How does one capture a lifetime of music in a few words? Well, the un-Indian nightingale comes to mind. A title bestowed on her early on – when in a voice described as sweet as the nightingale, her rendition of a song on the Indian soldier after a bruising defeat at the hands of a neighbour moved the Prime Minister to tears. For a country humiliated, the song saw an outpouring of grief like none other. Lata Mangeshkar meant several things to people. To composers she was a singer whose unblemished voice could not strike an off-key note even if she willed it to. To young girls her voice was the holy grail whose pursuit began in infancy. She spawned a generation of imitators where the ability of a singer to hit high notes with clarity is worn as a badge of honour to this day.
Lata’s early struggle when money was hard to come by after her father’s death, mirrored the woes of a young country struggling to shake off its colonial yoke. The sheer drudgery of the early years stood in sharp contrast to the moods her songs evoked in a voice honed by years of training in Indian classical music. Her voice trailed people after a new country found its voice in freedom. From dawn to dusk, her voice accompanied the citizens of a new country as they went about their daily chores and defined the nation’s mood. As India Today wrote a few years ago, “It is the voice to which the roadside vendor in Delhi has transacted his business, the long-distance trucker has sped along the highway, the Army jawan in Ladakh has kept guard at his frontier bunker, or the glittering elite of Bombay have dined in luxury hotels.”
To this, add hospitals where to this day, Lata’s bhajans offers solace to the hopeless. Yet, if her early struggles steeled her to face adversity and challenges, it also ensured a fiercely competitive spirit which could brook no competition. A movie on the “alleged rivalry” with her younger sibling never got her nod though whispers continued long after the movie had debuted.
Though never chronicled, the stories of female playback singers who had to beat a hasty retreat after their first brush with success are now a part of Bollywood folklore. In the era of black and white, her diamonds shone as she soared sometimes on a solo flight hitting all the high notes with clarity, gliding low to swoop on the low notes in a gentle arc, many a times in the company of singers who have passed on. When India transitioned to colour, her diamonds glittered just as bright as she burnished her credentials as one-woman industry. The country’s highest honours have come her way. Her fight for the rightful recognition of playback singers on records and on programmes aired helped future generation of singers who are now known, recognised and feted for their songs.
Though she has hobnobbed with politicians, lavishing praise on some, her politics was a closely guarded secret just like her silence which was loud enough for people to hear when Mumbai burnt once too often in a communal cauldron. Wedded to music, it was music that was her language of communication.