Lata Mangeshkar, our very own Koh-i-Noor (mountain of light), the Indian Malika-e-Tarannum (queen of melody), will always be one of the brightest jewels in the crown that adorns India’s rich and varied cultural landscape. She lent her voice to generations of actors over a brilliant and magnificent career spanning over six decades. Her repertoire traversed virtually every genre of Indian music, every major Indian language and all possible human emotions.
Lata Mangeshkar’s singing is typically described in hyperbolic terms, but the remarkable feature of her singing abilities is that no number of hyperbolic adjectives seem to adequately capture her musical virtuosity and genius. This is not to be dismissed as a manifestation of adoring, uncritical fandom: this is as true for the millions of her fans as for the connoisseurs.
Hindustani classical music maestros have commented on the perfection of her sur (pitch and tone), mastery over laya (rhythm) and her ability to produce very subtle and minute utterly gorgeous harkats and murkis (quick small variations) that lifted the melody to heights possibly beyond what the music director envisaged.
An unparalleled legend
As singers who have attempted to reproduce even a fraction of those subtle touches would know, these movements that sound so easy and effortless in her voice are impossibly difficult. The only singer who matches this talent is her sister Asha Bhosle.
Her individual life story resembles the script of many of the movies she sang for. The tragic and untimely death of her father led her to start working at the age of 13 when most girls are still playing with dolls. She did not attend regular school but learnt to read and write at home. Her attention to language and her perfectionism can be seen in the way she enunciates the lyrics of the language she sang in.
She initially tried her hand at acting but did not succeed, possibly because her looks did not fit the standards of conventional feminine beauty of the time. Despite her prodigious talent, her entry into playback singing was not a cakewalk. But after the 1949 super-success of Mahal (for which she sang “aayega aanewala”), there was no looking back. There have been excellent obituaries that capture various aspects of her life and career as it hit stratospheric heights.
Lata understood the exact emotion behind each song and transmitted that very precise sensation to her listeners, who felt as if that song was being sung for them individually, narrating their personal story: the first heady sensation of being in love, the exhilaration of the first kiss, the longing, the waiting, the desire, the romantic banter, rebellion against authority, the heartbreak, the dizzy heights of happiness, the depths of despair, patriotic pride, spiritualism and appeal to the divine, love for nature, philosophical musings, rejecting inequality and injustice – there is a Lata song that expresses all these emotions and states of being.
Proximity to power
Her life has been subject to intense scrutiny both during her lifetime and after her death. The internet is rife with all kinds of half-truths and misinformation. She busted many of those myths in her conversation with Nasreen Munni Kabir.
Many commentaries after her death were truly bizarre both because they had nothing to do with her music (her most defining characteristic), and because of their extreme self-righteousness that substituted for factual correctness. She was attacked for epitomising Brahmanical privilege, which was odd, to say the least, since she did not come from a Brahmin family.
Much ink has been spilt over her monopoly power. She was a superstar whose career intersected that of all the male movie superstars, some of whom she outlived: from Raj Kapoor to Dilip Kumar to Rajesh Khanna to Amitabh Bachchan to Shah Rukh Khan. Can anyone seriously argue that her superlative musical talent did not play a role in making their films super successful?
So many of us adore our male superstars but are quick to run Lata down. During her active years, she stood tall like a colossus in a male-dominated world. If we are determined not to discuss her music but other aspects of her personality, why not discuss how she managed to negotiate the very harsh and difficult world of Bombay cinema?
She, like other superstars from sports, industry and Bombay cinema, was friendly with the Shiv Sena chief, Bal Thackeray. One can (and should) discuss factors that made Shiv Sena so powerful in Mumbai and Maharashtra that it ended up developing alliances with a host of very prominent individuals.
Coming to Lata, the question to ask would be this: did her proximity to the Shiv Sena prevent her from forming deep friendships and bonds with Muslims? Some of her best output has been in collaboration with Muslim artists – actors, music directors, lyricists and poets.
Sound of inclusive India
For her, they were artists, human beings and her natural collaborators, whom she deeply respected. She never shied away from expressing her respect and love for them publicly. They were as much a part of her personal life as she was of theirs and their families’.
Her universal appeal was evident in the collective outpouring of grief and mourning that the nation plunged into as she left this earth. It did not matter that her death was foretold by her recent ill-health. When it actually happened the shock was heartfelt and palpable. It was not just Indians who were grieving as if they had lost a family member. The grief transcended national boundaries.
Lata Mangeshkar sang of harmony and love and her persona united India across divides – class, caste, religion, gender and linguistic. The despicable attempt to stir up controversy over Shah Rukh Khan’s dua at her funeral was massively rejected. This shows that there is an enormous number of people who refuse Lata’s memory to be tarnished by cheap and ugly gimmicks, and I daresay, by uninformed analyses.
As we bow our heads collectively in her memory, we would do well to revive and strengthen the inclusive India which is defined by the sweet sound of her music.
Ashwini Deshpande is Professor of Economics and Founding Director, Centre of Economic Data and Analysis at Ashoka University. She is passionate about Hindi film music and has written occasionally about it, including a long essay on Lata Mangeshkar as part of a debate.
This article first appeared on OpenAxis.