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Remembering Talat Mahmood – The Shahanshah-e-Ghazal

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By Sudhir K Arora

This week, 9 May to be precise, marked the 25th anniversary of the passing away of one of the legends of Indian music – both film and non-screen, arguably the King of Ghazal singers. The mystifying dearth of tributes from the film industry shows that his words had come true: Meri Yaad Mein Tum Na Ansoo Bahana, Na Jee Ko Jalana, Mujhe Bhool Jana.

Born on 24 February, 1924, in a cultured family of Lucknow, the ‘City of Nawabs’, his leaning towards singing was frowned upon by his conservative family (‘gaana-bajaana’ was not acceptable!). Nevertheless, he pursued his passion with devotion. Trained in singing by Pandit SCR Bhat at the Morris College of Music (now the Bhatkande Sanskriti Vishwavidyalaya), he began singing for All India Radio when he was just 16! Such was his prodigious talent that the ruling music label HMV cut an album of ghazals with him in 1939, titled “Sab Din Ek Saman Nahin”. In 1944, he privately recorded Faiyyaz Hashmi’s beautiful ghazal, Tasveer Teri Dil Mera Bahla Na Sakegi, which made the film industry sit up and take notice of this hugely talented young singer. (This ghazal was re-recorded for the 1966 movie Devar Bhabhi and was a great hit). Stardom beckoned and Talat soon moved to Calcutta. After a stint in Bengali films as well as singing, both, ghazals and Bengali songs, Bollywood beckoned and Talat shifted there.

Talat was fortunate to have the patronage of the legendary music director Anil Biswas, who gave him a break in Arzoo (1949). Talat’s Ae Dil Mujhe Aisi Jagah Le Chal Jahan Koi Na Ho struck a chord with listeners. (Anil Biswas had earlier launched Mukesh, another giant of playback singing). Then followed the memorable Meri Yaad Mein Tum Na Aansoo Bahana (Madhosh) in 1951 and, in the same year, that heart-tugging Seene Mein Sulagte Hain Armaan (Tarana, Dilip Kumar-Madhubala). Talat had arrived!

Talat, with his unique style and voice, carved a place for himself. He never copied anyone and his smooth velvet voice with its trademark quiver began to have a huge fan following.

Talat married Lotika Mullick (later Nasreen), a Bengali child star in 1951. They had met in Calcutta (now Kolkata) while both were seeking to establish themselves on screen and Nasreen was already a fan of his!

Nineteen fifty-two can probably be termed as Talat’s year. He sang a string of hits for the biggest stars of the day like Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor: Ae Mere Dil Kahin Aur Chal (Daag); Main Dil Hoon Ek Armaan Bhara (Anhonee); Main Paagal Mera Manwa Paagal (Aashiana); Mohabbat Hi Na Jo Samjhe, Woh Zalim Pyar Kya Jaane (Parchaain); Yeh Hawa Yeh Raat Yeh Chandni (Sangdil).

Talat’s dulcet voice continued ruling the airwaves – ghazals and geet set to timeless music by great music directors of that era – Anil Biswas, Madan Mohan, C Ramchandra, Khayyam, SD Burman, Naushad, Salil Chowdhury, OP Nayyar, to name a few; set to lyrics by great poets and shayars like Raja Mehdi Ali Khan, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Shailendra, Rajendra Krishan, Shakeel Badayuni, and many more.  Fans of Hindi cinema music still recall with nostalgia the two super hits from the 1953 Dev Anand-Usha Kiran starrer Patita: Andhe Jahan Ke Andhe Raaste and Hain Sabse Madhur Voh Geet. That same year Talat also gave us Shaam-e-Gham ki Qasam (Footpath, 1953).

Talat sang for the Dev Anand-Kalpana Kartik starrer Taxi Driver in 1954, rendering the soulful Jaayein to Jaayein Kahan. Interesting sidelights to this movie: Dev Anand and Kalpana Kartik married secretly during a lunch break during the shooting of this film.

Talat, a handsome gentleman, then decided to make a serious foray onto the silver screen as a star. Though he had acted sporadically in films earlier, the period 1953-1958 saw him act in 10 Hindi films, opposite some of the great heroines of his time like Suraiya and Madhubala. He also rendered some memorable songs in these movies: Zindagi Dene Wale Sun (Dil-e-Nadaan, 1953); Raat Ne Kya Kya Khwab Dikhaye (Ek Gaon Ki Kahani, 1957). However, getting middling success as a movie star, he returned full time to singing by the late-1950s.

Talat’s mastery over the ghazal was universally recognised, earning him the title of Shahanshah-e-Ghazal. This was helped immensely by his command over Urdu and his perfect enunciation. His rendering of Ghalib’s timeless Dil-e-Nadaan Tujhe Hua Kya Hai (duet with Suraiya, movie Mirza Ghalib, 1954) remains probably the all-time best.

Some other unforgettable songs of this era are: Tasveer Banaata Hoon (Baradari, 1955); Hamse Aaya na Gaya (Dekh Kabira Roya, 1957); Sab Kuch Luta Ke Hosh Mein Aaye to Kya Kiya (Ek Saal, 1957); the duet with Asha Bhosle – Pyar Par Bas to Nahi Hai (Sone ki Chidiya, 1958).

Another of Talat’s signature ghazals was Jalte Hain Jiske Liye from Sujata (1959). The story goes that the legendary Burman Dada wanted Rafi for this song, but Bimal Roy stuck to his guns and insisted on Talat. The result was an all-time classic.

It was not as if Talat was stuck forever “In a Blue Mood”. Some light playful songs and duets that come to mind are: Aankhon Mein Masti Sharab Ki and Itna Na Mujhse Tu Pyaar Badha (the latter a duet with Lata; both from Chhaya, 1961); and Aaha Rimjhim Ke Yeh Pyare Pyare Geet Liye (Duet with Lata; Usne Kaha Tha, 1962).

By the early 1960s, Indian movies were going through their second great transformation – from black and white to colour; from serious ‘socially relevant’ cinema to lighter, more ‘playful’ movies. The stars of the 1940s and 1950s like Dilip Kumar, Bharat Bhushan, were aging, and younger, more ‘energetic’ male stars like Shammi Kapoor, Joy Mukherjee, Biswajit, Jeetendra brought a noticeable ‘pep’ to the movies. Music directors started turning more to the great Rafi, who was perpetually re-inventing himself, and of course the inimitable Kishore Kumar.

Talat did render some more hits, till he finally signed off Hindi playback with a song whose lyrics he himself had penned: Muhobbat Ki Kahaniya, Sunane Lagi Hain Jawaniyan (Woh Din Yaad Karo, 1971). Of course, his huge fan following all over the world ensured that he remained extremely busy with concerts and shows all over the world, including singing to full houses at the Royal Albert Hall, London, and Madison Square Garden, New York. He was honoured with the Padma Bhushan in 1992.

Talat passed away on 9 May, 1998, aged 74. He rendered about 750 songs in 12 languages during the four decades in which he was active. His legacy lives on, still enthralling listeners. Hain Sab Se Madhur Voh Geet Jinhe Hum Dard Ke Sur Mein Gaate Hain echoes Shelley’s “Our sweetest songs are those that tell of our saddest thought”. None epitomised this better than you, Talat Saheb. Even now, one can sit back, eyes closed, listening to his velvet voice wafting over one’s soul, like a healing balm. Thank you Talat Saheb for all the wonderful songs you have given us.

(Note: It is impossible to list all of Talat Mahmood’s super hit songs in such a small piece. I am sure a few of some readers’ all-time favourites may have been left out due to the unavoidable limitations of space. This article is dedicated to my late father from whom I had the fortune to imbibe his love for music – in particular for Talat Mahmood’s songs which I grew up listening to, even though most were sung before I was born!)