Lata Mangeshkar, the greatest Indian songstress of all times, celebrated her 79th birthday on September 28. Every singer for the past six decades has been singing in the space, the vast terra infirma, charted by Lata’s voice. Listen to Ayega Aanewaala: Its freshness never abates; to listen to it, even today, is to feel present at the birth of something new. Beginning of a journey. Beginning of the Indian film music as we have come to know and love. If Lata had given us nothing more, that would be enough.
Today when the wider soundscape of India is chaotically rich with experimental music, indie-rock shows soaked in hipster attitude, pop idols cavorting on HD monitors in malls, innumerable winners emerging from the ceaseless reality singing competitions, a demure woman in a white sari still manages to capture the attention of the nation every time she sings or even speaks. She connects us to much that we hold dear in our musical tradition with a humility that is as remarkable as the genius from which it springs.
It is easy to get hyperbolic when talking about Lata but words can so easily fail to adequately describe what Lata has meant to the world of Indian music and to the generations of Indians who have grown up listening to her divine voice. Her achievements are so gargantuan that even if she had stopped singing after the first 15 years of her career, Indian music would still be in her everlasting debt. Yet Lata continued to work at an extraordinary high level of artistic achievement.
Ease of expression is untrendy these days in our brave new 21st century world. In our respect for difficulty we equate fluency with superficiality. Lata’s artistic genius lies in her making singing seem so effortless. The most difficult of the ragas and the highest of the scales Lata reaches with a serenity that would be bewildering even for a classical master. And making Nehru, along with millions of Indians, teary-eyed with her rendition of Ae Mere Watan Ke Logon is only one example of the way her singing is capable of touching our innermost emotional cords.
She is often criticised for not being versatile enough, like her sister Asha Bhonsle. It’s the critics, however, who seem out of touch with her repertoire – Aa Jaane Ja, one of the finest cabaret numbers; Woh Ik Nigah Kya Mili where she sings like a soprano; Ehsan Tera Hoga Mujh Par and Mere Naina Sawan Bhadon where she sings at a scale used only for male voices; Aye Dilruba where she sings an Arabic tune flawlessly in high octave; innumerable songs that she sang for C. Ramachandran and Salil Chaudhury in the western idiom. If this is not versatility, then the word itself is devoid of any meaning.
The songs sung by Lata become Lata songs – her genius is overpowering enough to take the credit away from the music composers and lyricists though her humility may prevent her from saying so. It’s often said that Lata monopolized the Hindi film music and did not allow others to grow under her shadow. But it’s the music composers who monopolized her, who reserved their best compositions for her. Her talent challenged them to push their own artistic boundaries and everlasting music burst forth. There are so many singers today, yet apparently none is inspiring enough for the contemporary music composers who keep on assaulting our senses with a noise they consider music. A biography of hers in early 1990s confidently predicted the end of the Lata era. Little did the biographer realize that Lata was just on the verge of giving the Indian film music some of its greatest hits ever. After bestriding the Indian music scene like a colossus, it is only in the last few years that Lata has removed herself from the hurly-burly of the Indian film music. And what a loss it has been!
It is difficult to comprehend Lata’s mystery at a time when Himesh Reshammiya is our foremost singing sensation and when musicians are falling over each other in copying second-rate works from the western music market. We suddenly find ourselves bereft of any sense of art and artists as pressures of the market become paramount in dictating what kinds of songs are composed and how they are sung, which then disappear into the wilderness as fast as they reach the top of the popularity charts. Listening to even a single note of Lata in such chaotic times means returning to a measure of sanity.
Watching Lata today one could see her struggling with the times with a sense of helplessness in the face of the new trends in film music, of suddenly knowing what the real fringe is like, and how it feels when you get there. There is a feeling widely shared among the music lovers that something big and vital is passing from the world of Indian film music, and yet to defend it is to be immediately classified as retrograde. There is an urge to say what many of us would like to say that traditions are not encumbrances, that a novel is not news, than an essay is different from an internet rant, that Reshammiya’s brand of music is not art…
The art of film music may not have necessarily declined but it seems clear that the cultural climate that made it possible to hail singers or composers as supreme artistes has vanished for good. Expression is everywhere nowadays, but true art has grown indistinct and indefinable. We seem to be living in a world where everyone has an artistic temperament – emotive and touchy, cold and self-obsessed – yet few people have the artistic gift.
At a time when mediocrity is running amok in the Indian film music industry and where anyone who can open his or her mouth is declared to be the next big singing sensation, Lata’s presence alone provides a measure of sanity by making listeners realize what true artistry actually means. Lata is a quintessential Indian artist, rooted in the Indian ethos like no other in our lifetime. Modest, yet fiercely proud of Indian cultural heritage she never bothered about gaining acceptance in the West as almost every major Indian artist has tried over the years.
Lata has enjoyed the love and respect of her countrymen and women like no other artiste in the last six decades. But what she hasn’t been duly recognized for is her contribution as a crusader for the rights of playback singers. She is where is she is today because she has fought and fought hard like blazes to get on top. She scrapped for her power against an industry that had no wish to give it up. She single-handedly took on the male-dominated Hindi film music establishment on a range of issues – from insisting that records should carry the name of the singers to forcing the Filmfare Awards to recognize the contribution of playback singers to fighting for the royalties with the Indian music companies.
Today’s playback singers owe their entire status in the film industry to Lata who in her numerous battles fought with the high and the mighty – Raj Kapoor, S.D. Burman, Shankar Jaikishan, Dilip Kumar, Mohammad Rafi. Interestingly, she never budged from her stance, it’s others who realized their folly and came back to her. It took guts for a lonely woman to wage these battles and Lata could not have persevered had she not possessed supreme confidence in her abilities as an artiste and the rightness of her cause. She has championed the cause of women in film and music industry by standing so tall above all others where even giants like Rafi and Kishore Kumar had to contend with Lata’s primacy. Nowhere else has a woman so dominated an industry as Lata has with the sheer power of her artistic achievement.
Lata remains a colossus, a heroic figure whose achievements are so out of ordinary that they quite literally defy explanation. Her singing remains the epitome of excellence for generations of singers. Her legacy is not only a body of work unparalleled in its virtuosity but also that of a pioneer who changed the face of Indian playback singing.
Truman Capote once wrote, "A work of art is the one mystery, the one extreme magic; everything else is either arithmetic or biology." Lata’s singing is one such mystery as your senses sail away into a universe of wonder listening to her. And you are left asking: How did she do it? How is it possible? Glowing with the radiance of immortal beauty and unmatched perfection, Lata’s singing remains an extraordinary testament to the life and times of an extraordinary artist.
Indians cannot hope for a better artiste to manifest their times. Celebrate Lata and her music for it’s also a celebration of India at its best.