“I have an irresistible passion for performing on stage and I want to do something very radical, trend-setting, the like of which has never been attempted before on stage. I’ve observed the performances of artistes like Shirley Bassey Barbra Streisand, Olivia Newton-John, Diana Ross, Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones, Elvis Presley and, my greatest favourite, Nat King Cole. I have been impressed and influenced beyond words by their capacity to move the audience and also inspired to do something better,” Hemlata, as she discussed stage performances with me, had nearly forgotten that she had fever and instead of lying in bed as advised jumped up with excitement.
Today she can talk of these ambitious plans with coolness, she said, but had it not been for Mr. Gopal Mallik, a disciple of her father Pt. Jaichand Bhatt and now a Calcutta based music director, introducing her on stage at 12, stage singing and even playback singing would have been a distant dream for Hemlata.
Hemlata was born and brought up in a Rajasthani Brahmin family in Calcutta. Her father, Pt. Jaichand Bhatt, a very well known classical vocalist in Calcutta, of the illustrious kirana gharana and himself a disciple of Abdul Waheed Khan, was steeped in orthodox culture and was totally against her learning music, let alone performing on stage.
It was around the time Hemlata was 12 that Ravindra Jain, a disciple of Pt. Jaichand Bhatt, used to regularly visit their home and play his own compositions in Bengali on the harmonium and little Hemlata used to sing them. Hemlata’s mother encouraged her.
Gopal Mallik used to be on the organising committees of several big concerts and conferences. Once he managed to introduce Hemlata, 12 years old, before a large audience in a very big concert where Mohammed Rafi, Kishore Kumar, Hemant Kumar and Lata herself were to sing. He had especially invited Pt. Jaichand Bhatt to observe the performance of ‘a child prodigy’. At the same time, he kept it from Hemlata that her father would be in the audience, lest she ran out of breath and shivered. Rafi, Kishore and Hemanta Kumar all regaled the audience with their numbers. Lata was to arrive late. Gopal Mallik took the opportunity and produced little Hema on stage. Maestro V. Balsara was conducting the orchestra. They asked her what she was going to sing. “Jago mohan pyare”, she said. They refused to play it as Lataji herself was going to sing it. However, with hesitation they finally agreed to accompany her. “And believe me, even as I sang the first word Jago in a prolonged aalap the whole audience roared in appreciation. I finished the song but couldn’t leave the stage as the audience demanded ‘once more’. And you will be surprised, I had to sing the song four times and the appreciation didn’t stop at that—they made me sing 12 other songs in Bengali. It was a breathtaking experience for myself and the audience.
“For once, my father looked very happy with me. But it proved to be an illusion for me as he maintained that I must complete my studies, render help at home and in due course get married and so on”
All the same, her father expressed a desire to meet their relatives in Bombay whom they hadn’t seen for long. And he came to Bombay in 1967 with his family. While in Bombay they visited Ustad Rais Khan. Hemlata was asked to sing and she sang one of her favourite compositions (Bengali) of Ravindra Jain. Next Hemlata received an invitation from Naushad. “Naushadji asked me to sing and was very happy that I was singing a non-filmic composition.
“Incidentally I was invited by Usha Khanna for whom I sang my first ever song in a film. And the next I sang for Kalyanjibhai. I must say here that the two persons who I respect most and admire most besides of course my father, are Ravindra Jain, who is my mentor and Kalyanjibhai—an extremely lovable personality.
“By now my father was reasonably proud of me and my success and, instead of going back to our place, Calcutta, we decided to stay on. Incidentally, Ravindra Jain also came to Bombay and started scoring music for Hindi films. Unfortunately his first film “Saudagar” was a flop. About the next one “Chor Machaye Shor”, Ravindra was terribly worried, but the film was a super hit and so was his music which brought him about 60 new contracts. And once he got established he gave me a break in his “Fakira” and later used my voice for “Chitchor” which fetched me the coveted Filmfare Award.
“Do you know one thing? I had stopped singing for over four years in the meanwhile as I found something lacking in my voice—that ‘maturity’ which comes only with age. During that period I used to practice before a mike on the tape recorder, and it was only when I was fully confident and sure that I have overcome that drawback that I resumed singing. It was a foolish decision, though, in commercial terms, but having been born a daughter to a classical musician and belonging to a family where criticism is always sharp, I feel I did the right thing. Ultimately, music is a sadhana, a tapasya, not mere business.” – This interview was conducted in 1980