I am someone who began admiring Lata Mangeshkar’s beautiful voice and her songs even before I knew who she was. I heard her voice for the first time from a wayside tea shop near the Patel talkies while walking to St. Sebastian’s School from my home in Thoppumpady. I was lured by the magical voice that sang ‘Chup Gaya Koyire Door Se Pukar He..’. That song was regularly played on the gramophone at that tea stall. Every morning, I heard that song on my way to school. I have often stood there, completely immersed in the beauty of the song. I would then run to school to reach there before the bell. I remember getting caned by my teacher for coming late to school.
My older cousin Stella used to listen to Lataji’s songs a lot during those days. Interestingly, she is the same age as Lataji. She has even sung in a few movies like ‘Thiramala’. My love for Lata Mangeshkar’s songs grew listening to my sister sing those songs. Later, fate had taken me to meet the legendary singer and was even fortunate to sing a few songs with her.
I got the unexpected chance to meet Lataji almost three years after I started singing in the movies. Salil Chowdhury who was a big name in the Hindi cinema industry was roped in to compose the music for ‘Chemmeen’. Director Ramu Karyattu who knew about the close friendship between Salil da and Lataji suggested that we could have a song in Lataji’s voice. Salil da composed a song that suited Lata’ji’s style. The lines were written by Vayalar. That song was ‘Kadalinakkare Ponore’!.
The makers decided to meet Lataji in person and speak about the song. They travelled to Mumbai with a track that was sung by me. I too had accompanied them as an assistant who could help her with Malayalam words and pronunciations. For me, it was like a dream. The meeting at her house in Mumbai was an unforgettable experience.
Lataji used to stay with her mother. On the day that we visited Lataji, her brother Hridaynath and all her sisters except Ashaji were present there.
We told her about the song. Salil da and Lataji, who were close friends talked a lot. Meanwhile, he introduced me to her. I couldn’t speak too much as the conversation was in Hindi. Salil da told her that I was trained in classical music. He then asked me to sing a ‘keerthanam’ for her. I sang ‘Vatapi Ganapathim Bajeham’ in the Hamsadwani raga. She was really excited after I finished singing. Suddenly, the atmosphere in the house changed. Hamsadwani was her favourite raga too. Our conversation soon diverted to the ‘keerthanam’ as she was an expert in ragas and in Sanskrit. Moreover, she enjoyed the ‘keerthanam’ that was about Lord Ganesha.
We returned after spending a few hours there. However, no decision was taken about the matter that we had discussed, then. I think she listened to the song that was recorded in my voice, only later. I understand that she expressed her difficulty in singing such a song, to Salil da. Finally, I was destined to sing that song for the movie. The track that was recorded for Lataji was later used in the film. Salil da, meanwhile, succeeded in making Lataji sing in Malayalam. The iconic song ‘Kadali Chenkadali’ from the movie ‘Nellu’ was composed by Salil da and sung in the fabulous voice of Lataji. The lines of it were written by Vayalar.
Even though I began singing in Hindi movies in 1971, it took me years to grab an opportunity to sing with Lataji. The first song that we sang together was ‘Aap Ki Mehki Hui’ composed by Khayyam for the movie ‘Trishul’.
After learning the song, the rehearsal and recording were held together. It was a dream like experience at the Mehboob Studio in Mumbai. I was in a unique mental state while sitting with such an accomplished singer. We could finish the recording pretty quickly as we had rehearsed well. That is one of my favourite songs. Besides, it was an unforgettable experience singing another song ‘Mohabat Bade Ka Cheez Hai’ with Lataji and Kishore Kumarji. The song ‘Hum Nahi Dukh Se’ composed by Salil da too is a favourite. I, a Malayali, sang the Bengali song ‘Naam Shakuntolatha’ composed in the same tune of Chemeen’s ‘Manasa Maine’ that was rendered by the Bengali singer Manna Dey. I also got the chance to sing amazing songs like ‘Zindagi Mahek Jati Hai’, ‘Dono Ke Dil Hai’, Sabka ChuttI Mili, ‘Apka Charago Ka’ and ‘Aise Na The’ with Lataji.
Even when I began singing more songs in Malayalam, I used to visit her at her home whenever I went to Mumbai. She had great love for me and had nothing but good things to say about me.
I am sad that Covid 19 had snatched away another legendary singer, after SP Balasubramanium. There is no one who could replace Lataji. Her beautiful voice and her incredible talent had made her stand out. She was indeed a reincarnation of Saraswati, the Goddess of Music. May her blessed soul rest in peace!