Lata Mangeshkar was India’s inner voice
It’s a measure of Lata Mangeshkar’s achievement that all homage and all adjectives seem like a gross understatement. It is difficult to imagine a comparable artist, in the annals of a country, who has thus saturated the cultural, emotional and affective life of his nation. It’s not just a statistical success. The tens of thousands of songs recorded in 18 languages, the total domination of playback singing for half a century, the ability to define an entire musical genre, the innovations in tonality, pitch and modulation, would in themselves be formidable. But its impact cannot be measured in technical terms. A great artist can give perfect expression to a variety of emotions. Lata Mangeshkar went further: her songs became the totality of our emotions to the point that it was impossible to think of an emotional life apart from her songs.
Lata Mangeshkar was coming of age when a new nation was being born. But a new nation needed a new grammar for the full range of our lives. She needed new cultural forms that could unite rather than divide a country just emerging from partition. It is often said that Hindi cinema was this cultural form. But in retrospect, that seems to be a little misinterpreted. If Hindi cinema has acquired a distinct identity as a genre, it is largely due to the reading of song. Looking back, it’s remarkable how utterly forgettable this cinema is. What is not forgettable is the music. Music has become our public poetry and our public melody, it has become our private therapy and consolation; it seemed to offer a statement for every emotion and every occasion: from loyalty to betrayal, from joy to sadness, from high spirits to the depths of despair. One can get too sophisticated about this. But it is hard to imagine an Indian, above a certain age, whose articulation of his inner life is not in the words of a Bollywood lyric. And the voice will invariably be that of Lata Mangeshkar.
It is in this context that Lata Mangeshkar’s reading song achieved its unique status. Much can be written about the tone and pitch of his voice over the years. But what is indisputable is the fact that she alone could literally express all the situations or all the emotional registers. It is not only the melody, but this precision on the words and the emotions in her song, which made her an ideal carrier of the totality of our lives. Someone once said, in a profound remark, that the greatness of song reading in Bollywood’s heyday was that no actor really needed to act. All the emotional charge of the films was carried by the songs: in fact, the songs were the script, if there was such a thing.
But success in this genre required three things. This required great poetry and musical compositions. It required a kind of singing that exuded a sincerity with a poetry that Lata Mangeshkar had in full measure. The song would not overwhelm the sense of the lyric, it would give it perfect expression. But what was needed above all was the creation of singers who could become everyone. The singer had to be a neutral enough medium to appear as the voice of each actor. But in a much more difficult act, the singer had to radiate a kind of confidence that he also became the voice of each listener and the grammar of their emotion. It was, I think, for this reason, more than anything else, that Bollywood playback singing was dominated by a few singers. Every time you heard a voice, you also wanted it to be familiar to you so you could call it your own.
Much has been said about how Lata Mangeshkar managed to define the pitch and tone of what the Indian female singing voice should be, often to the exclusion of many other registers. But this concern misses the point: could such a reading role have been interpreted by another voice, a voice in which everyone, as an individual, could identify?
It is difficult to assess the importance it will have for future generations. It must be said that there is no shortage of extraordinary musical talent, but the historical conditions that produce the need for a Lata Mangeshkar will probably never happen again. The lyrics she sang will likely carry a greater burden of their gender values than, say, the ones Rafi or Kishore had. (Just listen to this trance duet with Hemant Kumar, “Chupa lo yun dil mein pyaar mera”; the line “Tumhare charanon ka phool hun main” will now make you wince). For someone who has sung in all emotional registers, it’s hard to imagine a single song as a send-off: But try “Phaili hui hain sapanon ki bahein” from house No. 44. It will be hard to find a better combination of singsong innocence and vanished dreams. The incomparable gift she gave us.
If Lata Mangeshkar has become representative of India, it is because the words she sang, and the forms in which she expressed them, contained within them all of India: all its languages, its cultural registers, up to to its conflicts. It was not about comparing India to a single measure; it was rather to connect its overabundance. She could give voice to collective emotions and mark the turning points of her collective life, as in “Aye mere watan ke logo”, the song that made Nehru and an entire nation crack. But what made her the ideal representative of the new nation was not that she represented us collectively, but that she could represent each of us in our uniqueness: In any role we can imagine.
Much has been made of the fact that his image was partly propelled by the ideal of the ascetic performer. She made the art world acceptable to a conservative India, projecting an ascetic femininity into it, taking Bollywood out of a courtly grammar of self-presentation. But in the end, the emphasis on his personality, his personal asceticism, his humility is irrelevant. Because it is the mark of his greatness that his music has transcended all the divisions and identities imposed on it. The most devoted group of fans she has are in Pakistan, where identification with her is stronger than in India. She had no equal and never will.
This column first appeared in the print edition of February 6, 2022 under the title “Our inner voice”. The writer is Editor-in-Chief, The Indian Express.