How Lata Mangeshkar drew deeply from classical music

Perfection Lata Mangeshkar’s voice apart was

Updated - February 12, 2022 07:51 pm IST

Published - February 10, 2022 06:10 pm IST

Lata Mangeshkar

Lata Mangeshkar

Many musicians have held sway over the collective Indian consciousness, but Lata Mangeshkar’s magic spanned six generations with a career that lasted seven decades. Was it her voice? Flawless diction? Classicism? Or emotion? These attributes describe some aspects of her music, but to codify her music in such easy descriptions would be to undervalue it.

Often, the femininity factor has been invoked. Lata’s voice was that of the ‘ideal Indian woman’, said theorists. Nearly six years after her debut, Lata took the Hindi film industry by storm in 1949 with the film Barsaat . Did this happen in the absence of the other phenomenal singers of those times? Noor Jahan had moved to Pakistan, but Shamshad Begum, Amirbai Karnataki, Suraiya and Surinder Kaur were still singing.

“What was special about Lata’s voice?” asks film music critic Ashok Kumar Tyagi in his essay on Lata Mangeshkar (2010), and goes on to say, “Let us ask what was special about the voice of Noorjehan, Shamshad, Geeta Dutt or Asha Bhosle. Now this is easy to answer. Every one of them had something very distinct that suited a particular genre. Someone had a deep-throated voice, a nasal twang or full voice, some had a vivacious voice... But Lata’s was pure music.” Indeed, various writers have noted how Lata’s ultra-feminine voice was considered to better suit the idea of womanhood being constructed in the years after Independence than the sensuous, deep or vivacious voices that preceded her.

Yet, when you listen to the wonderful song composed by Naushad for the film, Aan (1952), a duet by Shamshad Begum and Lata Mangeshkar, you neither get a sense of augmented nor diminished femininity in either of their voices. As Ashok Kumar says, they are beautiful with their own strengths. Perhaps the ‘ideal Indian woman’s voice’ argument also lacks force because one can list so many of Lata’s stunning renditions that were not so. ‘Yeh kahan aagaye hum’ from Silsila could be one example.

More than voice

Any such search will only end up equating a good voice with good music. But Lata’s success did not come from her voice alone. The 1940s to 1970s was the golden period of film music. Lata became the voice that carried diverse traditions, imaginations and geniuses — C. Ramachandra, Shrinivas Kale from Maharashtra, Anil Biswas, S.D. Burman from Bengal, Madan Mohan from Punjab, Dhaniram, Naushad from Uttar Pradesh, Lakshman Berlekar, Khayyam and Roshan. Her film music repertoire was enriched by khayal, thumri, ghazal, bhavgeet, abhang, bhajan, and pop. But to each of these genres she brought the seriousness and rigour of classical music.

Lata hailed from a family of classical musicians. Her paternal grandmother Yesubai, a devadasi, had the reputation of being an impeccable musician. Her father Deenanath Mangeshkar was trained under the Gwalior maestro Ramakrishna Bua Vaze. Lata was not only put through the rigours of classical music by her father, she also took lessons from Ustad Aman Ali Khan of Bhendibazar gharana. In her early years, she sang and acted in theatre. With such a legacy, it is little surprise that her singing was chaste and perfect but with an element of drama when needed. Most importantly, her accuracy of scale and pitch was exemplary. “The voice was not only perfectly pitched, it was also steeped in musicality,” says Shubha Mudgal.

Lata sang a lot of classical-based film songs. ‘Aaja aaja bhanwar’ from Rani Rupamati ( 1957, raag Brindavan Sarang) is an excellent example. The opening note of the song is the upper octave rishabha and mimics a drut bandish. The bandish flows into fast-paced boltaans which, in turn, flow into the climax that ends in the fourth octave. ‘Sanware Sanware’ from Anuradha (1960, raag Bhairavi) is another. Composed by Pt. Ravi Shankar, it is a breezy composition that opens in the third octave in the pancham swar, and has short, arrow-like taans, packed into a tight rhythm framework. ‘Mana Mohana’ from Seema (1955, raag Jaijaivanti) shows that she could slip into raga elaborations and brilliant taans like a proper classical performer. ‘Cham cham nachat aayi bahar” from the film Chhaya (1961) is both a raagmala and talamala. “She could have been another Kesaribai Kerkar or Kishori Amonkar had she chosen to be a classical singer, but compulsions of life took her to film music,” says Pt. Vinayak Torvi.

As debates on the versatility and femininity of her voice continue, Lata’s music still holds sway over millions, imbued with the mystery of the unknowable. There was surrender in her music and there was perfection. And that is an irresistible combination.

The Bengaluru-based journalist writes on art and culture.

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