Don’t Condemn Lata & Asha

In a Bengali film magazine, Anandlok, a Bangla-knowing Mahrashtrian reader wrote a letter to the editor that the accusations of Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle usurping other female singers' songs are rather baseless. Not that the reader is a Maharashtrian, I'm also of the same view that Lata and Asha, especially Lata, always drew flak on this count. Granted, both the sisters have been hardcore professionals, but there's no gainsaying the fact that their singing abilities can never be called into question. Barring, Suman Kalyanpur, who had a similar voice like that of Lata, no other female singer could ever hold a candle to Lata and Asha.

Just have a look at the quality and range of the voices of even Noorjehan, Shamshad Begum, Mubarak Begum, Geeta Dutt and Vani Jayram et al. Noorjehan was no match, no patch, when it comes to the depth and tonal quality of her younger contemporary Lata. Her two songs, 'Awaaz de kahaan hai' and the other one with Rafi ' Yahaan badla wafa ka bewafai ke bina kya hai' (Jugnu, 1947) sound very humdrum, whereas Lata's song 'Aayega aane wala' (Mahal, 1949) or 'Hawa mein udta jaye mera laal dupatta' or 'chup-chup khade ho zaroor koi baat hai' are still heard because of their haunting appeal even after several decades. Some critics are of the opinion that Lata and her 'cohorts' systematically marginalised Geeta Roy Dutt.

Well, Geeta had a quality voice with an impish appeal, but even Geeta had very many flaws in her voice and rendition. Her Bengali accent was always an impediment. Her pitch was low and her voice was fit for a particular genre. Ghazal wasn't Geeta's metier. Her sense of music was very much cultivated and thanks to Guru Dutt and Rafi's recommendations, she got to sing a number of songs.

Lata never actually criticised Geeta Dutt. Neither did she ever prevent her from singing. Very few people know that even Geeta's brother Kanu Roy didn't have much faith in his sister's rendition of slow and lilting numbers and he gave opportunity to Asha in Avishkar and Anubhav. Why didn't Geeta Roy sing 'Ta-thai ta-ta thai..' (Anubhav, 1970) and  'Naina hain pyase mere' (Avishkar, 1974, Rajesh-Sharmila)? Some ethnocentric Bengali amateur 'critics' like Hemanti Banerjee and Sudhanshu Mukherjee would shout from the rooftops that Geeta was deprived by Lata and Asha, but the reality is different. Same can be said about Mubarak Begum, who curses Lata and Asha as she's living in abject penury in a chawl (shanty) in Bombay.

 What's been the lady's contribution? Apart from 'Mujhko Apne Gale laga lo' (Humrahi),  'Kabhi tanhaiyon mein' (Humari yaad aayegi, Tanuja and Ashok Sharma, 1960) or 'Neend ud jaye teri', can you remember any other song sung by her? Yes, Suman Kalyanpur was a deserving singer but when an already deserving singer (read Lata) with same, even greater, timbre was there, why should anyone else opt for the second best? Shamshad had no ability to carry a solo song on her own. She succeeded because of her pairing with one and only Muhammad Rafi.

There was a penetrative shrill quality in her voice that was fit for qawwali. Vani Jayram or Sudha Malhotra were never of any class. They just sang and faded into oblivion. Lata and Asha didn't have to get them ousted. It's very easy to condemn a person, you feel jealous of. But we forget that some are born talented and no one can challenge their supremacy. Lastly, if Lata had any rival, it was her sister Asha and vice versa.

 All other female singers in the history of Hindi film music have been footnotes to these two stalwarts. Theirs have been the classic case of more sinned against than sinning like William Shakespeare's Jews in 'Merchant Of Venice'.       
                                                                                                                                                                            ----Sumit Paul