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Sunday, August 14, 2022

Lata Mangeshkar was India’s inner voice

She represented us collectively. She also represented each one of us in our singularity

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta
Updated: February 8, 2022 6:35:00 am
File photo of Lata Mangeshkar speaking at a function in Mumbai. (PTI)

It is a measure of Lata Mangeshkar’s achievement that all tributes and any adjectives seem like a gross understatement. It is hard to imagine any comparable artiste, in the annals of any country, who so saturated the cultural, emotional and affective life of their nation. This is not just a statistical achievement. The tens of thousands of songs recorded in 18 languages, the total domination of playback singing for a half century, the ability to define a whole genre of music, the innovations of tonality, pitch and modulation, would alone be formidable. But her impact cannot be measured in technical terms. A great artiste might give pitch perfect expression to a variety of emotions. Lata Mangeshkar went further: Her songs became the totality of our emotions to the point where it was impossible to think of an affective life outside of her songs.

Lata Mangeshkar was coming of age when a new nation was coming into being. But a new nation needed a new grammar across the whole gamut of our lives. It needed new cultural forms that could unite rather than divide a country just emerging from Partition. It is often said that Hindi cinema was that cultural form. But in retrospect that seems to be a bit of mischaracterisation. If Hindi cinema acquired a distinct identity as a genre it was largely because of playback singing. In retrospect, it is remarkable how much of that cinema is utterly forgettable. What is not forgettable is the music. The music became our public poetry and our public melody, it became our private therapy and consolation; it seemed to offer an utterance for every emotion and occasion: From loyalty to betrayal, from joy to sadness, from heightened spirits to the depths of despair. One can get too sophisticated about this. But it is hard to imagine an Indian, above a certain age, whose articulation of their inner life is not in the words of a Bollywood lyric. And the voice will invariably be Lata Mangeshkar’s.

It is in this context that Lata Mangeshkar’s playback singing achieved its unique status. Much can be written about the tone and pitch of her voice over the years. But what is indisputable is the fact that only she could give expression to literally every situation or emotional register. It is not just the melody, but that precision about words and emotions in her singing, that made her an ideal carrier of the totality of our lives. Someone once said, in a profound remark, that the greatness of playback singing in Bollywood’s halcyon days, was that no actor really needed to act. The entire affective burden of movies was carried by the songs: In fact the songs were the script, if there was such a thing.

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But the success of this genre required three things. It required great poetry and musical compositions. It required a genre of singing that exuded a sincerity with poetry that Lata Mangeshkar had in full measure. The singing would not overwhelm the meaning of the lyric, it would give it perfect expression. But most of all what it required was the creation of singers who could become everyone. The singer had to be a neutral enough medium so that they could appear to be every actor’s voice. But in a much more difficult act, the singer had to exude a kind of trust that they also became every listener’s voice and the grammar of their emotion. It is, I think, for this reason, more than anything else, that Bollywood playback singing was dominated by a few singers. For every time you heard a voice you also wanted it to be familiar so that you could think of it as your own.

Much has been said about how Lata Mangeshkar managed to define the pitch and tonality of what the Indian female singing voice should be like, often to the exclusion of many other registers. But this worry misses the point: Could such a playback role have been performed by any other voice, one in which everyone, as an individual, could find themselves?

It is difficult to gauge how significant she will be for future generations. It has to be said that there is no dearth of extraordinary musical talent, but the historical conditions that produce the need for a Lata Mangeshkar will probably never come again. The lyrics she sang will probably bear a greater burden of their gendered values, than, say, the ones that Rafi or Kishore got. (Just listen to that trance-like duet with Hemant Kumar, “Chupa lo yun dil mein pyaar mera”; the line “Tumhare charanon ka phool hun main” will now make you wince). For someone who sang in any every emotional register, it is hard to imagine a single song as a send-off: But try “Phaili hui hain sapanon ki bahein” from House No 44. It will be hard to come by a better combination of lilting innocence, and soaring dreams. The incomparable gift she gave us.

If Lata Mangeshkar became representative of India, it was because the lyrics she sang, and the forms in which she expressed them, contained all of India in them: All of its languages, cultural registers, even its conflicts. It was not benchmarking India to a single measure; it was rather connecting its superabundance. She could give voice to collective emotions and mark the turning points in its collective life, as in “Aye mere watan ke logo,” the song that made Nehru and a whole nation break down. But what made her the ideal representative of the new nation was not that she represented us collectively, but that she could represent each one of us in our singularity: In every role we can imagine.


Much has been made of the fact that her image was in part propelled by the ideal of the ascetic performer. She made the world of art acceptable to a conservative India, by projecting an ascetic femininity onto it, taking Bollywood out of a courtly grammar of self-presentation. But at the end of the day the focus on her persona, her personal asceticism, humility are beside the point. For it is the mark of her greatness that her music transcended every division and identity that was imposed on it. The most dedicated group of fans she has is in Pakistan, where identification with her is more vivid than in India. She had no equal and will never have one.

This column first appeared in the print edition on February 6, 2022 under the title ‘Our inner voice’. The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express.

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First published on: 07-02-2022 at 03:20:23 am
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