Much has been said and written about the voice that reigned over Hindi film playback singing for more than seven decades. Lata Mangeshkar’s musical career spanned multiple genres and languages, and the “thin” voice that some film directors in the 1940s found inadequate has now achieved a near mythical status.
Mangeshkhar died on Sunday in Mumbai. She was 92. For her countless fans, she was and remains irreplaceable. Music director Ghulam Haider, who first saw potential in the scrawny little girl and helped her find a foothold in the studios, would have felt vindicated.
Those who were born in the 1940s clung to their little radios or stopped in the streets to catch strains of Hawa Mein Udta Jaaye. In the 1960s, they listened, stung yet stoic, as she sang in memory of soldiers who died fighting in an unexpected war. That generation’s children snuck out of their rooms in the middle of exam prep to sing along to Kabootar Ja Ja Ja as Maine Pyar Kiya played on cable TV in 1991. And the millennials may not have heard her best work but know and probably appreciate the quaint charm of Tere Liye in Veer Zara, recognising it as quintessentially Lata.
Her voice is often referred to as “pure” and “virginal”. That allusion may have been to notions of “Indian womanhood” – a difficult category in itself – that her voice supposedly reflected, and which filmmakers may have found appealing.
However, it was probably also the freshness that she brought to the studio as a young singer and the competence that came with her training in Hindustani classical music, which got her off to a solid start in the business. The “purity” many felt and heard might, in fact, have been the marked absence of any specific character in her voice that lent itself, therefore, to all kinds of genres and nearly every role played by the actors. She made it easy for music directors – you couldn’t go wrong with Lata Mangeshkar. In that sense, she may indeed have been the voice of Everywoman.
Sung at age 20, Sajan Ki Galiyan (Bazar, 1949) has the innocence and clarity that one might expect from a young singer. A mature voice might have brought more pathos to the song. But here was a 20-year-old who had been performing since she was a child. The ease with which she slipped into the song would have made up for the lack of gravitas.
Which is why she really came into her own in the classical numbers. In an interview, Mangeshkar confessed that she would have loved to pursue Hindustani classical music if she had had the choice. Her vocal range is tested in Man Mohana Bade Jhoothe, and in the several Hindustani raag-based compositions by Naushad in Mughal-e-Azam, in Ghulam Mohammed’s Thare Rahiyo in Pakeezah (1970), and particularly in Baiyan Na Dharo in Dastak, scored by Madan Mohan.
She also excelled in devotional music, for example, in the Marathi abhangs and the exquisite Dnyaneshwari scored by her brother, Hridaynath Mangeshkar. Here too, she showed that she was not merely the master of the high-pitched melody. In Pasaayadan and Mogra Phulala, there is an effortless descent into the lower octaves.
From Mahal (1949), one of her first hits, to Shankar Jaikishen’s glorious run in the 1950s and 1960s (Ajeeb Dastan Yai Heh, Rasik Balma) – and SD Burman’s scores in Sazaa, Bandini, Sujata, – Mangeshkar’s juggernaut showed no signs of stopping. She also transcended the influence of former reigning stalwarts Noor Jehan and Shamshad Begum – hints of their styles can be heard in Sajan Ki Galiyan and Aayega Aanewala respectively – and found her own voice.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Mangeshkar sang for Salil Chowdhury in Madhumati, Parakh, for the exacting Sajjad Hussain in Sangdil (Woh to Chale Gaye Ae Dil), and for Roshan, matching his sweeping sarangis in numbers like Jurm-e-Ulfat Pe (Taj Mahal, 1963).
Some of her best work was with Madan Mohan, one of her favourite composers, in Woh Kaun Thi?, Mera Saaya – the popular Zara Si Aahat and Lag Ja Gale, and the lesser known, complex, sinuous Mai Ri that a lesser singer might have found daunting.
It would have been unfair and unrealistic to expect any voice to retain its youthful quality forever. By the 1980s, the Mangeshkar magic had ebbed, but filmmakers and music directors appeared unwilling to let the voice fade away completely, almost as if it was a lucky charm. Mangeshkar’s repertoire includes hundreds of songs that were run of the mill or mediocre. The jury is also still out as to why she chose to continue singing past her prime and why music directors selected her over the many stellar voices that had emerged.
With the exception of a few – such as OP Nayyar, who went against the norm to team up with Asha Bhosle – most composers appeared to be content with the status quo. Some did experiment, even during the heyday of Lata’s reign.
For example, SD Burman used Asha Bhosle for the tender Ab Ke Baras in Bandini (1963). Here was a classic Lata kind of number that found its way to Bhosle and sparkled all the same. Suman Kalyanpur shone briefly, but with a voice that was often confused for Mangeshkar’s –she was only ever considered a substitute.
What was it about her voice that filmmakers and music composers just couldn’t let go of Lata Mangeshkar? They won’t tell us. She sang the best scores of the 1990s – Lekin, Rudaali, Maachis, all grave, often Hindustani classical-based soundtracks, but also the perky Dil To Pagal Hai. In the 2000s, AR Rahman, who consistently brought dynamism to film soundtracks by choosing fresh, diverse voices, had Lata Mangeshkar numbers in at least five soundtracks.
By now, movie audiences and listeners had a vast range of playback singers to look forward to. And yet, a Lata song never jarred. For many, it was perhaps not the myth of a divine, matchless voice but the warm comfort of a familiar one, one that had travelled with them as they grew up and echoed their dreams and prayers, or had been the stuff of antaksharis and colony singing competitions where you didn’t need to bring synthesizers and only a decent melody would do.
Perhaps that is Lata Mangeshkar’s legacy: the vast trove of impeccable melodies that came her way and to which she gave her all. We will always have a Lata song for every mood, situation and aspiration. It will almost always be one of the old ones.