Lata Mangeshkar out-sang every co-singer on this planet .And the truth is, many of them while enjoying the challenge of being pitched against the finest voice God ever created, were also wary of her endless resourcefulness in rendition.
Manna Dey with whom Lataji sang some of her most beautiful duets like Yeh raat yeh chandni phir kahan and Soch key yeh gagan jhoome, once told me, “Lata has a very rare remarkable talent. I remember I was recording the song Aiso re paapi bichua with her for Salil Choudhary in Madhumati when during the final take she came up with a harkat (innovation) that went Oye hoi hoi hoi.We were all stunned. Where did that come from?”
There was huge admiration in Manna Dey’s voice. Mukesh too felt a deep sense of gratitude for being able to share the microphone with her.
“I am grateful to be able to sing so many lovely duets with Lata. Wohhumein sambhal leti hai(she supports me in our songs together).”
Not all co-singers felt equally benevolent about Lataji’s effortless supremacy. Mohammed Rafi would get very upset when Lataji would introduce a murki or harkat(ornamentation) in the final take.
“Yeh kahan se aa gaya? Yeh toh nahin ttha(where did this come from? This was not there before),” Rafi would say during the recording, hurt by what he saw as a betrayal.
But excellence was not one of the options for Lataji. It was her only option.Many times she confessed to me she had no idea what she was doing while singing a song, or why the harkat or the alaap would show up unannounced during her final take.
In 1957 Lataji got the rarest of rare opportunities to sing a duet with Dilip Kumar. It was for Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s film Musafir . Salil Chowdhary composed the number Laagi naahin chute rama chahe jiya jaye. Dilip Saab was a perfectionist and he practised for months for that duet .Apparently Dilip Saab requested his Choti Bahen Lata to keep in mind that the fact that he was not a professional singer while recording. But he finally felt she out-sang him and was unhappy about it. He didn’t speak to Lataji for two years after their song together.
Kishore Kumar loved Lata Mangeshkar and openly acknowledged her vocal superiority. “She knows what I feel about her talent,” he once said affectionately . There was a healthy spirit of competitiveness between the two. He would try to distract her before their duets together with his antics and jokes. She would playfully rebuke him. “Kishoreda, gaana pehle phir masti.”
Kishore was very competitive with Lataji. Whenever he sang the solo version of song which had a female version by Lataji , he would insist that she sing it first. He would then hear her singing and then sing his own version. R D Burman’s Mere naina sawan bhadow in Mehbooba was recorded in this way.
When Kishore Kumar was approached by a video magazine for an interview he insisted he would do the interview only if Lataji was the interviewer, She agreed. It turned out to be the last interview of his life.
The competitive spirit that co-singers felt towards Lataji sometimes took a slightly alarming turn. Lataji once recorded a duet with Uma Devi who later became the comedienne Tun Tun. Uma Devi was as khati–peeti back then as a singer as she was later as an actress. So there they were, the two of them singing into the same mike.Back then duets were recorded on one mike. Lataji , a frail reed-like pintsized girl , Uma Devi quite formidable in her physical presence. Lataji was given a stool to stand on ,as she had a problem reaching the mike. She sang her lines and then when Uma Devi moved forward to sing into the mike and nudged Lataji shoulder, she fell right to the ground.
Who knows whether that was a friendly nudge or something else?