Usha Mangeshkar: The voice of goddess and poor man's Lata
Usha Mangeshkar, who turns 85 on December 15, will always remain the irreplaceable voice of Goddess Santoshi Maa. Her voice works for large religious gatherings, demanding attention from all devotees.
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I was preparing for my UPSC exams one evening in early 1981 in my room (I was staying with my uncle those days), when I heard a man shout excitedly from the square below (these were government quarters) – “Mata chadh gayi, Mata chadh gayi”. In no time, I could hear people assembling outside and my own aunt rushed out. Curious, I stepped out to the first-floor balcony to see what the fuss was all about. A throng had collected outside the house below and people were jostling to get inside through the door. This required a closer examination and I too went down. There was a stampede which I had to negotiate to eventually get inside.
What I saw in the drawing-room held me in thrall, as it did the others sitting with folded hands (which I found odd but whose mystery would shortly get resolved). The lady of the house, our neighbour, always in a cervical collar for spondylitis, was collar-free and was moving her head in a circular motion, with hair flying all over the map, eyes closed. The motion picked up momentum and soon became frenzied. I wondered how this was even possible medically.
In the midst of all this surreal drama, my attention veered towards the loud song blaring from a huge speaker. Of course, what I was hearing was nothing unknown. The entire country knew it. It was played in temples, pandals, satsangs, bhajan mandlis and bhandaras. It was being played all over the nation since 1975.
The singer was Usha Mangeshkar. The song was Main to Aarti Utarun Re from the film Jai Santoshi Maa (1975).
The film made history when it was released. A small-budget film, its filmmaker could not afford the reigning singers' fees to sing the famous bhajans penned by Kavi Pradeep. Usha was roped in instead (that would be her misfortune – a poor filmmaker’s Lata). It remains her most popular work. She will always remain Goddess Santoshi Maa’s voice. In the film’s remake in 2006, she was retained for the same songs. She is irreplaceable. In retrospect, getting Usha to sing was a masterstroke. Her voice is what works in large religious gatherings — demanding attention from all devotees, right up to the back row.
Usha is the youngest sister among the sisters — Lata Mangeshkar, Meera Khadikar and Asha Bhosle, and elder to her music-director brother Hridaynath Mangeshkar. With Lata and Asha as sisters, how does anyone succeed? How does one break through the clutter? When even Asha remained overshadowed for so many years and finally came into her own with OP Nayyar, what chance did Usha have? Very tough. Not that she was not trained — she had formal training under Ustad Amanat Ali Khan and Ustad Aman Ali Khan. But in the virtuosity department, she remained behind Lata and Asha. Her voice sounded somewhat like Lata’s. Listen to Ankhon Mein Surma Daal from Rani Roopmati (1957).
Then how does she sound different from Lata in the Jai Santoshi Maa bhajan?
Till the film came along, the similarity with Lata made her career unremarkable. It was bound to happen. If Lata had not stopped singing with Rafi over the royalty dispute, Suman Kalyanpur would have been nowhere, so similar she was to Lata. When you have the best, why go to the second-best, even if she is the sister.
There is a school of thought of the opinion that had she not been a Mangeshkar, she may have fared much better. The constant comparison that inevitably takes place when siblings are involved would have been absent and perhaps given her more self-confidence. But given her superficial similarity to Lata, any self-assurance would not have mattered. In fact, being a sibling helped her. Her repertoire consists of many duets, most of which are with her sisters. Most of these are dance numbers. But, if occasionally the heroine was a part of the song, her sister would sing for the heroine.
With other singers, she occasionally got an opportunity to sing duets for the main lead, but for low-budget films. For big banners, her contribution was always a duet or two for the side heroine, and not the main lead. She even had trios and quadruples with other singers.
Her most famous Hindi film duet is Aplam Chaplam Chaplai Re from the movie Azad (1955) with Lata. The song triggered more offers for such dance numbers.
Her other well-known duet is O Albele Panchhi from Devdas (1955) with Asha. Tum Ko Piya Dil Diya from Shikari (1963)was another duet with Lata Mangeshkar that was the most celebrated song from the movie and still maintains its popularity. Both the sister-singers got equal parts in the song.
O Meri Maina from Pyar Kiye Ja (1966) with Manna Dey was a comic song that she sang for the third female lead. In this song, one can discern a change taking place in her voice quality. A full-throated song was where she and Lata were as different as chalk and cheese. Her voice developed an edge and became piercing and shrill and naturally loud. Lata could keep the softness, but with Usha in such songs, it went out of the window. This voice timber would later stand her in good stead in Jai Santoshi Maa and some other films. This is the voice that most people remember her by.
Her other notable duet with Asha was Chhuk Chhuk Chak Chak from Rafoo Chakkar (1975) that was filmed with Rishi Kapoor and Paintal dressed as women. No marks for guessing whose voice Usha was. Again, she exhibited her new voice.
Shaam Rangeen Hui Hai from Kanoon Aur Mujrim (1981) with Suresh Wadkar is a delightful duet coming at a time when music had touched rock bottom. C Arjun, the music director, who also was the music director in Jai Santoshi Maa, used her softer side and produced this gem. She could sound dulcet if the song allowed it.
Usha did perform solo too. The numbers though far and few, were memorable. For instance, her first Hindi film song — Bhabhi Aayi Bhabhi Aayi from Subah Ka Tara (1954) — was filmed on a child.
While it was a great start for Usha, she could not make a mark in A-grade films. She began accepting songs from B-grade movies and got typecast for those films. Very occasionally she would get a chance for subsidiary songs in A- grade movies. Another solo number in which the innocence in her voice is evident is Chachi Akad Gayi from Panchayat (1958). This song was again filmed on a child.
Her voice is not limited to bhajans. Yeh Na Thi Hamari Qismat from Main Nashe Main Hoon (1958) is a Mirza Ghalib ghazal that she has rendered wonderfully.
Music director Chitragupt offered some songs to her over the years, mainly for B-grade movies and mythological movies. One among those delightful numbers is Thandi Hawaon Kali Ghataon from Zimbo Comes to Town (1960). Lage Nahi Mora Jiya from Banarasi Thug (1962) is another delightful solo. However, this is not to be confused for the Lata classic with the same title from Ghunghat (1960). The depth of emotions could be discerned Mere Mehbbob Sun from Bhootnath (1963). She had an opportunity to sing for main lead, Mala Sinha, in Yeh Aaj Kal Ke Ladke from Dillagi (1966). Alas, such opportunities were rare.
In Sanjh Bhayi, Jhanjh Bhed Jiyara Ke from Sapna (1969), she had to sing a semi-classical song, composed by Jaidev. Remember that it is not simple to negotiate Jaidev. However, Usha does it well and this is where her training shows through.
Another music director who saw her potential and trusted her with excellent numbers was SD Burman. For instance, Mero To Giridhar Gopal from Phagun (1973) is when Usha sings the Meera bhajan for Waheeda Rehman. The music director was SD Burman.
One song that brought her massive fame was Mungla Mungla from Inkaar (1977) composed by Rajesh Roshan, which took on a life of its own. It was picturised on Helen.
Usha helped lyricist Majrooh Sultanpuri with Marathi words for the song. She had sung for Rajesh Roshan earlier — a duet with Asha in the super hit film Julie (1975) and sang for his other films like Khatta Meetha (1978) and Hamari Bahu Alka (1982).
Unfortunately, her lot did not improve much even after some blockbuster hits. In comparison, her Marathi songs, both film and non-film were immensely popular. She sang in other languages too, like Bengali, Gujarati, Kannada, Bhojpuri and Nepali.
She has had formal training in dance before she joined films. She paints as well. Her singing talent did not reach its full potential, not for lack of trying but because fate dealt a hand where she was born in the first family of Hindi film music, with sisters who would rule the airwaves for several decades. But she did carve out a niche, however modest. Being nominated for Filmfare Awards thrice is no mean feat. She was nominated for Main to Aarti from Jai Santoshi Maa (1976), Mungla from Inkaar (1978) and Humse Nazar To Milao from Ikraar (1980).
In the aftermath of India’s victory over Bangladesh (Vijay Diwas is on December 16), Lata Mangeshkar gave a public performance at Ramlila Maidan, Delhi in 1972. She sang Sarfaroshi Ki Tamanna and Jayate Jayate Jayate composed by Jaidev. A day earlier, Lata along with Usha, Hridayanath and Jaidev, visited my uncle – late Satish Bhatia – music director, for tea where I had the pleasure of meeting all of them. Who would have known then that nine years later, Usha would once again visit the same colony again, this time as the voice of a goddess!
Going back to the story where we started, after a few minutes of the fevered rotation of the head, the purpose of the congregation became clear when the question-answer session began. People would ask questions, and she would give short replies in a voice that was not hers. Some of these questions were very personal, but nobody minded. Such a phenomenon did not happen often. Make the most of it. I too, at the prodding of my aunt, asked whether I would clear the exam. “Mehnat ka phal meetha hota hai” is the answer I got.
On December 15, 2020, she turns 85. With the blessings of Goddess Santoshi Maa, the bhajan and the voice behind it will defy age and remain timeless.