When Lata Mangeshkar agreed to sing if Uttam Singh carried her

When Rajshri Productions was coming back from the brink of extinction, after a series of flop films, with Maine Pyar Kiya (1989), starring newcomers Bhagyashree and Salman Khan, musical director Raam Laxman (Vijay Patil) tasked me with persuading Lata didi to sing for the film. Since I started as a solo violinist in the Bombay film industry in 1962 and later became popular as an arranger, I have formed relationships with Have I got. When I went to her house, she said to me: “Hand gaati nahin hoon (I don’t sing anymore). We all knew; but I asked him to do it for me because I was arranging the music. After two minutes of silence, she accepted on one condition: “tum mujhe lene aaoge (you will come and get me)”. From there began our new chapter.

I was driving from my Andheri house to his Prabhu Kunj residence on Peddar Road. She sat in the front seat, with two armed constables in the back. Hum hanste-gaate studio pahaunch jaate thhe (We would sing our way to the recording studio). Whether I am the composer or the arranger of a film, and if Didi sings in it, transporting Didi has become my duty. She never ate food from outside, even her tea came from home, but after check-in she asked for a cold soda, with extra ice cubes.

(Left to right) Filmmaker Manmohan Desai, Lata Mangeshkar, music director Raam Laxman, music arranger Uttam Singh and director Ketan Desai on the sets of Anmol (1993). (Credit: express archives)

Sarasvati Have I gotas i would call it ne kisi ka likha kabhi nahin padha. She would come into the studio with her music notebook, write the song and correct it, sometimes three times, while you were talking, storing it all in her memory, and at that very moment the song became hers. It wasn’t until she was convinced, after rehearsals, that she walked into the recording room. This is a practice that had remained since the time when Naushad sahab had him rehearse 40 times for a song, in my day, when after five to seven rehearsals the song was done in one take. For his song with Mahendra Kapoor in Manoj Kumar’s Baboo Painter (1983), Meenakshi Sheshadri’s first Hindi film and our first Hindi film as music directors Uttam-Jagdish (music arranger duo Singh and Jagdish Khanna), we were recording live in the studio from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., with 120 musicians and 40 choir; the first take did not take place until 2 p.m.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PhkADyPekTU

Then she sang for us in Ricky (1986), Waari (1988), Clerk (1989), Dil to Pagal Hai (1997), Dushman (1998), and Hum Tum Pe Marte Hain (1999), among others. Lata Didi remembered that we (Uttam-Jagdish) wanted to do a private album with her. He kept being pushed. Jagdish died in 1992, and I was busy organizing Raam Laxman on Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! (1994). Eventually a 12-song devotional album was cut for the Tips label, Om Sai Ram (1996), with two songs by her. After a sitar section in a piece I played her, she held my hand. She had held my hand many times before, but at that time it was like a blessing from Goddess Saraswati. The affable Swar Kokila also had a big heart. She waived her fees when a composer could not afford to pay. For us, after her bhajans in Rickyshe said: “bhakti-bhaav se gaya (sung it out of devotion), will not accept any fees”.

A screenshot of Lata Mangeshkar noting the song as Uttam Singh sings it to her at the recording studio.

There was a time in the industry, back in the 1960s-80s, when not only music directors and songwriters, but every department wanted to have Lata Have I got sing in their movie. At Mehboob Studio, I myself heard a group of men of light wishing Lata di would sing. Now there can’t be two jobs or departments that are far apart than adjusting the lights and singing in playback, and yet everyone wanted Lata said, unka aura, unki shakhsiyat ka darja hi alag thha (his personality was on a different plane).

Directors and producers would wait an entire year after their movies are ready to have Lata said sing for them. Me too, I waited five-six months for her to sing Udja Kale Kawan in Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001), but she was abroad, so I signed with Alka Yagnik. In Dil to pagal hai, kisi aur ke hone ka sawaal hi nahin hota, it must have been Didi. In stop stop stopwhen I asked him for another take of the second Antara (verse), she said, “why, let’s repeat the whole song”, and recorded, barefoot, standing for two and a half hours.

She was everyone’s Have I got, even that of director Yash Chopra. In my entire career, I’ve only heard two people in the industry call her Lata: sound engineer BN (Badri Nath) Sharma (Madhumati, Mughal-E-Azam, Maine Pyar Kiya, etc.), who inquired about her throat/health from outside the recording room, “Latagala theek hai, kuchh paani-waani laaun?” and Lata-said said, with childish guilt, “aj (registration) nahin karte hain?“The other person to call her Lata was legendary filmmaker V Shantaram.

She has sung for great composers and while the compositions, like Lag jaa mange, were magical, she elevated the songs further, with her sayings, and also with her pauses and silences, she evoked a myriad of emotions in a single line. If a composer gives him 20% of a song or thinks his composition is brilliant, Lata said would make it 100% with here, pukhraj (jewelry) embedded in it.

The other day, while driving, the FM announced: “agla gaana Lata Mangeshkar k…I rushed home and turned on the radio, I could have heard it on YouTube later, but the thrill of listening to it on the radio is irreplaceable. Without Have I got, all those memorable songs won’t retain even 40% of their charm. It’s a blessing to have only done a handful but good job; given a chance, I would have composed for her until the very end. Among my compositions for her, a favorite is Mere pyar ki umar (Waari).

Main nahin manta ki agar unse koi best singer hota… jo baat unme thhi, woh kisi mein nahin, woh khudaai, ruhaani awaaz (I don’t believe there could have been a better singer, the divinity in her voice was nowhere to be found). Going after someone, especially after that person has died, is a chhichhori harkat (objectionable behavior). Nature spares no one, the power of the voice fades with old age. But when she called me after my son died in 2014, her voice was the exact same one I’d heard for 40 years. So far, no one has even been able to reach the road she walked on. What she did musically didn’t happen in the 1900s, doesn’t happen now, and won’t even happen 100 years later. She was God’s gift to us.

Uttam Singh received the “Lata Mangeshkar Award for Lifetime Achievement” from the Government of Maharashtra in 2016

As told to Tanushree Ghosh

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