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A young Lata


Bharat Ratna for Bismillah Khan, Lata Mangeshkar

Two of India's enduring music icons are nominated for the high honour, bringing the number of musician Bharat Ratnas to four

Rashtrapati Bhavan announced Bharat Ratna awards for shehnai maestro Bismillah Khan and much-loved playback singer Lata Mangeshkar.

The awards were announced on 25 January, 2001, a day before Republic Day. M S Subbulakshmi and Pandit Ravi Shankar are the other musicians to have received this honour.

Bismillah Khan lives in Varanasi, one of the world's oldest cities and the holiest of Hindu pilgrim centres, and is revered as a great symbol of India's plurality. He is a devout Shia Muslim, and has equal faith in Hindu deities like Balaji and Saraswati.

Born on 21 March 1916, he was taught the shehnai by his uncle Ali Bux Vilayatu, who played regularly at the Vishwanath temple. He continued this tradition, and raised the instrument to concert status. Before him, the shahnai was considered a loud instrument fit only for marriage and other auspicious ceremonies. Bismillah Khan made it a grand concert instrument capable of expansive, nuanced raga elaboration.

Bismillah Khan played raga Kafi on the eve of India's first Republic Day ceremony in 1950. He has often said he sees no contradiction between his religion and his music. He says namaaz means music notes, for they cannot deceive and are "pure" .

The Benares Hindu University and Shantiniketan have awarded him honorary doctorates. He has also received the Tansen Award of the Madhya Pradesh government and the Padma Vibhushan award. He has toured the world and played at many capitals, and also recorded several albums, some with other legends like Ustad Vilayat Khan.

A long journey

Lata Mangeshkar is a household name not just in India but in many parts of the world where no Indian language is understood.

When she visited Guyana, a sea of black admirers surrounded her, prompting her to say that she had never been showered with so much love anywhere else in the world. As a welcome song, the national band played Gumnaam hai koi, badnaam hai koi. That, her biographer Harish Bimani says, may not have been a very appropriate choice, considering that the words describe a "nameless one" and an "ill-famed one"! But that was besides the point. People in that region, so far from Hindi land, had heard her songs and loved her for them.

Born on September 28, 1929, Lata received her initial music lessons from her father Dinanath Mangeshkar, who was a well-known theatre actor-singer. Lata is now setting up a hospital in his memory.

Lata's father died when she was still a little girl. She later studied under teachers like Aman Ali Khan and Amanat Khan. Aayega aanewala from the film Mahal was one of her first hits. It was shot on Madhubala. Baiju Bawra and Madhumati are just two of her early films whose songs continue to be enjoyed to this day.

Lata faced many odds, one of them being her "Maharashtrian daal-bhaat" accent, before she was accepted into the Mumbai film industry. She overcame such reservations by working hard on her Urdu diction. Naushad treated her like a daughter and gave her beautiful numbers to sing, and many decades later, wrote a ghazal in her praise.

Lata is credited with over 50,000 songs in 20 Indian languages. All profiles of Lata mention that her rendering of Ae mere watan ke logon, following the 1962 Indo-China war, moved Nehru to tears, but equally significantly, her best songs fill millions of hearts with many hues of untold emotion.

Lata's career has not been controversy-free. She has been accused of monopolising the Mumbai playback industry. She has had run-ins with many singers and music composers. She refused to sing with composer Shyam Sunder because he was drunk and used abusive language. The career of G M Durrani, an arrogant and at one time very popular playback singer, declined after Lata, fuming at his harassment, stopped singing with him.

Many accounts of Lata say her voice "sounds not a day older than 16 years" even though she is 70, but such indiscriminate flattery is the price she has had to pay for her fame.

Two biographers have chronicled her life, Harish Bhimani (In Search of Lata Mangeshkar) and Raju Bharatan (Lata: A Biography). The first is by a well-known journalist who also writes on cricket, and the second, by a former TV journalist, is considered her "official" biography. Sai Paranjpe, best known for her romantic comedy Chashme Baddur, directed Saaz, a film based on the lives of Lata and her sister Asha Bhonsle.

Amritamati S

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External links

Inderjit Badhwar's profile of Bismillah Khan for India Today

Rediff's tribute to Lata

A chapter from Raju Bharatan's biography of Lata Mangeshkar

A fan's list of Lata Mangeshkar songs

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