Lataji! 91 years old today, unbelievably. And she has been singing for Hindi films almost the whole 91 years.
Lataji came from a classical Maharashtrian singing family. What that means is, since birth, her father trained her at home in perfect singing. And that they were in an odd betwixt and between position in society, respected for their talent and knowledge but also slightly less-than because of their role as performers, and their poverty.
Lata’s father died when she, the oldest child, was 13 and Lata then became the breadwinner for the family. A family friend who ran a movie and theater company took over her career and helped her get small singing jobs to support the family. Her voice was different than those of the current popular singers, an early music director disparaged it as “too thin”, but she had the control over phrasing and breath that only a lifetime of true classical training can give you. To add the finishing touch, after overhearing a critical remark from Dilip Kumar, she took Urdu language lessons so that her Maharashtrian accent disappeared from her perfect Hindi film music lyric delivery. In 1949, at age 20, she had her first major hit song in the movie Mahal, and she never looked back.
Lata’s influence on Hindi film music cannot be overstated. Before Lata, there were a variety of young singers, Geeta Dutt and Noor Jahan and others, whose backround ranged from classical to popular, whose vocal range was husky to bouncy to light. And then Lata arrived and defined the sound of the “heroine” forever. High pitched, perfectly phrased, strangely girlish and yet wise at the same time. There is Lata and her similar descendants, and then there are the not-Latas, the deeper voiced rougher sounding singers who are described as “different” because they are not Lata.
Lata never married, dedicating herself to her profession. The way she presented herself brought to mind widows, or nuns, a mostly white sari, minimal make-up and jewelry, and a plain humble demeanor. She looked timeless, like an old woman at age 20, and barely changed now at age 91. Lata achieved that rare thing as an artist, her creations stand almost apart from herself as a person, this plain invisible woman with the glorious voice.
Some of her most important songs:
“Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya”
“Ajeeb Dastan Hai Ye”
“Lag Jaa Gale”
“Didi Tera Deewar Deewana”