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Obituary: Talat Mahmood

FOR OVER two decades, the soft, quavering voice of Talat Mahmood mesmerised India with haunting love songs.

Until the late Sixties, Talat, as he was popularly known, was the playback singer (whose singing is heard while actors mime the words) in over 200 films produced in "Bollywood", India's film capital city of Bombay.

His songs continue to be played and avidly listened to on All India Radio. Ghazals, or romantic couplets, in his native Urdu were his forte, and he sang them with a verve or a mournfulness few could attain. He also sang over 250 memorable hit songs in Hindi, Bengali and even Gujarati.

A good-looking and dapper man, Talat also acted in a dozen or so films in the Fifties, including box-office successes like Raftar ("Speed") and Sone ki Chidia ("Golden Bird"). However he preferred singing to acting, and got his break as a playback singer in 1951 in Arzoo ("Love"). Thereafter he sang unforgettable, haunting numbers in classic films like Ashiana ("Lover"), Saqi ("Wine"), Anhonee ("Strangers") and Taxi Driver, raising ghazal singing to a rare art form. The success or failure of Indian films is frequently determined by their songs.

Born into a middle-class Muslim family in the northern Indian city of Lucknow in 1924, Talat took a fancy to singing as an adolescent, much to his father's chagrin. Lucknow in the Twenties was still a licentious city of indolent nawabs (Muslim noblemen), who considered themselves and their city the epitome of style and manners.

As capital of the former state of Oudh - modern day Uttar Pradesh - it was one of the richest Indian kingdoms in the 17th and 18th centuries and a repository of Muslim culture, poetry and cuisine. The modern-day nawabs frittered away their wealth on soirees and ended up paupers, clinging on to their anachronistic lifestyles.

Talat began frequenting record shops and the local All India Radio studio, fascinated by the romantic songs of the legendary ghazal singer Kundan Lal Saigal and the lilting numbers that daily rang across the bazaars of the old city.

He joined the Morris College of Music at Lucknow but was soon, in the early 1940s, picked by a talent scout from His Master's Voice (HMV) and taken to Calcutta for a recording session. Almost overnight Talat became a sensation, with the memorable song, "Your Picture was Not Enough to Thrill my Heart". It sold over 100,000 copies.

A highly cultured and refined man, Talat Mahmood had impeccable taste for the good things of life. Soon after his song became a hit, a Bollywood film producer, impressed by hisgood looks, obvious style and snappy dressing cast him in several films. But he also was quick to recognise Talat's immense singing talent and turned him into India's leading playback singer.

Talat Mahmood, singer: born Lucknow, India 24 February 1924; married (one son, one daughter); died Bombay 9 May 1998.