I was recently asked by The Hindu to write an article on Lata Mangeskhar’s interactions with Carnatic Musicians. It took some searching for but what I found was most enlightening. It showed us inconsequentials can never ever realise the Olympian heights at which geniuses move.
That she was the nightingale for all of India is well known. What was her rapport with Carnatic artistes? The first interaction was probably courtesy the gramophone. We do know from the biographical sketch of Dwaram Venkataswami Naidu in one of the early issues of Sruti magazine that Lata to him was the epitome of fidelity to pitch and purity of note. He would ask his disciples to listen to her records and see how these traits could be emulated. Of course, he was not alone in this observation. According to Carnatic music aficionado KSS Rajan, the late Voleti Venkateswarulu too was an ardent admirer.
Who were the Carnatic artistes that Lata herself had a close personal bond with? The first it would appear, was KB Sundarambal. The two had several common threads in their life stories – fatherless at a young age and being the eldest left with the responsibility to fend for a whole family. Both remained bold personalities that faced life’s challenges to the fullest. And of course, they were the women in white. In Pa Chozhanadan’s biography of KB Sundarambal (Kodumudi Kokilam KB Sundarambal Varalaru, Rishabham Pathippagam, 2002), there is a lovely photograph of the two together. The story behind the picture, as narrated by Chozhanadan, is that Lata having arrived in Madras shortly after the release of Gemini’s Avvaiyar, was taken to see the film. She was stunned by KBS’ vocal prowess and when they met ran her fingers down the latter’s throat saying she wanted to feel the cords that had produced such music. She then desired to have a photo taken with KBS and it was fulfilled by Vaidy, the owner of the Carnatic Studio at Mount Road/Patullos Road corner.
More revealing is a letter that Lata on her return to Bombay sent SS Vasan of Gemini Studios, under whose banner and direction the film was made. In it she describes her being able to see the film as a golden opportunity and says it was a fitting outcome of Vasan’s love for music and his devotion to God. Most importantly, she says had tears filling her eyes several times watching KBS sing and act as Avvai. “On watching her performance, I realised a great truth,” wrote Lata. “When great artistes sing, we get to see their devotion to the art and the extent of their years of practice. If I had been Lord Ganesha, I would forever be singing the praises of this devotee. I have no other words to express my respect for Smt KB Sundarambal.” (Translated by me from the Tamil version in Chozhanadan’s book.)
MS Subbulakshmi was yet another singer that Lata venerated. She has gone on record to say that she rarely missed a concert of the former when she performed in Bombay. There are several photographs of the two together – from the early ones where a clearly star-struck Lata is calling at Kalki Gardens to later ones where the two are in animated conversation. What would fans not have done to be a fly on the wall and listen to what the two nightingales discussed! In 1994, the Dinanath Mangeshkar award, instituted by Lata in memory of her father, was conferred on Subbulakshmi. In a recent interview, her grandson V Srinivasan has spoken of how the latter could not make it to Bombay and so Lata flew in to Madras to give it in person to MS. In recent years, Lata Mangeshkar had never failed to pay her tribute to MS on social media, on the anniversary of her passing. In 2020, she spoke of MS Subbulakshmi as Swar Ganga.
In 1986, Lata Mangeshkar was the Chief Guest at Sri Krishna Gana Sabha to commemorate violin maestro Lalgudi G Jayaraman’s 50th solo performance. In the presence of MS Subbulakshmi and ML Vasanthakumari, Lata presented him with a silver violin that the Sabha had funded. “Lataji became an admirer of my father in the 1960s when she heard his LP record of Tyagaraja’s Nadasudharambilanu(Arabhi/Rupakam). She made it a point to attend his performances in Bombay and also felicitated him on stage at the end of one such concert. She invited my father and his sister Srimathi Brahmanandam to perform together in Bombay. He also called on her at her invitation at her residence. Once when my father, my sister Vijayalakshmi and I were slated to perform in Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in London, Lataji was also there and called the organisers to say she would like to attend. She came and stayed on till the very end.”
Last year, during the Music Academy’s virtual conference, scholar and writer Lalitharam gave a presentation on nagaswaram maestro Karukuruchi Arunachalam as a birth centenary tribute. In it he spoke of Lata’s admiration for the artiste’s prowess and how on one occasion, when she attended his concert in Bombay, he performed impromptu her Yeh Zindagi Usi Ki Hai from the film Anarkali (1953)! And what’s more, Lalitharam also shared the YouTube link of the recording! You can listen to it here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tkeGcZMGJdA
Lastly, did Lata ever sing in the Carnatic style? There are at least three instances – all equally delightful. The first is Salil Chowdhury’s tribute to Muthuswami Dikshitar and his Vatapi Ganapatim (Hamsadhvani/Adi) – Ja Tose Nahin Boloon Kanhaiya, sung by Lata and Manna Dey with lyrics by Shailendra in the 1956 film Parivar. The second is in Pardesi, a 1957 Indo-Soviet collaboration, which has a dance performance by Padmini. The song by Lata Mangeshkar is the Hindi version of Ramanathapuram Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar’s Shankarabharanam/Adi Tillana. Anil Biswas adapted it musically and the lyrics were by Ali Sardar Jafri and Prem Dhawan. You can see it here. Dr Ritha Rajan, renowned scholar, avers that even the 1957 Suvarna Sundari ragamalika – Kuhu Kuhu Bole Koyaliya set in Sohni (Hamsanandi), Bahar, Jaunpuri and Yaman (Kalyani) by Adi Narayana Rao (lyrics by Bharat Vyas) is heavily in the Carnatic mode, especially its suite of swarams. There may be many more.
There was clearly much give and take, and a lot of mutual admiration as well. It was an era when artistes did not hesitate to recognise greatness in others when they saw it.
This article appeared in The Hindu dated Feb 11, 2022