Dayamoyee Bandopadhyay, wife of Bengali music composer, late Mrinal Bandopadhyay, fondly recalls the day —July 25, 2009 — when playback singing legend Lata Mangeshkar walked into Mumbai’s Swarnalata Studio and affectionately asked the former in broken Bengali how she is doing and whether she had tea and biscuits. Mangeshkar had earlier caused a media stir when she ended a singing hiatus of three years since composer A.R. Rahman’s Rang De Basanti by agreeing to sing for the Bengali film, Amar Bhalolaga, Amar Bhalobasha, for which Mrinal Bandopadhyay was scoring the music.
She was returning to Bengali playback singing after 17 years; the last time she sang was also for a film for which Bandopadhyay had been the music composer. 80 years old when Mangeshkar recorded the title track at Swarnalata Studio, the native Marathi speaker’s Bengali pronunciation was understandably a little rusty, but she was quick to pick up, being “extremely perceptive,” says Dayamoyee. What struck her further was when Mangeshkar, while rehearsing the song, asked Dayamoyee in Bengali, “Bhalo hoyeche toh? (Did it turn out well?)”
It wasn’t possibly too demanding for the Bharat Ratna recipient to revisit her association with the Bengali language, continuing since her first reported Bengali recorded song in 1952, a version taken from the Marathi film Amar Bhoopali, according to the music label Saregama (then HMV) which released the track. While reasonable estimates mention Mangeshkar having recorded a few hundred songs in Bengali, the singer at a function by the Kolkata-based cultural organization Indo-Occidental Symbiosis in 2011 stated that she has sung the most number of songs in Bengali after Hindi. For Mangeshkar, who has sung in over 30 Indian languages, Bengali comes as a very sweet language, she told PTI on the sidelines of the Kolkata function.
The decision of the West Bengal government to confer the 87-year-old singer with 2016’s Banga Bibhushan award—constituted in 2011 to honour eminent personalities across various fields, but primarily from among the artistic and creative world—is an acknowledgement of the bond shared between Mangeshkar and her Bengali-speaking listeners, a relationship largely under-reported in the numerous biographies and profiles of Mangeshkar.
“It is as much Bengal’s honour too,” says the National Award-winning sound designer, Biswadeep Chatterjee, who has worked on major Bollywood films, recent ones being Pink and Bajirao Mastani. “In Bollywood, Bengali artistes continue to be held in high regard. There’s been a long tradition of interaction between Bengalis and the Hindi film industry in Mumbai and both have benefitted from the association. Lata Mangeshkar represents that connection in its highest form.”
Mangeshkar’s involvement with Bengali music—be it film, modern or Rabindra Sangeet — also comes as a throwback to an era when Bengali singers and composers in Mumbai, like Geeta Dutt, Salil Chowdhury, Kishore Kumar, S.D. Burman, R.D. Burman, Hemant Kumar (Mukhopadhyay), Manna Dey, among many others, infused a melodious vibrancy and dynamism to the Hindi playback industry. On their part, non-native Bengali speakers like K.L.Saigal, Mohammed Rafi, Asha Bhonsle and Mangeshkar returned the favour by their mellifluous rendition of songs in Bengali. That Mangeshkar’s songs have achieved a kind of immortality among Bengali listeners can be easily gauged when microphones stuck on lamp posts across Kolkata neighbourhoods will buzz with those tunes, yet again this year during October’s Durga Puja.
“Lataji’s Bengali songs continue to be popular. It is possibly because her Bengali pronunciation and diction was 99.9 percent faultless and that she was a perfectionist. It helped that the melodies were absolutely brilliant,” says S.F. Karim, who is currently a consultant at Saregama, having retired as deputy general manager after working in the record label for 35 years. It is with HMV, Saregama’s earlier avatar, that Mangeshkar had recorded most of her Bengali songs—her 1953-released Rabindra Sangeet tunes Tomar Holo Shuru and Modhu Gondhye Bhora with Hemant Kumar, 1957’s Rongila Banshi with Assamese singer-lyricist-composer Bhupen Hazarika and 1988’s long playing record with composer Salil Chowdhury, where Mangeshkar performed her version of Kumar’s famous song, Runner, have all sold lakhs of copies, according to Karim.
Many of these were also Durga Puja albums—music that would be released specifically in the run-up to the annual festival and for which “Bengalis would earnest wait throughout the year,” says Karim. “We would release Puja albums in three installments. Usually albums featuring Lata Mangeshkar would be released the last because, being a very busy artist in Bombay, she needed the time to perfect the bhaab, gayaki and diction of her Bengali songs. She was the top draw,” says Karim. After a 2010 Puja album, where four of her earlier-recorded but unreleased Bengali songs were featured, Saregama tried unsuccessfully to get Mangeshkar to sing in Bengali again. “At her advanced age she finds it difficult to go over to a studio to record. My perception is she felt her singing no longer will match up to her high perfectionist standards,” says the industry veteran.
Karim can’t pinpoint a reason why Puja music albums are no longer as keenly awaited; one of the reasons, he surmises, could be the easy availability of other entertainment options.
That Mangeshkar’s music has survived in Bengal is primarily because she epitomized talent and discipline, says Bidyut Kanti Chowdhury, professor, fine arts faculty at Rabindra Bharati University. “Her singing was honeyed yet not lacking in complexity. The effortless way in which she sang in her non-native Bengali clearly showed that she was very well versed in what the lyrics implied and was also probably into Bengali literature,” says Chowdhury. Indeed, in an interview given to Society magazine in March, 1984, Mangeshkar told the interviewer of having learnt Hindi, Urdu and Bangla as a youngster at her home.
“Among her Bengali songs, her collaboration with Salil Chowdhury stands out. Chowdhury’s music was a mix of Eastern and Western influences and Mangeshkar blended right in. She became the medium through which Chowdhury’s music flowed,” Chowdhury says.
A story goes that once, after Salil Chowdhury had sung an emotional Bengali song to her, he found that Mangeshkar had fainted. The singer had confirmed the story in a 1998 interview to the film critic and journalist Subhash K. Jha.
Popularly known as Didi in the Mumbai film industry, the common strains between Lata Mangeshkar and Bengal is what the Banga Bibhushan award will celebrate.