If you want to upset the Nightingale Of India just tell her she is as much a Bharat Ratna as Pandit Ravi Shankar.
And she will give you a piece of her mind. “Donon ke Bharat Ratna hone se hum baraabar nahin ho jaate hain (we don’t become equals just because we are both Bharat Ratnas). Panditji had a very rare talent. He was far more than a musician. When he played the Sitar he conversed with the Gods. I used to be mesmerized at his concerts.”
It was at one such a concert that Lataji met Pandit for the first time. “ The year was 1948, I think. I had finished recording a song and was given the princely sum of 200 rupees for it. I rushed to a concert of Panditji at Dadar (Mumbai). After an exhausting day of recording, I remember being swept into the magic of his fingers. When he put the Sitar down for a break, I impulsively got up from my seat, went up to the stage and presented him the 200 rupees I had earned during my recording earlier during the day. Aap samajh sakte hain.. 200 rupaye 1948 main kya maayne rakhta tha (you can understand what 200 rupees meant in 1948).”
What was Panditji’s reaction?
Lataji fondly recalls, “He gently refused to accept it. Then I told him it was my token of appreciation. He reluctantly accepted my little gesture. That’s how our association began. At the Dadar convert I introduced myself as an aspiring singer from the Hindi film industry. He had heard my singing. That meant a lot to me.”
Lataji continued to attend Pandijit’s concerts even when she became extremely busy. “I’d make it a point to attend his concerts whenever possible. I was his biggest fan. Everyone in my family is his fan. It was the greatest honor for me when he asked me to sing his compositions in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anuradha.”
Just how the beautiful melodies of Anuradha happened is a story in itself.
Recalls Lataji. “Hrishida (Mukherjee) was very close to me. I sang for most of his films and we were like family(an aside: Lataji never accepted payment for her songs in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s films). When he told me about Anuradha and that Panditji was going to compose the songs I was thrilled. Anuradha was about a singer (played by Leela Naidu) and Panditji came up with at least three classical masterpieces for me. It is hard for me or any music connoisseur to pick the favourite from among Haye re woh din kyon na aaye, Jaane kaise sapnon mein kho gayi aankhiyan and Saanwre saanwre.”
When I insist on Lataji picking one from among the three melodies she relents. “Okay, I would say Saanwre saanware. But only because Panditji played the Sitar with my singing in this song. Unfortunately, he was not there when I recorded the song . He was abroad for his concerts and his Sitar portions in my song were added later. I recorded the song with Hrishida. This is my only song where Panditji has played the Sitar. It’s believed by many that Panditji also played the Sitar in my song Oh sajna barkha bahaar ayee (composed by Salil Chowdhary in the film Parakh). But that’s not true.”
Recalling the rehearsals for the Anuradha songs Lataji says, “ Do you know Panditji was a very good singer himself. He sang out his Anuradha compositions for me and I followed his voice. We both got the Bharat Ratna but he was a far greater artiste than I. Main toh unke saamne kuch bhi nahin hoon(I am nothing in front of him).”
Later when Gulzar made Meera and got Pandit Ravi Shankar to compose the Meera Bhajans we all missed Lataji in the songs.
Says Lataji, “Panditji never asked me to sing for Meera. He knew I wouldn’t be comfortable doing the Meera Bhajans again, as I had already sung them for my brother Hridaynath.My respect for him increased after this.”
How and where does Lataji rate Pandit Ravi Shankar in the field of music? “Oh, he is right up there with Tansen, Beethoven and Mozart. He will be remembered for all times. When we speak of music his name will automatically be mentioned.”