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A tribute to the King of Ghazals Talat Mahmood on his death anniversary

Talat Mahmood who was born on February 24, 1924 in Lucknow and died on May 9, 1998 at the age of 74.

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Talat Mahmood

By Jyothi Venkatesh

Today is the one hundredth birth anniversary of the musical legend Talat Mahmood who was born on February 24, 1924 in Lucknow and died on May 9, 1998 at the age of 74. Who can possibly ever forget the mellifluous melodies like Ae Dil Mujhe Aisi Jagah Le Chal (Arzoo), Jaaye To Jaaye Kahaan, (Taxi Driver) Humse Aaya Na Gaya Tumse Bulaya Na Gaya (Dekh Kabira Roya) or Yeh Hawa Yeh Raat Yeh Chandni (Sangdil), Jalte Hain Jiske Liye (Sujata) or for that matter Phir Wohi Shaam Wohi Gham (Jahan Ara). The tremolo in Talat’s timbre echoes the feeling you get when your heart is broken and asks ‘Jaaye toh jaaye kahan’ (Taxi Driver, 1954).

Talat Mahmood was born in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, India to Manzoor Mahmood. Talat showed his musical leanings from a very young age and would enjoy sitting through all-night music concerts. Coming from a conservative Muslim background, singing was not encouraged. Talat had to choose between working in films and continue living at home. Despite his parents’ objection, he opted for the films, though his family accepted the fact only about a decade later when he gained some respect in the Indian film industry.

In 1949, Talat moved to Bombay, to sing for the Hindi film industry. His big break came with the song ‘Ae dil mujhe aisi jagah le chal’ composed by music director Anil Biswas, his mentor in Bombay, for the soundtrack of the film Arzoo (1950). Talat Mahmood acted in over a dozen films with actresses of the time like Nutan, Mala Sinha, Suraiya etc. Later he decided to give up acting to concentrate on singing.

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Laxmikant Pyarelal composed a melodious duet with Lata Mangeshkar in 1971 film Woh Din Yaad Karo, which happened to be his last song in Hindi films. Later he was heard in an Urdu Movie, Vale-E Azam in 1987, along with Hemlata. For those in a blue mood, his velvety voice works like the wind is to fire. With his soothing velvet voice, Talat Mahmood added pure gold to the Golden Era of films that he belonged to. The greatest examples are Jalte hain jiske liye (Sujata, 1959) and “Tasveer banata hoon, tasveer nahin banti” (Baradari, 1955) where the gentle charm of his voice gradually moves you tremendously.

Talat Mahmood’s grandniece Sahar Zaman was conferred with the Biographer of the Year 2024 award at the Bollywood Film Journalists Awards presented by Power Brands where I was among the members of the distinguished Jury. Sahar has mentioned in her exquisite book on her grand uncle, who she used to affectionately address as her Bambai Nana, titled Talat Mahmood ‘The Definitive Biography’, that Talat is till today revered as the foremost pioneer of the filmi ghazal and his endless list of disciples includes Jagjit Singh and Mehdi Hasan. Talat Mahmood was not just a maestro but also a very fierce patriot who opted to remain in India after partition, who through his poignant infections, brought to the common folk the mellifluous delicacy of the rich Urdu poetry.

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Though I had the golden opportunity to bump into the great Talat Mahmood on umpteen occasions in the early days of my career, especially during the launch of music albums at Hotel Oberoi Towers where I was working in the Accounts department in those days, I now regret that I did not pursue him for an in depth solo interview, for the simple reason that I was far too nervous at that time, though I had the glorious opportunity of interviewing Mohammad Rafi.

To commemorate his death anniversary today, I decided to sit in seclusion in my room with my computer and search google to hear his golden melodies and soak in his memories. The Jashn E Talat concert was designed by Talat Mahmood’s grandniece Sahar Zaman to engage youth, involving singing competitions, flash mobs, and diverse performances. This journey prompted Sahar to delve into his career, uncovering pioneering aspects, such as his early decision to be a singer in the 1930s, battles against conservative norms, and the establishment of non-film ghazal music’s commercial viability. The research revealed much about his life that couldn’t fit into the concert and led to the conception of the book on him, as a great personal public tribute.

Today, though there are too many playback singers around, at one time, when there was hardly any singing talent contest on radio or television, Talat Mahmood reigned supreme and it was almost next to impossible to sound like Talat Mahmood, especially since he was undoubtedly the one and only singer who was the most difficult to copy of one tried to sing in his style.

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It is interesting to note that though Talat Mahmood was selected by the great maestro Anil Biswas especially because he was quite impressed by his unique tremolo, when he came to the recording, he masked the tremolo by signing in a straight voice especially since he was not at all confident whether it was going to work for him or not and Anil, who had a discerning ear for music insisted that Talat maintain his uniqueness. The rest, they say is sheer history.Like Sonu Nigam has mentioned in the foreword of Sahar Zaman’s 358-page book, the unique texture of his voice, poise, his class has the quintessential combination of tremolo and vibrato, his pitch perfect rendition and his pathos is a case study for any sincere student of music.

Not many are perhaps aware of the fact that Talat Mahmood was the only singer with the greatest ratio of hits to his credit. Like his mentor Anil Biswas had once said, “Talat is the only singer whose every song is a classified hit and all singers from Mukesh to Lata have sung for me but while the other singers had their own share of flops. It is only Talat whose every song has become a big hit”. Not many are aware of the fact that Talat had learnt how to speak and sing in Bengali and assumed the pseudonym of Tapan Kumar and sung many songs in Bengali films before he landed in Mumbai. It was also Talat who was slated to sing all the songs for Madhumati but it was Talat who persuaded Dilip Kumar to let Mukesh sing all the songs and this selfless gesture endeared Talat to Dilip Kumar.

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