Inside Lata Mangeshkar’s Little-Known Mastery of Regional Music

In the 1950s and 1960s, music flowed freely, without barriers of commercial priority or widespread conservatism. Bhupen Hazarika and Lata Mangeshkar became friends, sharing a common passion for music and poetry.

Lata Mangeshkar has sung over 25,000 songs in Hindi. Beyond her playback record for over 70 years, she had quietly but sincerely delivered unforgettable music in Assamese and Bengali. In the current era of music streaming and digital releases, Punjabi crossovers or any form of language crossovers are becoming a marketing talking point. But for contemporary singers of Lata’s day, linguistic crossovers and cultural fusion were a natural extension of an artist’s passion for music.

In the fifties and sixties, music flowed freely, without barriers of commercial priority or general conservatism. Assam music legend Bhupen Hazarika was back from his studies at Columbia University and a fulfilling creative stint in New York and parts of Europe. Lata Mangeshkar and Hazarika became friends, sharing a common passion for music and poetry.

She took the opportunity to sing in Assamese and adapted to Hazarika’s style of undulating scales. He directed his first film, Baator Era On in 1956. Money was limited, but the creative vision behind this project was ambitious. The film is dedicated to a musical journey through the landscape of unknown places in Assam and northeastern India, in Hazarika’s words, an anthropological delight. Lata Mangeshkar sang two songs for this movie- Junakore Rati and Rod Puwabor Karone, a duet with the late Hemant Kumar. Steeped in touches of folk tunes and listener-pumping melodies, both songs remain popular to this day. Hazarika collaborated with Mangeshkar to compose Godavari Noire Parore Pora, a tribute single to Assam. But their collaboration on Rudaali, a National Film Award-winning film by Kalpana Lajmi, is the most recent and visible ditty that people remember. Adapted from Hazarika Bistirnon’s masterpiece Parore in Assamese, a test of pitch, tenor and proof of her unrivaled range as a singer.

Mangeshkar and Hazarika remained friends over time, so much so that his family took him in; and Usha Mangeshkar, her sister has sung countless songs for Assamese Cinema and Hazarika. A while back, a controversial media statement by his ex-wife Priyambada Patel made waves. She accused Mangeshkar and Hazarika of having an affair, based on Lata sometimes staying at her Kolkata residence. His longtime companion Kalpana Lajmi denied this. But the story did not hold. Even in an atmosphere where news that sounds slightly sensational attracts attention, it was hard to cast a shadow over a creative partnership that stemmed from a pure love for music and culture, and which resulted in such unforgettable music. When Bhupen Hazarika passed away, an emotional Mangeshkar recalled making a phone call to himself in pain, stating that there would never be another like him.

In fact, Mangeshkar had found a fondness and love for Bengal and the cultures of eastern India, with his travels to Kolkata. In the 1970s his relationship with Bengal blossomed with popular numbers and melodies still playing at public functions. She has sung for Salil Choudhary and Hemant Mukherjee (known as Hemant Kumar in Hindi film playback), notable songs like Spoil Pate Majhe Roder Jhikimiki (1975, Anurag) and Bujhbe Na Keu Bujhbe Na (1977 Kabita) among others. Mukherjee introduced her to Bengali music, training her in the language and making her feel at home with her family. Lata sang Tagore sangeet for him. Salil Choudhary used his voice for his difficult compositions, given his ability to turn his voice into song. Na Jeo Na (1959) was originally a Bengali song which he remade into Hindi for the film Parach (1960) as Na Jiya Lage Na.

Lata Mangeshkar created a body of work in Marathi music with her brother Hridaynath Mangeshkar. She sang a Bengali film song for composer Mrinal Bandopadhyay at the age of 80. At seventy, she took a break from active singing, although she lent her voice to unforgettable songs in AR Rahman’s soundtracks. (Ek Tu Hi Bharosa from Pukar; O Paalanhare from Lagaan; Luka Chuppi from Rang De Basanti) in this phase. We live in a time where music companies and digital revenues dictate the music that gets made and therefore people can listen to it. Lata Mangeshkar lived differently, experiencing music and its creative power with different people. She sang for the love of music and knew its ability to break down any boundaries of language or culture.