(First of two pieces on Lata Mangeshkar)
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.