Our Very Own ‘Nightingale’:  Lata ‘Didi’ and her Enduring Popularity

(First of two pieces on Lata Mangeshkar)

Vinay Lal

There has never been any question that Lata Mangeshkar, who passed on at the age of 92 on February 6 in Mumbai, was the most popular singer in India.  There have been endless number of affirmations of her popularity, but just why she may have been so popular, to which I shall turn in the second half of this essay, has been much less frequently explored.  Lata certainly never had any equal among female playback singers, though it is sometimes argued that her sister, Asha Bhosle, held her own for at least a period of time, and among male playback singers Muhammad Rafi alone quite possibly rivaled her in popularity. If Lata was the ‘Melody Queen’, he was the ‘Melody King’.  But Lata had the advantage over Rafi Sahib, who was a mere 55 years old at the time of his death, of longevity.  Asha has a large following, to be sure, and many claim that she was more versatile than her older sister. Apart from the question of whether Lata was deservedly more popular than Asha, this ‘debate’ is unlikely to be ever resolved and is best left to those who are avid about their partisanship and who have the time and inclination to press their passionate conviction upon others. 

As a testament to Lata’s popularity, many in the media have since her passing four days ago mentioned her apparently unrivaled repertoire of songs.  Some say that she sang in thirty-six languages, while others are content to mention ‘only’ around 15-20 languages.  Considering that most people cannot sing well in one language, unless they have had some training, a handful of languages would be enough to point to her extraordinary gifts. The huge commentary in the established media and the even greater outpouring of thoughts and sentiments on social media have all coalesced around the staggering number of songs Lata is thought to have sung.  Some have mentioned as many as 25,000, or 30,000, and as far back as 2004 the BBC, in introducing an article by Yash Chopra on the occasion of Lata’s 75th birthday, mentioned ‘50,000 songs’.  The obituary in the New York Times speaks casually of ‘tens of thousands of songs’ that Lata reportedly sang.  Indians have long clamored to get into the Guinness Book of Records for one record or another, and to many Indians it was a matter of pride that the Guinness Book acknowledged her as early as 1974 as ‘the most recorded artist in music history’, though the claim was disputed by Muhammad Rafi.  Just how this dispute was handled is a long story, but in 2011 the Guinness Book acknowledged Asha Bhosle for holding the world record for the largest number of ‘single studio recordings’.  Neither sister holds the record today, that honor having passed on in 2016 to Pulapaka Susheela Mohan who is a veteran playback singer in Telugu films, though she also sings in other languages including Tamil. 

Considering that India is a country obsessed with records and also renowned as a powerhouse of statistics, and that Indian film music aficionados number in the millions, it may be surprising that no one really knows how many songs Lata performed.  However, in other respects as well there is something askance and quaint in the widespread approbation of her as the ‘Nightingale of India’. Growing up in India in the late 1960s, the ‘GK’ (General Knowledge) book assigned in school ensured that we knew that the ‘Lion of the Punjab’ was Lajpat Rai, ‘Frontier Gandhi’ was Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Lokamanya (‘Beloved of the Nation’) was Bal Gangadhar Tilak, and ‘Deshbandhu’ (‘Friend of the Nation’) was C. R. Das—and that the ‘Nightingale of India’ was Sarojini Naidu, not Lata Mangeshkar.  Sarojini Naidu was, of course, a feisty freedom fighter, a close associate of Gandhi and, after independence, Governor of the United Provinces.  It is a lesser-known fact that she was also an accomplished poet, indeed celebrated by more than one English writer as India’s best poet in English.  Sarojini Naidu was, however, no singer, and it was the expressive, lyrical, and emotive quality of her poetry that earned her, from Mohandas Gandhi, the sobriquet ‘Bharat Kokila’. 

Here Gandhi was following the English tradition that has long associated literature and poetry with the nightingale.  The English romantic poets, in particular, were enchanted with the nightingale, most famously among them John Keats whose ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ remains a staple in English poetry classes. It is perhaps this verse which captures the Indian public’s view of Lata’s ‘full-throated’ voice for the ages: 

                        Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!

                             No hungry generations tread thee down;

                        The voice I hear this passing night was heard

                             In ancient days by emperor and clown . . .

His friend and contemporary, Percy Bysshe Shelley, in his famous ‘Defence of Poetry’, did not doubt that the nightingale commanded the world—as did the poet:  ‘A Poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why.’  Gandhi knew, however, that the nightingale is not an Indian bird; thus, he refers to Sarojini Naidu by the word ‘kokila’, the indigenous bird that most closely approximates the nightingale. More tellingly, though perhaps few in India at all care for such matters, only the male nightingale sings.  The female does not sing at all; the male nightingale, which has a vast and astonishing repertoire of over 1000 different sounds, compared to around 100 for a blackbird—the bird celebrated by the Beatles with the lines, ‘Blackbird singing in the dead of night / Take these broken wings and learn to fly’—serenades the female, and that too mainly at night.

Still, even as one takes the measure of Lata’s popularity, a more enduring question remains to be understood.  What made her popular to the extent that she became practically the voice of the nation, and how did she remain at the top for decades?  To many, the answer is obvious:  she had a ‘golden voice’.  By this it is meant that her singing was flawless and her sur was perfect; her singing, it is claimed, was uniquely expressive and she could even get into the skin of the actress for whom she was singing.  Her biographer, Nasreen Munni Kabir, states that Lata also had the gift of capturing the mood of the song and the meaning of the words.  Lata had grit and determination—and discipline, too.  To sing in films in the late 1940s and into the 1960s one had to know Urdu, and Lata had to learn it; and the story is famously told of the time when Dilip Kumar rubbed it into Lata that her Urdu had a little too much of dal-chawal in it!  Lata worked on her Urdu, to the extent that, as Javed Akhtar has related in a recent interview, he did not once hear her mispronounce an Urdu word.  But he suggests that none of this was sufficient to produce the magic that one associates with Lata, and he points out that within fifteen minutes of getting the lyrics for the first time, and not having heard the music either, she had virtually mastered the song.  There was some other quality Lata possessed that was uniquely her own, and Javed Akhtar attributes this to her ability to penetrate to the subtext, the meaning of a song that lay beyond the words.

Beyond even this, I would argue, there is something else that made it possible for Lata to become the heartthrob of the nation. She emerged on the national scene with a bang in 1949 by establishing her presence as a singer in several films, many of which became hits:  Mahal; Barsaat; Andaz; Bazaar; Dulari; and Patanga.  The historical context that saw her take the country by storm is critically important.  India had acquired its independence in 1947 and one of the many questions before the country had to do with the status of women.  Gandhi’s noncooperation movement of 1920-22 had brought women out into the streets for the first time and the trend accelerated with the Salt March and subsequent satyagrahas.  But, in most other respects, women were not part of the public sphere, and though the Constitution that was being drafted by the Constituent Assembly envisioned an equal place for women in Indian society, the prevailing sentiment was that women belonged mainly in the domestic sphere. To take one illustration, though women played an important role in the communist-led Telengana Rebellion (1946-51), studies have shown that even their male compatriots expected women revolutionaries to give up their rifles and return to the kitchen once the rebellion was over. 

At the same time, the struggle for freedom was also built on the idea of service to, and sacrifice for, Bharat Mata.  The nation in most parts of the world is construed as a feminine entity, but in India this had resonance beyond the ordinary for many reasons, among them the fact that Hinduism, in contrast to the Abrahamic faiths, has still retained a space for the feminine in various ways.  This can be seen in the attachment to goddess worship that is still found in nearly all parts of the country, though it is more pronounced in some parts of the country, such as Bengal, than in others.  Indian art during the freedom struggle from the 1920s until the attainment of independence is suffused with invocations to Bharat Mata.  In the aftermath of independence, the idea of Mother India had to be given a new incarnation—and then, fortuitously, Lata came along.  She represented the idea of the feminine principle in its least threatening form.  Where the prominent female singers of the previous generation had heavy, contralto voices, often having to sound almost like a man, as is evidenced amply by Malika Pukhraj and Zohrabai Ambalawali, Lata started off with a voice that was somewhat girlish and somewhat desexed.  The contrast is all too apparent in the very first film, Mahal (1949), where Lata and Zohrabai, both uncredited, first appeared together:  Lata sang ‘Aaayega aayega aanewala, which blew everyone away, but the intoxicating mujra, ‘Yeh raat phir na aayegi’, is performed by Zohrabai.  Lata’s was a voice that domesticated women, so to speak, and put them in their place as keepers of the hearth and custodians of the nation’s morality.  This placed Lata at a considerable remove from the generation preceding her, some of whom also had to struggle against the stigma attached to female singers.

As historians of the Hindi film song have argued, but more importantly as every listener who has heard Lata and Asha Bhosle at some length knows, there is a marked difference in the artistic trajectories of the sisters in one fundamental respect which has a bearing on the argument that Lata speaks for a certain kind of femininity which places her in a different relationship to the idea of the nation.  If Lata’s singing was more soulful, Asha’s singing had more body to it and exuded a kind of raw sensuousness—in part because Asha sang for actresses who had taken up roles where the heroine could to some degree project her sexual identity.  It is common knowledge that Lata would not sing the songs of the vamp, but Asha gave a sexual feel to feminine identity in ways that went beyond simply being reduced to a vamp or someone who did mujra songs. The womanliness that Asha’s voice embodied hinted at sensuousness, a comfort with one’s own sexuality, but only occasionally did it border on the salacious. 

If we had to put this in simpler terms, we can find the source of Lata’s popularity not only in everything that has been ascribed to her—perfect sur, flawless pronunciation, expressive soulful singing, and a genius for comprehending the mood of every song that went beyond the words—but also in the fact that she came to embody the idea of a virginal womanhood almost at the very inception of the nation.  (Some may find the notion of ‘Bharat Mata’ and ‘virginal womanhood’ do not easily sit together, unless one was invoking some Indian conception of the ‘Virgin Mary’.)  No one, after all, speaks of ‘Asha Didi’.  Much work needs to be done to understand the magic wrought in India, and over India, by Lata Didi.

This is a slightly edited version of a piece published under the same title on 10 February 2022 at abplive.in.

Terence MacSwiney, Hunger-Striking, and the Intertwined Histories of India & Ireland

No one in India today remembers the name of Terence MacSwiney, but in his own day his name reverberated throughout the country.  He was such a legend that, when the Bengali revolutionary Jatin Das, a key figure in the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army and a comrade of Bhagat Singh, died from a prolonged hunger-strike in September 1929, he was canonized as ‘India’s own Terence MacSwiney’.

Terence MacSwiney died this day, October 25th, in 1920.  Ireland, in the common imagination, is a land of poetry, anguished lovers, political rebels, verdant greenery—and drunkards. All of this may be true; one can certainly spend far too many evenings in an Irish pub, downing a pint of Guinness or Harp.  MacSwiney was a poet, playwright, pamphleteer, and a political revolutionary who got himself elected as Lord Mayor of Cork, in south-west Ireland, during the Irish War of Independence. Indian nationalists followed events in Ireland closely, for though people of Irish extraction may have played an outsized role in the brutalization of India during the British Raj, the Irish themselves were dehumanized by the English and waged a heroic anti-colonial resistance.  In India, the Irish were called upon to suppress such resistance.  One has only to call to mind Reginald Dyer, the perpetrator of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, who though born in Murree (now in Pakistan) was educated at Middleton College in County Cork and subsequently at Dublin’s Royal College of Surgeons, and Michael O’Dwyer, the Limerick-born Irishman who as Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab gave Dyer a free hand and even valorized the mass murder of Indians as a ‘military necessity’.

England did little in India that they had not previously done in Ireland, pauperizing the country and treating the Irish as a sub-human species.  The Irish were ridiculed as gullible Catholics who gave their allegiance to the Pope.  They were no better, from the English standpoint, than the superstitious Hindus.  MacSwiney, born in 1879, came to political activism in his late 20s, and by 1913-14 he had assumed a position of some importance both in the Irish Volunteers, an organization founded ‘to secure and maintain the rights and liberties common to the whole people of Ireland’, and the Sinn Fein, a political party that advocated for the independence of the Irish.  He was active during the ill-fated Easter Rebellion of April 1916, an armed insurrection that lasted all of six days before the British Army suppressed it with artillery and a massive military force.  Much of Dublin was reduced to rubble. It is unlikely that the uprising would have disappeared into the mists of history, but in any case William Butler Yeats was there to immortalize ‘Easter 1916’:  ‘All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.’  For the following four years, MacSwiney was in and out of British prisons, interned as a political detainee.

It is, however, the hunger-strike that MacSwiney undertook in August 1920 that would bring him to the attention of India and the rest of the world.  He was arrested on August 12 on charges of being in possession of ‘seditious articles and documents’—an all too familiar scenario in present-day India—and was within days convicted by a court that sentenced him to a two-year sentence to be served out at Brixton Prison in England.  MacSwiney declared before the tribunal, ‘I have decided the term of my imprisonment.  Whatever your government may do, I shall be free, alive or dead, within a month.’  He at once started on a hunger-strike, protesting that the military court which had tried him had no jurisdiction over him, and eleven other Republican prisoners joined him.  It was one thing for the large Irish diasporic population in the United States, whose predilection for Irish Republicanism was pronounced, to support him; but far more arresting was the fact that from Madrid to Rome, from Buenos Aires to New York and beyond to South Australia, the demand for MacSwiney’s release was voiced not only by the working class, but by political figures as different as Mussolini and the black nationalist Marcus Garvey.  The days stretched on, and his supporters pleaded with him to give up his hunger-strike; meanwhile, in prison, the British attempted to force-feed him.  On October 20, MacSwiney fell into a coma; seventy-four days into his hunger-strike, on October 25, he succumbed.

The funeral procession for Terence MacSwiney at Euston, London, October 1920. A still from the Gaumont documentary, ‘Funeral of the Lord Mayor of Cork’, on YouTube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qU16rhRHP7M
The funeral procession for Terence MacSwiney at Cork, October 1920. A still from the Gaumont documentary, ‘Funeral of the Lord Mayor of Cork’, on YouTube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qU16rhRHP7M

In India, MacSwiney’s travails had similarly taken the country by storm.  It is assumed by many, as a matter of course, that Gandhi was greatly ‘influenced’ by MacSwiney, but though he was doubtless moved by his resolve, patriotism, and endurance, Gandhi distinguished between the ‘fast’ and the ‘hunger-strike’.  Nevertheless, MacSwiney was a hero to armed revolutionaries—and to Jawaharlal Nehru.  Writing some years after MacSwiney’s death to his daughter Indira, Nehru noted that the Irishman’s hunger-strike ‘thrilled Ireland’ and indeed the world:  ‘When put in gaol he declared that he would come out, alive or dead, and gave up taking food.  After he had fasted for seventy-five days his dead body was carried out of the gaol.’  It is unquestionably MacSwiney’s example, rather than that of Gandhi, that Bhagat Singh, Bhatukeshwar Dutt, and others implicated in the Lahore Conspiracy Case had in mind when in mid-1929 they commenced a hunger-strike to be recognized as ‘political prisoners’.  That hunger-strike was joined by the Bengali political activist and bomb-maker, Jatindranath Das, in protest against the deplorable conditions in jail and in defence of the rights of political prisoners.  Jatin died after 63 days on 13 September 1929.  The nation grieved:  as Nehru would record in his autobiography, ‘Jatin Das’s death created a sensation all over the country.’  Das would receive virtually a state funeral in Calcutta and Subhas Bose was among the pallbearers.

A nationalist print from around 1930 called ‘Bharat Ke MacSwiney’ (‘India’s MacSwiney’).  It shows Jatindranath Das, who died on the 63rd day of his hunger-strike on 13 September 1929, in the lap of Bharat Mata, reposing in ‘eternal sleep’ having done his duty to the nation.  Image:  Courtesy of Vinay Lal.

Though Gandhi was the master of the fast, the modern history of hunger-striking begins with Terence MacSwiney. It is quite likely that Gandhi recognized, more particularly after MacSwiney’s martyrdom, how the hunger-strike as a form of political theatre could galvanize not just a nation but world opinion.  However, the life story of MacSwiney should resonate in India for many other reasons besides the singularity of MacSwiney’s admirable defence of the rights of his own people.  As I have suggested, England under-developed Ireland before laying India to waste, and Ireland was in many respects as much a laboratory as India for British policies with regard to land settlement, taxation, famine relief, the suppression of dissent, and much else. It is equally a highly disconcerting fact that the story of the Irish in India suggests that those who have been brutalized will in turn brutalize others.  The precise role of the Irish in the colonization of India requires much further study.  On the other hand, the legend of Terence MacSwiney points to the exhilarating if complicated history, which in recent years has begun to be explored by some scholars, of the solidarity of the Irish and the Indians.  Indians have long been familiar, for instance, with the figure of the Irishwoman Annie Beasant, but transnational expressions of such solidarity took many forms.  At a time when the world seems convulsed by insularity and xenophobic nationalism, the story of MacSwiney points to the critical importance of sympathy across borders.

Georgian translation by Ana Mirilashvili available here.

Imagining Beethoven in India

This month marks the 250th birth anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven.  In ordinary times, Germany, Austria, and a good part of the world beyond Europe would have been ablaze with celebrations:  as the opera composer Giuseppe Verdi, a man whose reputation in some circles would be just as great, remarked: “Before the name of Beethoven, we must all bow in reverence.”  However, in India, even without the coronavirus pandemic, there would not have been much of a stir.  Beethoven’s name is by no means unknown, and India doubtless has its share of afficionados of Western classical music.  Fifty years ago, the Indian government even issued a postage stamp in his honor.  But it is an unimpeachable fact that unlike in China, Korea, and Japan, where Western classical music has over the decades gained enormous ground, there has never been anything more than a miniscule constituency in India for such music.  A few years ago the German violinist Viktoria Elisabeth Kaunzner wrote that a “performance by the Seoul Philharmonic conducted by Eliahu Inbal of Shostakovich’s Symphony no.11 prompted the same kind of enthusiasm from the audience that one sees after a goal is scored at the FIFA World Championship”.  This would be unthinkable in India—even, to be quite clear about it, in Russia, Germany, or elsewhere in Europe or the United States.

Ludwig van Beethoven: undoubtedly the most famous portrait of him, by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820.
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In-Betweenness and Migrancy: A Tribute to Manglesh Dabral–Migrant, Poet, and a Quiet Rebel

Vinay Lal

The Hindi poet, Manglesh Dabral, died in New Delhi last week, felled as many others have been by COVID-19.  Dabral was a quiet, unassuming man, and, according to those who are truly conversant in Hindi poetry, quite likely among the two or three of the greatest Hindi poets of his generation.  He had a long career as a journalist, having been associated with many leading Hindi newspapers and magazines—in Bhopal, Allahabad, and Delhi—over the course of several decades, and his stewardship of the Sunday literary magazine of the newspaper Jansatta, known as Ravivari, was quite legendary.  His obituaries make note of his many distinguished contributions to Indian literature and journalism and all those need not be rehearsed here at length. Though Dabral’s poetry was translated into English and nearly a dozen other European languages, he was himself an accomplished translator into Hindi of the poetry of Pablo Neruda, Bertolt Brecht, and Zbigniew Herbert among others. 

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