Updated: February 7, 2022 8:53:37 am
Artistes, by nature, shape-shift. The calling, intensity, purpose and expression change as they make and unmake themselves and, in turn, their craft in the journey of life.
The work of true artistes has the power to inspire, tear apart, hurt and heal. Living at the crossroads of potential and manifestation, very few transcend to immortalise their craft. Lata Mangeshkar was this artiste and more.
They say she was 92. The lilt in her intonation, the twinkle in her eyes and the agility of her wit belied a young girl at heart. The voice of Lata Mangeshkar — the nightingale of India, Bharat Ratna, swar kokila, queen of melody — has journeyed through generations of Indians, in fact, generations of people across the Indian subcontinent. Her voice and songs crossed geographical and generational boundaries. Independent India’s last seven-and-a-half decades and living memories have one constant — Lata Mangeshkar. Today, for many who have never met her but have just heard her voice, it seems that they are in mourning for the death of a family member. And indeed so, for her voice has been a companion, through the flush of young love and romance — Chalo sajna jahan tak ghata chale (Mere Hamdam Mere Dost, 1968), Ehsaan tera hoga mujh par (Junglee, 1961), Lag ja gale (Woh Kaun Thi?, 1964) — to poignant moments — Bekas pe karam (Mughal-E-Azam, 1960), Jo humne dastan apni sunayi (Woh Kaun Thi?), from sheer devotion — Ae malik tere bande (Do Aankhen Barah Haath, 1957), Jyoti kalash chhalke (Bhabhi Ki Chudiyan, 1961), Vaishnav jan to, to empowerment — Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai (Guide, 1965), and from loss — Luka chuppi (Rang De Basanti, 2006), Dil hoom hoom kare (Rudaali, 1993) to collective pain — Ae mere watan ke logon… the list is rich.
Can a single voice have the mastery, the power to reach out to the soul, skim myriad sentiments and deep dive into an ocean of emotions? What made Lata Mangeshkar so valuable as an artiste? Her formidable talent, her rooted classical music training, her love for the language or the single-minded devotion to her chosen path? Perhaps, all of these and, maybe, none of these. For, I believe that a true artiste is always seeking — to fill a gap, to surpass herself, to find the sublime. It’s this search that defines an artiste’s journey. Lataji sang for not a classical but a popular art form, the world of cinema, demonstrating once again that there is no — nor ought to be — high-brow or low-brow art form; that what shines through the field of art is the sheer calibre of the artiste.
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For me, Lataji signified a blessing. As a young 20-something, I was fortunate to have had the legendary Lata Mangeshkar sing my first Hindi film song for Lajja (2001), directed by Rajkumar Santoshi. The illustrious Ilaiyaraajaji was the composer. It was a dream debut for someone like me, unconnected to the film industry. I recall I was in the midst of an ad film shoot on the outskirts of Mumbai when I got a call informing me that Lataji would be going to the studio in Mahalaxmi that evening to record the song and wanted the team to be present. Racing against time, I wrapped up my shoot and got into the car. A few kilometres down, amid the sea of vehicles in the infamous Mumbai traffic, I realised there was little chance of me reaching the studios on time. Thoughts raced in my head; how could I, as a professional, not be present for my work and more critically, how could I ever lose the opportunity to witness Lataji — the great Lata Mangeshkar — render voice to my words? I got off the car and ran to the local train station only to confront the swarming sea of humanity that Mumbai is during peak hours. Jostling my way through, I daresay without a ticket, for there was simply not a nanosecond to spare, I somehow made it to the studios a second before Lataji entered. Collecting myself under her penetrating gaze, I read aloud the lyrics. She had studied them already and launched into a discussion on the use of the word “pawan” (wind), about its grammar, whether in Hindi it is masculine or feminine. After a discussion where I convinced her about its usage in my lines, she smiled and said, “Aap apna kaam jaante hain, aapko aata hai (you know your work)”. Coming from Lataji, who had worked with great poets and lyricists, I was simply thrilled. It was a blessing to have begun my journey with greats like Ilaiyaraaja and Lataji.
Some years later, we met again at AR Rahman’s studios in Chennai to record Rang De Basanti’s Luka chuppi, a poignant song made immortal in her voice. This was the last song written in the film, an afterthought that struck us after watching the initial rushes. Rahman got cracking, and came up with the opening bars of the mukhda (refrain). The scene was of the state funeral of a young Indian Air Force officer who had sacrificed his life. However, rather than a predictable deshbhakti (patriotic) song for this scene, the thought which struck me was that of a mother’s loss of her only child and her memories of his childhood, of the game of hide-and-seek between a mother and her little son. The only difference here is that the son is now hidden forever. Lataji caught onto the heartbreaking loss and emotion of this song. It was an experience seeing her immerse herself. She was a legend but dedicated herself to the song like a newcomer. She refused to take her art or her stature for granted. She took two to three days, memorised the entire piece, and rehearsed it. Only then did she record the song. I think the recording went on for seven-eight hours, and she stood all through despite her advancing age. Luka chuppi has her immortal touch — a song which, even now, moistens the eyes and moves many a heart.
Lataji was blessed. Perhaps, the inexplicable is expressed through true artistes, for they are not just talents but an energy field, a manifestation of a divine boon. A gifted artiste should not be dissected, for they are layered, and what should truly matter is how deeply one was moved by the sheer force of her talent.
For those who decried her for expressing staunch support to her beliefs, the governance and love for the nation, the shallowness of that judgement and the magnitude of her genius will, perhaps, be felt more today. For what better tribute can there be than to have us sing in unison — in honour of a voice that
Death is not always a matter of sadness; it also connotes a completion. Lataji has completed her journey with aplomb. She leaves behind a lilting legacy which will hum and sing to our soul.
(Prasoon Joshi is a poet, lyricist and chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification)
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