The inimitable and yet imitated-most-often Lata Mangeshkar turned 80 on 28 September, and nationwide, admirers and fans greeted the living legend and national treasure. There were special programmes featuring greetings and tributes from musicians, many of whom are often asked to list their favourite Lata Mangeshkar tracks. Logically, that shouldn’t be too difficult a question to field— name a few of your favourite tracks sung by Lataji.

With such a vast repertoire of superb tracks to select from, it should be a quick toss-up. And yet, having answered the same question several times in the past week, I decided to sit down and think of what I could truly and honestly call my favourite songs sung by Lataji—songs that I would never like to be without, would never ever delete from my iPod or would want to take with me if I were ever to be marooned on an island! Don’t laugh or look incredulous because the marooned-on-an-island question is one I have been asked on more than one occasion. Surprisingly, all the songs I came up with are not from films, but songs recorded by Lataji several decades ago for non-film albums.

Peerless: Mangeshkar did full justice to both ghazals and bhajans. Photograph courtesy Lata Mangeshkar in Her Own Voice/Niyogi Books

Two ghazals composed by K. Mahavir and rendered by Lataji top my charts and these are:

Aankh se aankh milata hai koi,

Dil ko kheenche liye jaataa hai koi...

written by Shakeel Badayuni; and

Ahd-e-gham mein bhi muskuraate hain, Aansuon ke diye jalaate hain...

written by Khalish Dehlvi.

I first heard both these ghazals on the radio probably over 30 years ago, in the days when an afternoon bulletin of ghair-filmi naghme, or non-film melodies, was broadcast regularly on Vividh Bharati. Both left a lasting impact on my then teenaged ears and I would wait eagerly for repeat broadcasts of the ghazals, glued to the radio set, listening intently, pen in hand to jot down the verses while I also tried hard to memorize the songs. When and if you listen to the two ghazals, you will notice that is no mean task to attempt. Both melodies are complex, and worthy only of a voice with immense range, breath control and dexterity. It comes as no surprise therefore that Mahavir chose to record them in Lataji’s voice. But beyond the demands of craft and skill, the expression that Lataji brings to both these ghazals is what is so unique in many ways. That mixture of poignance without being maudlin or melodramatic, a sort of magnificently dignified heartbreak that she brings to both ghazals makes them unforgettable for me. For years I tried to sing along as the ghazals played on the radio, and later on the home music systems that we ran through and acquired regularly. But the ease with which Lataji traverses an upward flight of notes as she improvises on the word “aansooun" at approximately 0.36 seconds of the 2.36-minute-long Badayuni ghazal is something I haven’t ever been able to get even close to in all these years.

And then, there is the equally unforgettable “Jo samar mein ho gaye amar, main unki yaad mein, gaa rahi hoon aaj shraddhaa geet dhanyavaad mein..." written by Pandit Narendra Sharma and composed by Jaidevji. Offered in gratitude to the brave soldiers who lay down their lives defending our country, this is another immortal classic that rings in my ears with the same impact it made when I first heard it decades ago.

I could stop at these three tracks, but I cannot resist adding a fourth one that I heard more recently. This one, Aga Karunakara, is in Marathi and is a Tukaram abhang (a form of devotional singing), composed by the venerable Shrinivas Khale for an album titled Abhang Tukayache. I have known even agnostics to be moved by the piety and devotion of Lataji’s rendering of this abhang, and I would not hesitate to be marooned on an island with this song. The good news is that probably all these tracks are accessible at digital music stores if not in retail stores. Google your way to aural bliss if you have the time and inclination.

(For those who may want the text of Jo samar mein ho gaye amar, here’s a link: mangeshkar-+ mere+watan+ke+logon/lyrics/jo+samar+mein+ho+ gaye+amar)

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