What does one even say when a divine voice that has been a musical companion to generations of Indians is silenced forever? Lata Mangeshkar was, without exaggeration, the voice of a nation—and the sense of loss that has enveloped millions after her death is deep and palpable.
Much has been written about Lata’s extraordinary life and gargantuan achievements. How she shouldered the responsibility of her mother and four younger siblings at the tender age of 13 after her father, singer-theatre artiste Dinanath Mangeshkar, passed away in 1942. How she struggled for seven years before taking the Hindi film music scene by storm in 1949 with her songs in Mahal, Barsaat, and Andaz. How she sang for heroines from Madhubala and Meena Kumari to Kajol and Preity Zinta in her glorious career of over six decades. How she learned immaculate Urdu after Dilip Kumar made a stray remark about her Marathi accent being unsuitable for the songs of those days. How she brought tears to Jawaharlal Nehru’s eyes with her rendition of Ay mere watan ke logon. Or how she wowed even classical musicians with her masterly command over sur.
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The eulogies and veneration were accompanied by one unkind allegation from some quarters—that the singer wilfully suppressed all other female vocal talent in the film industry. This allegation, which dogged Lata from the 1960s, reached its peak in the age of social media where hearsay is uninhibitedly and vociferously passed off as fact. I have neither the desire nor the knowledge to comment on the accusation itself, which may perhaps be partly true though heavily exaggerated. However, a delineation of what Lata Mangeshkar was and why she became such a legend will bring out why much of this talk is unnuanced and does not take several factors into account.
First off is Lata’s heavenly voice: pristine, soulful, and suffused with sweetness and purity. No other singer, however talented, could match her on this particular quality. And, in what could only be a gift from God, the voice was accompanied by incredible talent. Lata had a range that spanned three octaves, an ability to pick up tunes instantly and, moreover, embellish them with her own interpretations—she is known to have composed her own alaaps for her songs and these, along with her murki-harkats, added immeasurably to the compositions. Anyone who’s ever listened to the scratch tunes sung by composers and then rendered by Lata will realise how she transformed a song, whether it was Mai ri from Dastak, Naina barse from Woh Kaun Thi or any other.
This rare combination of gifts, especially her stunning range, is what music directors say ‘liberated’ them from the 1950s onwards. Before Lata, female voices in the Hindi film industry had a very different tonal quality—singers like Shamshad Begum, Rajkumari, Zohrabai Ambalewali, and Noorjehan, albeit very talented, had heavier voices and sang at a lower pitch. Lata sang in Kali 1 or Kali 2 (C# and D# on the western scale), and music directors could thus compose freely without being fettered by the range of their singer. Many composers from Naushad to Anil Biswas to Salil Chowdhury have testified to this, and Lata herself has spoken about how she was often angry with composers like Shankar-Jaikishan for making her sing in a very high scale in songs like Aji rooth kar ab kahan jaaiyega from Arzoo. “My ears turned red while navigating the upper notes of the antara,” she’d once said. “I told them, ‘Main ooncha ga sakti hoon, iska matlab hai kuch bhi compose karoge?’ ”
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Apart from being a composers’ delight, there was another factor that played out in the success of Lata Mangeshkar as a playback singer. Film songs are not independent entities; they are mouthed by actors on screen and play a big role in enhancing the latter’s role and image. The late gossip columnist Devyani Chaubal had once made a very perceptive remark: she said that Lata, with her sweet, high, perennially girlish voice brought ‘youth’ to the film heroine. No one realised this more than the heroines themselves, many of whom had a clause in their contracts that their songs would be sung by Lata alone. And Lata’s voice brought them not only youth but beauty and verisimilitude as well; being a great mimic, she strove to sound like the actress she was singing for (watch Saira Banu sing Unse mili nazar from Jhuk Gaya Aasmaan). Conversely, to get the full import of what Lata (and Asha) did for heroines, one only has to watch a song like Titli udi from Suraj sung by Sharada and picturised on Vyjayanthimala—not all the latter’s natural grace and expressiveness can save her from appearing slightly comical.
Lata Mangeshkar sang in almost every Indian language but the ones she truly enriched were Hindi and her mother tongue Marathi. Her stupendous fan base runs the gamut from the most humble listeners to accomplished classical musicians like Amjad Ali Khan, Amir Khan, Bhimsen Joshi and Jasraj. Yehudi Menuhin once told her that he could only “try to recreate her marvellous singing” on his violin while Bade Ghulam Ali Khan famously said of her: “Kambakht kabhi besuri nahin hoti! Yeh to Allah ka karishma hai. (Damn, she never goes off-key. What a miracle of Allah!)”
Also read: When Lata worked with Ilayaraaja, SPB for popular Tamil numbers
The maestros critically appraised and admired her music; the masses felt it. Lata’s songs unobtrusively became a part of every life, mirroring every human emotion while always remaining uplifting. As eminent Marathi writer Vi Sa Khandekar once wrote: “In the twilight years of my life, many an evening when I go for a walk, the setting sun fills me with an unspeakable longing… As I drag my old feet homeward in the gathering dusk, I feel engulfed in a deep melancholy. And then comes this heady whiff of rajanigandha blossoms or some stray note of a Lata Mangeshkar song, and I feel life is still worth living.”
Words like ‘phenomenon’, ‘icon’ and ‘end of an era’ are well-worn clichés but they’re simple truths in Lata Mangeshkar’s case. She was much more than just a singer – she was the voice of cinema for over six decades, the voice that played over the radio every single day and was the unifying force of a nation and its collective musical consciousness. It’s difficult and saddening to accept that she is no more.
As the sun set over Shivaji Park in Mumbai, where her mortal remains were consigned to the flames on February 6, millions over the country mourned the demise of the body that was a vehicle for a mesmeric voice like no other. Blessedly, the voice will live on forever.
Jab hum na honge, jab hamari khaakh pe tum rukoge chalte chalte
Ashkon se bheegi chandni mein ek sada si sunoge chalte chalte
Wahin pe kahin hum tumse milenge
ban ke kali, ban ke saba, baagh-e-wafa mein
Rahein na rahein hum, mehka karenge
ban ke kali, ban ke saba baagh-e-wafa mein
(Radha Rajadhyaksha is a freelance writer and editor).
(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not reflect the views of The Federal).