Updated: February 7, 2022 12:00:49 pm
“Like art, revolutions come from combining what exists into what has never existed before”: Gloria Steinem
Lata was one of the three daughters born to a well-known performer in Marathi theatre, Dinanath Mangeshkar. Her father recognised her talent early on, and began training her when she was only five. Her younger and very talented sister Asha Bhosle told the Dogri poet Padma Sachdev later how their lives changed when their father passed away suddenly. The eldest, Lata didi, was only 13. The family first went to stay with their mother’s family in Thalner village in Dhule, then moved to Mumbai to a small house in Nana Chowk. Lata ji’s initial years in the Mumbai film industry of the early ’40s were full of struggle. Music directors used to the loud and somewhat shrill and nasal voices of singing stars from courtesan families, were reluctant to give the frail teenager a chance for playback singing. They found her voice “too thin”.
A person less in need of money may have argued and told them that screen voices needed to be more natural and fluid in the age of the new recording technology. But Lata’s overwhelming need was to earn enough for her family of three siblings and a widowed mother. So she played Eliza Doolittle to their Professor Higgins for a while. Flexibility is something young fatherless children learn early on in life. Lata did too. But like a true singer, even as she adapted to the composers’ demands, she kept alive her classically trained real voice and soon rose to be the patron saint of the “new” female voice of independent India. With her first hit song Aayega aanewala, from Mahal, she was no longer the awkward in-between singer. Even the great Bade Ghulam Ali Khan sahib is reported to have said of her that ever since he heard her sing in Raga Yaman, he forgot his own rendering, and that the girl just never goes off-key (Jab se iss ladki ka Yaman kaan mein pada, main apna wala Yaman bhool gaya! Kambakht kabhi besuri hi nahin hoti!). Another great composer of film music, Naushad, wrote about her: Watch her voice leap up like a ball of fire (Shola sa lapak jaaye hai, awaaz tau dekho!).
In the ’50s, Lata Mangeshkar was an undisputed star singing for all renowned composers: Shankar-Jaikishan, Naushad, SD Burman, Laxmikant-Pyarelal, Hemant Kumar and Madan Mohan. She sang some of the biggest hits for Madhubala in Mughal-e-Azam, including the timeless, Mohey panghat pe Nandlal…. Her long and distinguished career is not a tragic tale of continuing to shoulder the burden of someone else’s idea of how a woman should sing. She was a genuinely many-voiced singer who considered it an asset to be able to sing for a Madhubala, a Jaya Bachchan and even a Preity Zinta. Hers was a voice of a simple but grand inheritance from Marathi theatre, also a realisation of the paternal dreams and aspirations she had imbibed as a young girl. She was a rock to her family till the end.
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Still it would be wrong to pin her down to a single identity, of a grand dowager queen of music, all white sarees, and an isolation of fervent religiosity and meditational silences. True, as an individual, Lata ji remained fiercely protective of her private life. But she was very much her own person. She did not follow the usual pattern of marriage, children and the possibility of a life long contention with a male who felt his masculinity threatened by an eminent wife. She chose, instead, to sing as and when and how she wished, and maintain her personal relationships with various men and women she cared for. She had little interest in theatrics. Her love for all things, from diamond jewellery to devotional music, was not a put-on act. Those aesthetics came naturally to her like to so many of our great musicians. But one admires her for, even as she pursued her music, rightly demanding that musicians be paid royalties, not be sent off with a one-time payment. If this created some disaffection between her and a few big ticket male singers, so be it. Her innate understanding of her self worth remained subtle and capacious till the very end.
Another loveable part of Lata Mangeshkar’s life was her deep and genuine love for cricket. In the cricket establishment she found the action-man dimension perhaps of a father she had lost early in her life. Stories about her romantic dedication to one such legend were also rife over the years. But she chose not to marry for reasons we will never know. The truth or otherwise remained between them. She never cared to discuss it publicly and none of the columnists and society reporters dared ask her about it. She did make clear that she did not wish to be reborn. Ever. And that her favourite poet was Meera Bai who sang Mai mai, kaise jiyun ree (Oh my mother how can I survive)”. “One should gracefully accept sorrow like happiness”, she said in one of her last interviews to a Mumbai daily.
Of late, one sees a sudden swell in those who claim to have known her over the years and emphasise how she sang because Veer Savarkar urged her to sing or that singing a song like, Ai mere watan ke logo… was an ideal public display of true rashtra bhakti. From what one gathers about this unusually gifted singer, she abhorred histrionics or public displays of love or hate. She was among those like George Bernard Shaw who believed that patriotism is basically a conviction that the best country is the one that one is born in.
Professionally and personally, the marvellous weight of the pleasure her singing gives embarrasses hyperbolic tributes. Certainly, obituaries will call her “the last of a kind”, the “Sur Saraswati” in Hindi film music or “the greatest female singer in the Bollywood firmament”. For once, they will not be soppy clichés, for once they will ring true.
This column first appeared in the print edition on February 6, 2022 under the title ‘Lata ji’. The writer is former chairperson, Prasar Bharati
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