyya, you call me your elder sister, so give her one of my songs." He said: "Won't you mind?" I said: "Absolutely not. If she makes a name for herself, I will be happy." But there are always some people who want to spread stories, who said Lata didn't like this. Even that poor girl, that Runa Laila, even she came to me. Someone said something to her -- and they were our own people.
Some say you stunted Suman Kalyanpur's growth. Others say you stifled Vani Jairam's chances...
Absolutely not, this is all wrong. When Vani Jairam came on the scene, I was the first one to praise her. When Suman Kalyanpur came into Hindi films, I gave her a song which was first offered to me. I had rehearsed it and I gave it to her to sing.
So these people who spread stories about you, were they only from the industry?
No, they can't all have been from our industry. They must have been from outside as well. I don't know any of them. Maybe they have been visiting my home pretending to be my friends. I don't know.
Didn't you object to this treatment of what was clearly your life story. All the reviews said Saaz was based on your life.
Yes, but I didn't want to get into politics. What's the point of denying something which simply doesn't exist? If you try and deny something, people draw their own conclusions. When there is nothing (no rivalry), why should I try to deny it? I was told something like this is being made. I said I have no interest in all this. I know whether I'm good or bad. I have a limited amount of time. I'd rather spend it doing puja than going out trying to deny idiotic stories.
How did a whole film -- Saaz -- get made on this subject? You must have seen it. It tried to twist this relationship...
Yes, everyone tries to twist this.
You still love each other as much?
Yes, we have always been together.
People often speak of your rivalry with your sister Asha Bhosle. They say you stunted her growth so that she wouldn't overtake you....
If I had stunted her growth she wouldn't be where she is today, so famous and sought after. The first thing is, Asha wasn't here at all. She got married and went away. She found fame only later. Second, our styles are quite different. It is true that we are sisters and that our voices sound similar. But she has a very different singing style. I can't even think of such a thing about my sister, my own flesh and blood.
There are so many people who have misunderstood you...
Yes, well, people must have something to talk about.
We are told you and Khayyam had some differences of opinion and finally he had to compromise with you?
Someone told tales about me to Khayyamsaab. I don't know who. He got annoyed with me. Then I sang the song in Akhri Khat.
It is also said that you got angry with Shankar-Jaikishan and you started promoting Laxmikant-Pyarelal.
No, this is also not true. I never got so angry with Shankar-Jaikishan, I had a good relationship with them. When Laxmikant-Pyarelal were younger, they would come to our house and stay there, they and all their brothers.
You spoke of your differences with Shankar-Jaikishan. Did this happen often in the music world -- disputes of this kind?
I have had lots of fights. A lot of people used to say I am very quarrelsome. Although I must say there was always a reason for fighting. And I used to fly into a rage a lot...
Why did you never sing for him?
No, they were different types of songs, in a style which was not suited to my voice. Once, I remember, I had a recording with him and I fell ill and had to cancel it. Even after that he (Nayyar) called me and I didn't go. But we never had a fight. I mean, he used to ring me and rib me -- he used to say "I've heard that you hear a tune on the telephone and you can reproduce it faultlessly. A music director sounds a key on the harmonium and you know what the song is, but this won't happen with me. I'm a tougher cookie. If you want to sing for me, you'll have to rehearse the song countless times." So basically, he used to joke and kid with me.
But everyone believes you did....
These are all malicious rumours. Nayyarsaab was always very courtly with me. I used to like his music a lot. But somehow I always felt the type of songs he created were better suited to Asha or Geeta Dutt. I used to think so then and continue to think so today.
Who else did you get into fights with, apart from Shankar-Jaikishan? People say O. P. Nayyar had a fight with you and never let you sing any of his songs?
Oh no, I never had a fight with O P Nayyar.
And yet, you did sing Laagi badan mein jwala, saiyan tune kya kar dala?
Whose song it was I don't remember. (It was filmed on Jayalalitha with Dharmendra as the hero in Izzat.) Yes, the old ones, you might find a few, I might have sung them, but in those days I was very young. I didn't know much. Even today, Kamalsaab (director Kamal Amrohi) had a song, Jalta hai badan, in one of his films. I objected a little. It was a song in Razia Sultan, which he wanted sung in a particular way, because, he said, my picture demands that. But I couldn't really put my heart and soul into it. There are some people you can't say no to. Kamalsaab loved me a lot. He was always very nice to me. So I said, okay, here goes.
So you don't sing any songs with double entendre? Where the lyrics have two meanings?
Yes, because I understand shairi (poetry), I avoid such songs.
So you first ask to see the lyrics and then decide whether or not you will sing the song?
In the beginning, I used to. And if I felt a song was vulgar, I wouldn't sing it. Gradually, all the music directors got to know that Lata will not sing a certain type of song. So such songs just stopped coming to me.
You mean you never sang the song again on stage or anything?
I didn't see the film because of that one song.
You had a fight over Mein kya karoon Ram, mujhe buddha mil gaya -- you didn't want to sign the song but you had to, because you were pressurised by Raj Kapoor...
No, he didn't put pressure... actually what happened was, I told him I won't sing the song because I don't like it... because I don't like the lyrics. So he told me: "The song is about a joke being played, you are playing a joke on your husband." He told me he would picturise the song in such a way that nobody would think it was vulgar. On that condition, I did sing the song, but I didn't see the film (Sangam).
But how can someone who has faced so much pathos in real life do injustice to karun rasa?
Maybe Kumarji (Kumar Gandharva) felt that way, I didn't do anything on purpose. Once I remember Raj Kapoorsaab told Jaikishan: "Jaikishan, you should make Lata sing the sad songs in her high sur, but the happy songs should be pitched lower." But Shankar-Jaikishan wouldn't listen. So we used to fight. We were also about the same age -- they were just six months older than me and felt they could bully me. I used to tell them: "I won't pitch my voice so high." They would say: "You have to."
Once Kumar Gandharva wrote that although you sang well, you couldn't do justice to karun rasa (pathos). He also said your voice was too high-pitched.
Yes, he did say so once. But let me tell you, in the old days, women always used to sing in a high pitch. Men used to match their sur. I learnt singing from my father and he used to sing in a very high sur. All of us -- Asha, Meena, Usha -- we all would sing in high sur. We got sort of used to it. Then I came into films and several people scolded me. They said my voice was too high. I told them, what can I do? I just don't know how to sing in a low sur. Anil Biswas (the legendary composer) told me, "Why don't you try lowering your sur?" Anyway, I found that as I grew older, my voice began deepening, my sur started coming down, as it were. But some preferred my younger, higher voice -- particularly Shankar-Jaikishan. We even used to fight over this.
If we talk about today's era, are you getting a charge out of the tunes, music, composition?
Is there a composer in your mind who has taken your song in a different way?
When you read articles that there is no rivalry between Asha Bhonsle and Lata Mangeshkar, how your reaction to it?
Is there any moment in your life that is very painful till now?
What was the moment which satisfied you most?
There are many changes in today's recording structure of a song. what is your view on this?
What's comes in your mind when you start singing?
How do you motivate yourself because you earned everything at 20years old only?
Was it a struggle to work in the film industry in those days or it was quite comfortable?
What's your experience when you entered as a playback singer?
What about Mangeshkar's family atmosphere?
A song which reminds you of the time of '50s?
What about the golden period (40's-70's ) of your life?
Is your voice a gift of nature or its all about training, discipline?
Do you regret that you could not go to classical signing?
When did you record your first song as a playback singer?
At what age did you think you could sing?
क्या कोई ऐसा निर्देशक था जो आप से सर्वश्रेष्ठ संगीत को बाहर लाने की क्षमता रखता था?
पंडित जवाहरलाल नेहरू आपके गीत से आँसू चले गए थे। वास्तव में क्या हुआ था?
आप अपने अगले जीवन में क्या पुनर्जन्म लेना चाहेंगे?
Do you listen to your songs?
I try not to. But when I do hear a song of mine I feel I could’ve done much better. When I recorded songs I’d rush out of the recording. This was a matter of great annoyance to many of the music directors. But I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t bear to hear myself.
With your career spanning over six decades, is there any composer you really miss and think that that things would have been different had they been around?
I have worked with so many composers and they have been so different in their approach towards music that it is really impossible to zero down on someone in particular as a favourite. I confess that I miss the music of yore because it was so different and each composer had his own style. Madan Mohan’s music was more gazal type, Jaydev’s was classical based and Salil Choudhary and Hemant Da’s compositions had a touch of folk music. Each musician had his own stamp over music, so that you could tell by merely listening to a brief tune as to who composed it.
Your career is what legends are made of. Which is that one most memorable moment for you?
Till 1974 I never went out or sang on any platform other than in films. But in that year I was requested by Nehru Memorial to perform at a show in Albert Hall in London. I gave my assent and we went to perform at this place that was for the first time opened for an Indian. Dilip Kumar and other stars accompanied me. It was tremendous success and was loved by the audience there. The joy I felt then is yet to find a match.
What saddens you in today’s Hindi music scenario?
The music of 50s, 60s and 70s was very nice and had a sort of permanence attached to it - as you can see they are relished even today. Even we used to feel happy singing then.But today the dimensions have changed. What we hear today is short lived. Music fades away within weeks. And no one wants to listen to today’s songs once the euphoria has died.People today want songs with emphasis on beat. The significance of lyrics has faded.In fact even the movies these days are such that stirring lyrics and melodious songs do not fit in.Sometimes I feel I do not belong to this new Bollywood.
How do you spend your free time?
I read books, listen to music. I was a voracious reader spending nights reading novels, shayari and poems. I have read compositions of Harivansh Rai Bachchan, Pt Narendra Sharma, Maithilisharan Gupt and Suryakant Tripathi Nirala. Among Urdu poets, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Mirza Ghalib are my favourites. I have also read all the novels of Sarat Chandra Chatterjee which were translated from Bengali to Marathi. I studied a lot about Swami Vivekananda and Lokmanya Tilak. Not many know, I have read Sherlock Holmes too. But then, my eye power was diagnosed and I got dependent on chashma (glasses). I cant read much now.
What was the most valuable lesson you learnt in life from your mother?
To value those who are down and out. My parents taught me to always help the needy. We saw very hard days. In our home there were free meals for every guest. But when we fell on hard times there was no food for the family. There were days when my siblings and I didn’t eat the entire day. I learnt to share what I had with others. Believe me the joy you feel in giving is much greater than the joy one feels in receiving.
आप अपने अगले जीवन में क्या पुनर्जन्म लेना चाहेंगे?
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 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.
You have sung in 26 languages. Which language was the most difficult?
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.
What was the one thing that you missed having in your life?
My adolescence. Mein 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.
Which songs sung by you are the most popular, according to you? 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 are gaining a special popularity.
Do you think that the influence of Western music on our film music has been healthy?
I would not say that such an influence is inherently bad. There has always been a lot of give and take in the world of music. Our classical music itself is a blend of many influences; and the Western Pop singers have borrowed a great deal from Africa and elsewhere. I do not, therefore, mind it if our music absorbs foreign influences. What I do mind is indiscriminate borrowing which creates the kind of hybrid, hotchpotch music we have today.
How was struggle that you had to go through during your early years to establish yourself as a playback singer?
Those were hard times, we were very poor and desperately in need of money. I had, therefore, to work without respite. I remember occasions when I worked without food and sleep for two days and more. And then there were prejudices to be overcome. It used to be said disparagingly in those days that songs sung by Maharashtrians smelt of dal and rice! I had to disprove it and cultivate a fine Hindustani accent as well. There was so much else to learn, too, and I had to do it mostly by myself.
Do you think that your training in classical music has proved useful to you in becoming a successful playback singer?
Certainly.The training has made it easy for me to understand and execute what a music director wants. It has given my voice a consistency and flexibility which singers of film songs often lack. I also think that the training has helped my voice retain its musical qualities all these years. Voices of playback singers do not generally last that long.
Were there any other musical influences in your formative years?
Yes. I listened to music whenever I could. But it was not really the external influences that made me a singer. Music was in me. I was full of it. Tunes floated through my mind endlessly, and I used to hum them all the time, even when having my meals. I remember that, once at school, I even counted things in terms of the notes in the musical scale! And I had an amazing memory as well as a capacity for musical imitation. I could remember tunes heard years ago and reproduce them exactly.
Whom among today’s actresses do you enjoy singing for?
I like Rani Mukerji and Kajol but I miss the camaraderie that I shared with the earlier heroines. I really miss Kishore Kumar, also Rafi saab, Mukesh bhaiyya, Shankar-Jaikishan and Madan bhaiyya who fought with me when I couldn’t be with him for raksha bandhan. That sense of apnapan is gone.
Which heroines did you enjoy singing for?
Nargis, Meena Kumari, Madhubala, Nutan. I’d modulate my voice according to their personality.
Who was your favourite composer?
I liked singing for Salilda (Salil Chowdhury) because his compositions were very challenging. I also loved singing for Sajjad Husain saab, then definitely SD Burman dada and RD. But in my opinion the biggest achievement was by Shankar-Jaikishan. With Raj Kapoor’s Barsaat they changed the way we looked at playback singing.
Tell us about your infamous rift with Mohammed Rafi.
I’ll tell you what happened. We had a Musicians’ Association in the 1960s . Mukesh bhaiyya, Talaj Mehmood saab had started a campaign for artistes to get royalty so that they would have a comfortable old age. Main to leti thi royalty but I also wanted other artistes to get it. Rafi saab was instigated into opposing my campaign. In a meeting among musicians he said, ‘We get money for what we sing from producers and that’s the end of what we get.’ When he was asked his opinion Rafi saab turned to Mukesh bhaiyya and said, ‘I guess this Maharani here will say whatever has to be said.’ I said, ‘Of course I am a Maharani. But why are you calling me that?’ He said in front of everyone at the meeting that he won’t sing with me. I turned around and said, ‘Yeh kasht aap kyon kar rahe hain? Main hi nahin gaaongi aapke saath.’ I stormed out of the meeting and called up every music director to inform them that I would thereafter not sing with Rafi saab. We didn’t sing together for almost three years.
Was there any director who had the ability to bring out the best music from you?
पिछले कुछ वर्षों में संगीत निर्देशकों में क्या बदलाव आया है?
Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was moved to tears by your song. What actually happened?
Was there any song that you were embarrassed to sing?
ऐसा कौन सा गाना है जिसे आपने सबसे ज्यादा गाने का आनंद लिया है, और क्यों?
आपने कुछ फिल्मों में भी काम किया है जब आप बहुत छोटे थे। क्या आपने कभी अभिनय को करियर बनाने के बारे में सोचा?
पार्श्व गायक के रूप में आपको अपना पहला ब्रेक कैसे मिला?
Do you have any regrets?
I just have one thing in my heart. I had learnt classical singing from my father. In 1945, I learnt from Ustad Aman Ali Khan Bhendi Bazaar Waale (singer). Then, I became a disciple of Amanat Khan Dewaswale (singer). Later, I learnt from Bade Ghulam Ali Khan sahab’s disciple, Tulsidas Sharma, for a few days. I always have this regret that I couldn’t sit (like other classical musicians) on stage, and perform classical music. Since I sang in films, I didn’t find the time to do riyaaz. That has remained an unfulfilled desire. But it is okay, I have received a lot. Har insaan ko sab kuch nahin milta (Everyone doesn’t get everything).
Why have you stopped singing in Bollywood?
It was not a conscious decision. However, I feel I am a little unfit for the kind of music that is being made today. There is a big difference between what I sang earlier, and what is being made now. I am not saying this music is bad, but there are too many beats. The sur (notes) and kavita (poetry) are also not as good. There is a lot of western influence, which was there earlier too, but not as much as today.
Do you miss your old colleagues?
I surely miss all of them, including Kishore da (Kumar; singer), Mukesh bhaiya (singer), Hemant da (Kumar; singer), Talat saab (Mahmood; singer) and Rafi saab (Mohamed; singer). I miss all the music directors as well. Only Khayyam saab (Mohammed Zahur; composer) is there from the old times; everyone else is new. I also take up fewer projects now. I have heavily reduced my work in films, as now I mostly focus on devotional songs such as ‘Shree krishnaye namah’, ‘Namah shivaye, ‘Gayatri mantra’ and the ‘Hanuman chalisa’. Recently, I also recorded songs for a great saint in Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh.
How do you think the industry has changed over the years?
Today’s heroines aren’t like the earlier ones. But that’s okay, since this generation is different too. Par aaj-kal jo dresses pehne jaate hai usse mujhe sakht aitraaz hai (I am against the kind of dresses actresses wear today). I don’t like them. But they are all doing good work. I also like the way Priyanka Chopra acts. She can slip into any role. I love Deepika Padukone too.
You’ve sung for so many actresses. What do you think of the new generation of actors such as Shraddha Kapoor and Alia Bhatt?
Shraddha is related to me. Padmini Kolhapure and Shivangi’s (Shraddha’s mother) father, Pandharinath Kolhapure, was my aunt’s son; we spent our childhood together. So, Shraddha is like my granddaughter. I have not seen any of her films, but people appreciate her work. I like Alia Bhatt, par bahut chhoti lagti hai (she looks a bit too young on screen; laughs). I guess she entered the industry very early. But she is a good actor.
You have completed nearly 75 years as a singer. How has the journey been?
It has been very good. When I started out, there was so much work that I couldn’t think of doing anything else. I would go for recordings by 8.30am, that too in trains. I used to come home at night. I was travelling alone everywhere. But the enthusiasm with which people worked at that time was very good. Things were beautiful. I used to hear a new song every day, and I felt good about singing those songs. Also, working with music directors such as Shankar Jaikishanji, Khemchand Prakashji, Naushad saab, Shyam Sundar and SD Burman felt good. They were all understanding and helped me out. Then, when Hridaynath Mangeshkar (brother) started [composing music], I got a new path. With him, I recorded gyaneshwari, meera bhajans and three adhyays of Bhagavadgita. So, it was a new experience for me because we were used to singing songs in mostly Urdu and Hindi. Then, Salil Chaudhary (composer) encouraged me to sing a Bengali number, and I started singing those for him.
You started working at the age of 13 (in 1942). Didn’t that scare you? Did you wish your life to be like that of other teenage girls?
I never got the chance to do that. My father passed away in 1942, and three-four months after his death, I had to start working. There was a responsibility on my shoulders to run the household. It was my duty as the eldest child in the house. Besides my mother, I had four sisters and a brother.
Your improvisations often took your songs to another level. For example the ‘oye oye oye’ in the Bichua number from ‘Madhumati’?
That was Salil da’s idea. But yes, I did put in my own harkat once in a while. Once Rafi saab and I were recording a duet for Shankar-Jaikishan. During the rehearsals I decided to improvise at one point in the song. But I didn’t reveal my harkat during rehearsals. I kept it to myself and I sang it only during the final take. When the final take happened everyone was thrilled by my improvisation. But Rafi saab was very upset. All this was in good spirit. No harm meant.
It is said you got the echo effect in ‘Pyar Kiya Toh Darna Kya’ by singing a bit of the song from the bathroom of the recording studio, and that once while recording a song for Salil Choudhury you fainted. Is this true?
Not true.The echo effect in the Pyar Kiya Toh Darna Kya song was achieved by singing away in a distance from the microphone, but not in the bathroom. Please! And I did faint once. But it wasn’t for a song by Salil da. It was a song by Naushad saab for the film Amar, filmed on Madhubala.
Your advice to younger singers?
They must learn Hindustani classical music and they must not get carried way by overnight success. Humility is the key to longevity.
What was the most valuable lesson you learnt in life from your mother?
Zindagi ne bahot kuch sikhaya (life taught me a lot). To value those who are down and out. The world tends to ignore and abuse the weak. My parents taught me to always help the needy. We saw very hard days. In our home there were free meals for every guest. But when we fell on hard times there was no food for the family. There were days when my siblings and I didn’t eat the entire day. I learnt to share what I had with others. Believe me, the joy you feel in giving is much greater than the joy one feels in receiving. Whenever someone comes to me for help I do all I can. Ho sakta hai kayee log mujhe bewaqoof banaake chalein jaatein ho. But I believe in giving what I’ve got.
How do you hold back the temptation of hitting out at criticism?
So many singers have accused me of stealing their songs. I never did that. And I never saw the need to protest. The truth will always remain the truth. Poet and lyricist Pandit Narendra Sharma, who was a father-figure to me, taught me self-restrain.When I was young, I had a violent temper. I used to fight back at injustice. But Panditji taught me to pay no heed to the naysayers. Then there was my Baba in Kolhapur, he used to call me Gyaneshwar and said that I had so much to learn. My mother was also a great source of inspiration. My father passed away when I was very young. So my mother was like both my parents.
Why have you always said no to an autobiography?
I don’t see the need to reveal every detail about my life. Most importantly, people go away with their written words hurting a lot of individuals and families. Sach aksar kadwa hota hai. I don’t want hurt anyone. In any case people don’t need to know everything about me.In my opinion every human being has areas in his or her life that is to kept away from the everyone.Time teaches us to sift between the good and the bad, between the truth and the lies. Some things are best left unsaid. I believe, let the past be buried. Bahot logon ne mera dil dukhaya hai. That’s their karma, their destiny. Why should I turn around and abuse them?
What is the greatest gift you’ve received in your life?
The love that I’ve received from my well-wishers and fans. Woh pyar nahin hota toh na jaane hum kahaan hote (if it wasn’t for that love, I don’t know where I would be). Yeh bhagwan ki kripa hai (this is god’s grace)... that I still continue to get this kind of affection. What more can I hope for?
Who was your favourite co-singer?
Kishore da (Kishore Kumar) without doubt. We were constantly entertained during, before and after recordings with him. He would have us in splits. But he would get serious in front of the music composer. But he was very sad under the mask. A month before his death I got to know how unhappy he was. He called me to share his sorrow. He didn’t want to come home as there would be too many people there. So we met at mutual friends’ place where I saw the other, somber, side of him. I’ll never forget what he told me about his life that evening. I can’t share that, but I had never imagined he was so unhappy from within. He said I was his rakhi sister and he wanted to share his grief with me. After listening to him I told him I was there for him whenever, wherever he needed me.
What is your assessment of yourself as singer?
There have been better singers than me, like K L Saigal saab and Noor Jehan ji, and there will be better singers than me in the future. I always say whatever skills I’ve imbibed are god’s gift. I’ll also admit that it’s never been an insurmountable challenge for me to sing anything. Every artiste has a talent. What the artiste does with that talent is up to that artiste.
It is often said that composers made you sing songs at an unnecessarily high pitch just because you have the range?
This is true. I’ll give you two examples. Ehsaan Tera Hoga Mujhparin Junglee and O Mere Shah-e-Khuba in Love In Tokyo, both composed by Shankar-Jaikishan. Both the songs were first sung by Mohd Rafi Saab. Then they decided they wanted the same songs sung by me. They came to me after filming the songs with the leading ladies, Saira Banu in Junglee and Asha Parekh in Love In Tokyo. And I was asked to sing the songs exactly the same way, since it was already shot with the heroines in Rafi Saab’s voice.I was’t allowed to lower the scale of the original tunes since it was already filmed. So I had no choice but to sing in Rafi Saab’s pitch. I remember how difficult it was for me. And I was very upset with Shankar-Jaikishan for making me do this.
At one time you were accused of indulging in a melodious monopoly. What do you call the monopoly of cacophony today?
I wouldn't like to say about that. But people who accused me of practising a monopoly were wrong. The media fuelled the rumours about my monopoly. The first question I was always asked during interviews was about my supposed monopoly. Once I was even asked if I tampered with the equipment during other singers' recordings. Ab bataayiye main kyon aisa karun? I never bothered with what other singers were doing. When Runa Laila came to India for the first time. I went to her first recording for Kalyanji-Anandji eventhough I had a fever. They said I was just indulging in dikhawa, that in fact I had gone to see how she sang. Arrey mujhe kya padi hai kaun kaisa gaata hai! Runa Laila met me with lots of affection. Later she too was poisoned against me. Even Vani Jairam, I praised all the time. She still turned around to say I wouldn't let her sing. Do you know Anuradha Paudwal sang the first song of her career for my brother in a Marathi film directed by Vasant Joglekar. Arrey, forget about female singers, even some male singers accused of trying to stop them from singing. Ab isska kyon jawaab hai? Anyway I wish them all the best. If they were happy abusing me then all the best to them. No abuse can make a hole in my soul.
Fans behave with extraordinary restrain with you. They never mob you. They worship you from a distance. Has it been difficult for you to live up to their expectations?
I've had to make many sacrifices all my life. When I was a child my father passed away. There were only sacrifices to be made thereafter. Karna hi padta tha. I was the eldest child of a family of daughters with only one brother who was the youngest of the lot. Hridayanath was only 4 when our father died. I had to shoulder all the responsibilities. When a person is young he or she's tempted to shrug off family responsibilities and move on in life. This didn't happen with me. At least not as far as I know. Even if I strayed I didn't keep flowing with the current. I came back and did the right thing by the family. This was God's will. I had to shoulder familial responsibilities. But whatever I got beyond that, is due to a bit of hard work—yes. But I always feel I've got much more than I deserve. Maybe that's why I have evolved as an artiste.
Could you tell us about your childhood? A sort of reflection on your beginnings?
My father had his own drama company and in those days, dramas were synonymous with music. Obviously, my father, who was a well-known singer and used to teach us, left a musical legacy in the family. A particular incident sparked off my singing. It so happened that once my father asked his shagird (disciple) to practise a raag while he finished some work. I was playing nearby and suddenly a note of the raag that the shagird was rendering, jarred. And the next minute, I was correcting him. When my father returned, he discovered a shagird in his own daughter. Early next morning, I was given a tanpura and he began teaching me. I recollect starting off with raag Puriya Dhanashree at the age of six.