We prayed for her immortality . Her voice registered our strengths and frailties. She soothed us when everything was lost, her aural sensuality was present in our first kiss, and her pleading for unity cut through a sharply divided society. Each one of us created an unbreakable personal bond with her.
We often associate playback singers with specific actors. The singer becomes the musical expression — an extension — of the actor. This is so well established that when an actor completes a dialogue and the scene segues into a song, we do not notice a difference; the voices merge.
Lata Mangeshkar’s voice did not belong to any one actor; she was every actor’s voice. It would be appropriate to say her voice was theirs! She did not hide her presence behind the actors; you always knew it was her. The actor became Lata’s expressive moving picture. Yet, her personality never mediated our relationship with the story. It was as if her voice worked for any one, any situation and any era. Hence, there was no need for that illusionary trick. This seems contradictory, even impossible, but it did happen.
We speak of playback singers being influenced by the voice, mannerisms and accent of actors they represented. In Lata’s case, I would argue that every actor’s acting improved when they heard her track being played for a song they were filming. How could it not? Watch any scene of a song she rendered and it is as if she coaxed the actors to come up to her standards of emotivity.
Emotion in music is spoken of in esoteric terms, or as something that happens through experience and maturity. Otherwise, we are told, internalise the meaning, understand the context, the melody and involve yourself in the singing and emotionality will be transferred into the song. We may feel the song in our bones but our rendition can still lack the needed emotive layering. Emotional communication in music is a technique. It exists in the way we use our voice; we enunciate each syllable and our treatment of the melodic and rhythmic cadences in the song. With Lata, every second oozed emotion; it was in the way she sang. The minor shifts in tonality, the timbral and decibel control over a musical phrase and the way the words were enunciated.
Reading a line of poetry has little to do with singing it. When I say ‘mohabbat’, I am speaking of love; when I sing, it is the essence of love. That inner resonance appears because the word is not tightly bound by its own construction. It spreads its wings inviting us to romance its every consonant and vowel. Lata gave musical life to every syllable she sang. The meaning of the word was felt even before the word was completed. And then there was the last note! That tantalising drop at the end of a musical turn, curve, statement or question. The line was over but Lata’s voice remained for just that extra micro-second, gifting that last notea memory. The next line began from its silent listening. I can still hear that dissolving note, it was magic.
Speed is often overglorified. Singers deliberately direct our attention towards it, and the felicity of their voice. But the brilliance of speed is when the rush, the adrenaline, is not known. Lata sang supersonic phrases without bravado. When you watched the song sequence, you did not even know that she had executed something demanding. It seemed as easy as the actor’s mime. The sheer control behind these renditions should not be categorised just as technical proviso. The complexity of the melody never came in the way of her emotive power. In the case of other singers, emotion would wane and wax within one song. There would be moments when their hearts were present in the music, and times when they were only aiming for musical accuracy. That was never the case with Lata. She did not make her vocal virtuosity obvious. She just made us smile, cry, love and celebrate, unaware of the musical brilliance.
Through the decades, Lata’s voice aged and all of us recognised that. But the voice never became old! Another paradox. There are voices that do not age; there are those that become old. But to age yet remain young is rare. The ageing was physical, her vocal cords did tire, there was a perceptible tremble in the voice, but she did not sound old. Her musical expression was young. By young, I am not referring to youthfulness, but rather the quality of being alive. This spirit gave her voice bloom.
Lata had her detractors. Some complained that her voice was too shrill; just as they said of M.S. Subbulakshmi, the nightingale from the South. Lata is not versatile enough, they complained. But all this did not matter because, she was the song. If there was one criticism that took the sheen off the Lata enigma, it was that she suppressed other talents from emerging during her reign. I am certain there are many truths to this and no single one will give us the whole picture.
I think of Lata and a mystical land comes to my mind. She exists in my dream sequence and her voice emanates from an unseen person. I search for her knowing fully well we will never meet. She flits in and then vanishes. And I wait patiently for the next time. But unlike that dreamland voice, Lata was always present. As far as I am concerned, she has not moved on; she remains with us, our celestial voice.
Musician and Author