The nation of more than a billion lost its most popular voice, as Lata Mangeshkar (1929-2022) transcended to the heavenly stage on Sunday. More than just a name, over the years, the Bharat Ratna became an adjective, an emotion that got so deeply ingrained in the Indian consciousness that her voice became the benchmark of excellence and purity. Usually, film personalities have fans, Lata has devotees for if the melody is the link that connects man to almighty, Lata consistently struck that divine sur. Ephemeral phrases like singing sensation were not for her. She was always the voice of virtue. No wonder, her voice inspired Raj Kapoor to mount Satyam Shivam Sundaram . Or the way Gulzar simply put for her in the Kinara song , Meri Awaaz Hi Meri Pehchan Hai (m y voice is my identity).
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She fought for giving playback singers their space under the sun. Before Lata, the line between actor and singer was a blur. The discs featured the name of the character rather than the playback singer. She along with Mohd Rafi gave shape to the culture of playback singing in Hindi cinema. Like Noor Jehan and Suraiya, Lata was also offered acting parts but she wanted only her voice to be heard. And she did become the prima donna of playback singing in no time. From Madhubala to Kajol and Preity Zinta, female actors were considered to have arrived on the scene when they got an opportunity to lip-sync to Lata’s voice.
Post-independence, when Dilip Kumar emerged as the Nehruvian hero, Lata’s voice echoed the soul of India that was exuberant and plaintive at the same time. From the first flush of youth to the twinge of separation, there is no mood, no shade of human psyche that Lata didn’t give voice to and along the way made a legion of followers believe that perfection is not unattainable in creative arts.
Born in a conservative musical Marathi household, her training started early when she eavesdropped on her father Dinanath Mangeshkar’s training sessions. A stern taskmaster, one day the noted classical singer and theatre veteran discovered a young Lata correcting one of his students, telling him how her father renders a particular raga, in his absence. He promptly took her under his wings and a 5-6-year-old Lata would sing alongside her father and sleep on his lap.
But for the fate that reduced her to the sole breadwinner in the family of five siblings at a very young age, Lata would have shone on the firmament of classical music. It was something that she regretted all her life. It also meant that singing became her life. She would starve through the day so that she could save every single penny for the family. The early struggle ingrained in her a sense of discipline and a guarded approach towards the world.
In the recording studio, none could match the purity and clarity of her voice and the control over the pitch. After listening to Ye Zindagi Usi Ki Hai , the poignant number from Anarkali in raga Bhimplasi , Bade Ghulam Ali Khan remarked Kambakth Kabhi Besuri Nahin Hoti (The wretched girl never goes out of tune). It was 1953 and the best of Lata was yet to come.
Her mentor Ghulam Haider instilled in a young Lata the importance of feeling the joys and pain of the character. Anil Biswas taught her the value of breath control and Naushad and Salil Chowdhury tested how high she could go with notes. Her sweet voice quickly displaced the robust nasal voices like Shamshad Begum and Geeta Dutt.
Outside the studio, in white saris and side parting hairstyle, she carefully crafted an image where even the film media, which thrives on gossip, presented her as a sisterly figure who loved to tie rakhis on the industry’s big wigs.
However, beneath that benign half-smile and muted silks, the resilient Lata was all steel. When producer Shashadhar Mukherjee termed her voice too thin, she worked on her timbre. When Dilip Kumar offhandedly remarked that her voice smelt of dal bhaat, she made sure that she got the nuances of Urdu right. Beqas Pe Karam, t he naat in Mughal-e-Azam is a testimony to her command over the language, and Khayyam’s serene Ae Dil e Nadan (Razia Sultan) remained her favourite song.
She didn’t budge an inch over royalty rights even if it meant a cold war with Mohd Rafi. At the peak of her career, when S.D. Burman made an uncharitable remark, she didn’t work with the master composer for five years. She refused to perform in film award functions until a separate category was created for playback singers in 1959. From 1959 to 1970, she won four Filmfare Awards. Out of these three came when there was no separate category for female playback singers. In 1971, in an unusual gesture, she asked the jury not to consider her to promote fresh talent.
Lata emerged unscathed from all the battles as none of it could stop her from becoming a phenomenon and staying on top for over six decades. When she was at the top of her game, her word was enough for a composer to a get prized project. No wonder, she was disparagingly called Maharani or High Command by those who bit the dust in the games of one-upmanship that are discreetly played in the highly competitive industry. Film magazines dubbed it as ‘Mangeshkar Monopoly’ but the march of the diminutive Lata could not be checked.
Her longevity is awe-inspiring. Having started at 13, it was natural that for a long time Lata retained the girlish flavour in her voice. The haunting Aayega Aane Wala ( Mahal, 1948 ) that she sang at the age of 20 continues to be a balm for heartache. Surprisingly, her voice didn’t age and she retained the vocal agility and ability to negotiate complex passages of compositions well. The Lata of Parichay that won her first National Award for Beeti Na Bitai Raina in 1972 was very different from the Lata that sang Aaja Re Pardesi in Madhumati in 1958. Lata was 66 when she made the youth swoon to Mere Khwabon Main Jo Aaye ( Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge , 1995). Just a few years back she had won her third National Award for Yaara Sili Sili (Lekin 1991) , a composition of her brother Hridaynath Mangeshkar that is steeped in classical notes.
The woman who sang in Lata’s voice was invariably a ‘good’ woman. In hindsight, some observers see it as Lata’s limitation but actually, it is a reflection of the kind of protagonists that populated popular cinema in the 1950s and 60s and the style that the composers asked her to adopt. She was invariably called to justify the most intricate compositions.
It is not that Lata was not capable of rendering the flamboyant songs that O.P. Nayyar, the only major name that she didn’t sing for, created for her younger sister Asha but she looked for some substance even in the so-called light stuff. Whenever the heroine ventured into forbidden spaces, Lata also expanded her horizon. From Chadh Gayo Papi Bichhua (Madhumati), Thade Rahiyo (Pakeezah), Mann Kyun Behka (Utsav) to Jiya Jale (Dil Se), there are multiple examples where Lata has given voice to the sensory pleasures of a woman and was absolutely naughty in Kanta Laga . It is another matter that in her voice even a cabaret would sound divine as we experienced in Aa Jaane Ja (Inteqam).
The sound of Kolhapuri chapppals announced her arrival in the recording studios but the golden anklets and fondness for diamonds reflected a royal taste. Quietly ambitious, she bought her first car, a Hillman, when she was just 18. She had a keen interest in cricket and photography and her voice was heard in the higher echelons of government, irrespective of the party in power.
When remixes became a rage and reality shows a mundane reality, she voiced her concern for the diminishing originality in popular music and the culture of instant gratification.
Till the end, she assiduously guarded her private space and made the world feel that it was a Kora Kagaaz but her melodious voice will continue to reside in all of us.