The Eternal Lilt
On February 6, 2022, she lay at Mumbai’s Shivaji Park and the country mourned. But Lata Mangeshkar lives.
In lifetimes and legacy of the nation, feels BALPREET.
THE radio jockey announces a Lata Mangeshkar song. As the song begins to touch peaks, valleys, rivers, oceans and skies, a woman begins to uncoil out of its womb. With rising notes, her face begins to form. She is beautiful in an old-world way, clad in a saree of happy flowers spread over translucent fabric. She walks in unassuming grace. Her skin is the colour of sun-baked wheat. Her hair curls up some places, framing her face, before flowing down her shoulders and back. When she smiles, a lost child peeps through, and the next moment her shyness melts you. Her features look regular but her lips - the shade of freshly cut figs - and eyes dipped in melted honey - lift her face to a loveliness you cannot escape.
Sacredness surrounds her. And in her softness rests her power. Her face is of calm womanly wisdom and also of girly impishness. The bindi on her forehead completes the fantasy that is essentially Indian. That’s the kind of woman the song births. And when it ends, the woman steps out and enters you...If you’re a woman listening to a Lata song, it can actually drive you deeper into your femininity - calmer, gentler, more loving. More sacred. And if you’re a man, she creates a woman to wish for. That’s what Lata Mangeshkar does. She gives face to fantasy.And she turns into an alchemist. Purifying everything, everyone her voice touches.
She’s always been around.
Lata Mangeshkar has been there, sweetening spaces around us. I know exactly when she first tapped at the walls of my awareness: The song ‘Main na bhoolungi’ filtered in with the moon one night. Here was a voice from beyond lifetimes and achingly haunting. I felt a lump in my throat, and I had no clue why. I was just three. Now I know. The voice was laden with lifetimes of longing. For that divine mate. Maybe of the Divine Himself. And even today when the song touches my ears, the lump returns and tears flow. My second Lata song came riding on an ice-cream. As my parents took me for an ice-cream one night at Ambala, ‘Tota maina ki kahaani’ hit with such force that it kept ringing throughout my saccharine adventure and till years after. So around early childhood, I’d begun to respond to her voice. She sounded like someone who could love easily. At times, she sounded like my mother. I think she also sounded like the woman I was to become. And through the years, this voice grew roots inside me. Dewy-eyed with an innocent crush, I’d often transport myself to misty mountains while ‘Nindiya se jaagi bahaar’ and ‘Husn pahaadon ka’ played in our school bus. A few classes later, my eyes would well up as she sang ‘Ae pyaar teri’ or ‘akhiyon ko rehne de’. Later, at college, I plugged into my walkman, matching languid steps with ‘Jaane kya baat hai’, ‘Ajnabi kaun ho tum’, ‘Tumhe dekhti hun’, ‘Rajnigandha phool tumhaare’, ‘Tune o rangeele’, ‘Na jaane kya hua’, ‘Chandni raat mein’, ‘Ye dil aur unki’, ‘Aap yun faaslon se..’And I’d walk on, crushing crisp leaves, feeling beautiful with love and dreamy surrender. As the years layered up, an entire ocean of the Lata phenomenon opened up – she perfecting classical, or patriotic, devotional or romantic, philosophical or simply melodious. From ‘Ye zindagi usi ki hai’; ‘O sajna’; ‘Jaag dard-e-ishq’ ; ‘Tum to pyaar ho’ to ‘Aaja piya’ ; ‘Suno sajna’; ‘Chaap tilak’, ‘Dikhaayi diye yun’, ‘Tu waada na tod’ to ‘Ae hawa’, ‘Hamne sanam ko’, ‘Khasmosh sa afsana’, ‘Jiya jale’ and ‘Are re are’... not a day would go by when her song won’t break some opaqueness and enter my being. Now that’s not a happening. That’s a phenomenon.
Lata of the lilt and the stillness
Interesting that this voice is of a woman wise with life’s lessons, but she began like a mischievous, bratty kid. She was born ‘Hema’ to Marathi parents. At five, she was hopping about everywhere, riding tyres and fooling shopkeepers with fake coins. She was domineering in a sweet way and refused to attend school just because her teacher asked her not to bring her sister Asha. At home, amidst the chatter and play, Lata would perch upon a kitchen shelf and sing away in abandon while her mother cooked. Eventually her aai would shoo her off with “Ja mera sar mat kha”! And she’d scuttle out to play. But one day, when her musician father Pt Dinanath Mangeshkar heard her demonstrate a raag to his student, he was amazed at the talent hiding right at home. The next morning, Lata’s training took off.
And life played its own song
From losing her father at 13 to working in films and hating it and finally playback-singing, thanks to Master Ghulam Haider, Lata’s career hit its first octave with ‘Aayega aanewala’. The world sat up, riveted. Never had such mellifluous rendering been heard before. And so flawless. Once Bade Ghulam Ali Khan asked Pt Jasraj to keep quiet when the latter was visiting him. Khan Saab strained to hear a Lata song playing in the neighbourhood. When the song was over, he commented: “Kambakht kabhi besuri hoti hi nahin." Perfectionism was such a way with Lataji that when Dilip Kumar commented that Marathis’ diction smelt of ‘daal bhaat’, Lataji got a maulana to teach her Urdu. And her diction grew to be the most flawless among singers! She absorbed nuances like cotton. From Ghulam Haider came tips to concentrate on the lyrics and situation, the clarity of the words, and singing with force over beats to raise the song higher. From Anil Biswas came breathing tips and the concept of fade in and out. She kept collecting lessons over the years, honing herself. And when she began to discover her own style, she set out to surprise more and outdo herself with every song. And throughout life, she kept at it.
Sweeter the voice, purer the soul
Honeyed voice is the fragrance of a beautiful soul. When Lataji spoke, it almost sounded like a song. The lilt was so unmistakable. And equally unmistakable was that she spoke her mind, blending dignity and humility. Her stubborn firmness sounded like ‘ego’ to many. But if you look back at how she had to earn for her family at a mere 13, the drawing of clear lines seems natural. For a single woman to survive, succeed and be upheld with so much respect bordering on reverence is a feat that takes lofty talent, focus and dignity. When probed about the 1997 film ‘Saaz’ which was thought to be her and Asha Bhonsle’s story, showing Lataji in not such a good light, she said she won’t waste time giving explanations for something untrue while she can spend that time in her prayers. She never married. And that raised curious brows. In a rare interview, she was asked if she ever liked anyone. She moved her head in a ‘no’ twice. And when the interviewer pestered with the same question differently, she sweetly said: “Iska jawaab na doon, chalega?”
There are stories on how she was in love with Ustad Salamat Ali Khan and since he was married and Pakistan-based, there were threats from the underworld when she hosted him and his brother in Mumbai. Finally, Raj Kapoor intervened to send him safely back to Pakistan and that was the end of it. Then there were stories of her intense bond with Raj Singh Dungarpur. It is said, this prince wanted to marry her but there was opposition from his family. Resultantly, he chose never to marry, and both remained friends till his death in 2009. Whatever the truth, just imagine the kind of love Lataji must have known to have sung the way she sang ‘Tera mera pyaar amar’, ‘Ye zindagi usi ki hai’, ‘Simti hui ye ghadiyaan’ Saawan ke jhoole pade’, ‘Rim jhim gire saawan’, ‘Meri saanson ko jo mehka rahi hai’, ‘Ab to hai tumse’ and more! Indeed, you pick any song that’s played on a loop inside and outside of you, chances are it’s Lata Mangeshkar filling it with her soul.
Professional finesse, mood no bar
Armed with fine technique, an ever-learning mind, and a blessed voice, Lataji could deliver the most soulful melody irrespective of a bad mood. We all love the Satyam Shivam Sundaram title track. But what if you knew that Lataji sang it in intense anger? Actually, she had had an argument with Raj Kapoor over royalty during the recording for this film’s songs. She refused to sing. But one of her gurus intervened. So, she came, heard the composition and recorded in one take and walked out! In fact songs like ‘Tasveer teri dil mein’ and ‘Buddha mil gaya’ were recorded amidst much stress and argument. And just see how melodious they sound! Well, that’s Lata Mangeshkar. Quite completely, born to sing! Such alchemists don’t die. They purify whatever comes their way and deliver enough magic into the air to last a few life cycles.
(A senior print, TV and radio journalist. She is an author and also makes films.)