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Explained: The Lata Mangeshkar phenomenon

What made Lata Mangeshkar, who died on Sunday, the soundtrack for generations in the subcontinent? Exploring the musician through her songs, her commitment to perfection, and the women she gave voice to

Then PM Jawaharlal Nehru with Lata Mangeshkar in Mumbai in May 1960. (Express Archive)

When a newly-independent India, still coming to terms with the bloodbath of the Partition, heard Lata Mangeshkar sing Yun hi muskuraye ja, aansu piye ja… uthaye ja unke sitam from the Nargis Dutt-Raj Kapoor-Dilip Kumar-starrer Andaz (1949), it seemed like a salve for broken hearts. When the song reached the other side of the border, the Naushad composition had the same effect — after all, the separation pangs were the same on either side. The song turned a 20-year-old Mangeshkar, a newcomer from Kolhapur, into a superstar and the gold standard of genius.

Kambakhat, galti se bhi besuri nahi hoti,” Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali had once said of her. Indeed, so pervasive was Mangeshkar’s influence that generations have grown up listening to her, singing her songs, and, in the case of women musicians, aspiring to be like her.

If Hindi films have been the life of India’s masses, the soundtrack to their lives has been its music. The audience formed an emotional connection with the singers: you were either a Rafi believer or a Kishore Kumar acolyte. But when it came to Mangeshkar, she was the undisputed queen, who could sing everything from bhajans such as Allah tero naam (Hum Dono, 1961, composed by Jaidev and penned by Sahir Ludhianvi) to love songs such as Ye zindagi usi ki hai (Anarkali, 1953) or nostalgic numbers such as Mere saaya saath hoga (Mera Saaya, 1966).

Through several decades, Lata Mangeshkar sang for the righteous and chaste Indian woman on-screen, while her sister Asha Bhosle sang numbers that called for sensuality. Mangeshkar had such charisma that filmmakers and composers realised very early on that having her in a project signalled credibility and impeccable standards. Much before a film was shot, the composer, lyricist and singers were signed on for the project. This meant that several films that did badly at the box office had outstanding music helmed by Mangeshkar, that reached listeners through radio, a ubiquitous mode of entertainment in those early days after Independence. In fact, it was radio that took her voice to different parts of the country and made her synonymous with Hindi playback singing.

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Undisputed queen

Singing for various heroines

Mangeshkar never took talent for granted. She would spend time on her rehearsals, practise her diction and ensure immaculate renditions. Once, when superstar Dilip Kumar told her to improve her diction, she asked a family friend, an imam, to come and teach her to read and write Urdu. She sang in a range of Indian languages — from Bengali to Marathi — her mother tongue — to Punjabi. If those in Punjab sang alongside her rendition of Baba Bulleh Shah’s Heer, those in Maharashtra swayed to the tune of her Saanwre rang rachi and her Na jeyo na was a staple at every Durga Puja function in West Bengal. She was a unifying factor, who brought the nation together as a repository of its culture, entertainment and, of course, music.

As films moved to less formulaic tropes, Bollywood, too, underwent changes. Directors moved towards authenticity in representation, and, here Mangeshkar was a huge success, setting standards in playback singing.  She sang the way her heroines spoke, moving away from the thick, nasal gayaki popularised by Noor Jehan or Shamshad Begum, that had, till then been the standard. She could sing for an entire range of characters — from a poetry-loving village girl in a prison (Mora gora ang layi le, Bandini, 1963), to a witty and defiant courtesan in Akbar’s Sheesh Mahal (Pyaar kiya toh darna kya, Mughal-e-Azam, 1960), to a woman savouring the rains as she shares an umbrella with the man she loves (Pyaar huya iqrar huya, Shri 420, 1955) to an emotional mother trying to fend for her children by ploughing the field (Duniya mein hum aaye hain toh, Mother India, 1957), to a young woman who has just broken away from the shackles of a claustrophobic relationship (Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai, Guide, 1965) to a young singer who’s lost her unborn child (Tere mere milan ki, Abhimaan, 1973). And who can forget Kavi Pradeep’s seminal Aye mere watan ke logo, in the wake of the Sino-Indian war of 1962, that reduced then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru to tears and has been a fixture at every patriotic function for nearly five decades?

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One of the lesser-known facts about Mangeshkar is that she transformed the way Indian music concerts were perceived in the West. Her first performance outside of India was at London’s prestigious Royal Albert Hall in 1974. Until then, film music concerts were song-and-dance affairs held in community halls and colleges and rarely taken seriously. Mangeshkar made a demand that was inconceivable back then — she asked to sing in mainstream halls only. This was an honour that until then bestowed upon classical musicians as a result of Pandit Ravi Shankar’s collaborations and performances in the West. But it was an honour afforded to her.

Lata Mangeshkar passed away on February 6, 2022

Committed to perfection

Even when technology brought in changes, demanding less and less finesse on part of playback singers, fixing flaws in pitch and sur on the console instead, Mangeshkar remained steadfast in her commitment to perfection. Until the 1990s, when Mangeshkar sang more regularly, performances resembled live-stage performances, preceded by extensive rehearsals. They were communal affairs, with 100-piece orchestras divided into string, wind and rhythm sections, coming together in mammoth studios to record one song. If one didn’t nail it the first time, the process had to be repeated all over again. But the arrival of auto-tuners changed the game and that used to rankle with her.

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If she taught the musicians how to approach music with clarity and focus, for listeners, she was an institution in herself. In her death, India has lost one of her most revered musicians, but she has left behind an immaculate oeuvre that will continue to give listeners joy, comfort and courage for times to come.

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First published on: 07-02-2022 at 07:08 IST
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