Lata Mangeshkar turned 90 a little more than one year ago, a momentous milestone in a life whose story is the very chronicle of Hindi Film Music in the post-Independence era. Any superlatives used to describe this life seem banal, and indeed many of the tributes that flowed in hewed that line.
A different kind of tribute was shaping up in the heart of Arun Sampath, an unassuming IT professional based out of the NY area. He has been pursuing whistling – what he most evocatively calls MukhVenu (translates to face-flute) – as a hobby for a long time. Being an ardent fan of Lata-didi’s music, his Upahaar is an album of MukhVenu renditions of classic songs of Lata-didi.
At the outset, this seemed like an impossible endeavor. Can one hope to create even a faint shadow of the golden voice? Or to emulate the magic of the golden era? But the results are sure to take your breath away (no pun intended).
I have had the privilege of witnessing the creation of this monumental project. Each step was planned and executed meticulously. Songs were selected from 1949-58, decidedly one of the best decades of Lata-didi’s career. The final track selection is a fine representation of the great music composers that Didi worked with, as well as of their profile in the popular imagination. Arun’s perfectionism surfaced during the recording and finishing stage, as he fretted over minor deviations which I could hardly detect. It is also noteworthy that the recording was done in the traditional style (takes, retakes, and all) without resorting to autotune.
The polished and packaged product is astounding. The great Anil Biswas (whose honey-sweet romantic composition ‘man mein kisi ki preet basaale’ from Aaram is recreated by Arun) noted that Lata-didi’s voice was like a piccolo, sharp yet sweet, and impeccably in tune. MukhVenu turns out to be singularly suitable to mimic that voice. The fidelity of the recreations to the original is evident to the keen listener, the MukhVenu following the voice very closely, including the subtle pauses and even breath-stops. One drifts into a nostalgic journey as the immortal tunes impinge on the mind’s ear as much as the physical ones. And one cannot stop listening.
It is hard to pick a favorite or even favorites. The haunting ‘aajaa re paradesi’ (Madhumati) and ‘aayegaa aane waalaa’ (Mahal), or the mischievous ‘laaraa lappaa laaraa lappaa’ (Ek Thi Ladki), or the ebullient ‘thandi hawayein‘ (Naujawan). Each melody vies for your attention, right up to the coda-like ‘alavidaa…’ of ‘ye zindagii usi ki hai’ (Anarkali).
The period constraint chosen by Arun left a rich tapestry of melodies to be explored, be it from the period before 1949 (the excellent songs of the likes of Master Ghulam Haider or Pt. Shyam Sunder) or that after 1958 (a song from Pakeezah, Parakh, or Picnic)
There is a hoary tradition of recreating Hindi Film songs on instruments. When one listens to the haunting gypsy violin or Hawaiian guitar of Van Shipley, the mesmerizing piano of Brian Silas, or the sonorous saxophone of Manohari-da, one realizes that these musicians must have been the keenest listeners of the original melodies, understanding and absorbing not only the tunes but the intent of the creation before reproducing it in the chosen medium. This is the greatest tribute one can pay to the original.
In this sense, Arun’s MukhVenu renditions are a profound and heartfelt tribute to the legend that is Lata Mangeshkar.
Chetan Vinchhi is a tech entrepreneur based out of Bangalore. He is keenly interested in Indian classical and old film music, is active in music appreciation groups, and occasionally writes about music.