It was in Pakistan at the peak of the Kargil war that I realized the power of the voice of Lata Mangeshkar. We had spent a harrowing day in ‘enemy’ territory at the Hizbul Mujahideen headquarters in Rawalpindi: our camera was snatched away and we were kept under virtual house arrest for hours before finally being allowed to leave. As we returned to our hotel, we suddenly heard a familiar sound: the pianist in the lobby was playing the magical tune of ‘Ajeeb dastan hai yeh..’ He nodded in our direction and happily asked, ‘Would you like me to play any other Lata Mangeshkar song?” Suddenly, the fear and fatigue of a day out with the Hizbul was replaced by a relaxed smile of contentment. Only Lata di’s voice could cross the tension-filled line of control with such ease.
Truthfully, no one has comforted so many millions of people across the sub-continent quite like the melodious voice of Lata di. She symbolized a cherished aspect of our lives that we all so desire but often cannot attain: peace and harmony. Cutting across every barrier of caste, community, region, even nationality, Lata Mangeshkar typifies just why music touches the soul like little else, ‘moonlight in the gloomy night of life’ as someone once described the joy of song or as the great Tagore put it, “music fills the infinite between two souls’.
As India celebrates 75 years of independence, it is Lata di’s voice that is arguably the most defining marker of Indian-ness. After all, between her debut film song in 1943 and her last song recorded as a tribute to the army in 2019, Lata Mangeshkar saw fifteen prime ministers come and go and the music world move from gramophone to digital. Is there any other Indian who over such an extended period of time has held sway over the public imagination? Amitabh Bachchan has been a superstar for half a century, a remarkably enduring face that has delivered box office hits, anchored mega-tv shows and sold a range of commercial products. For over two decades, Sachin Tendulkar was the ultimate posterboy of cricket, the other great Indian passion, his every stroke being replayed in our homes through the phenomenal reach of ‘live’ satellite television.
Lata di’s appeal though was unique because she flourished in a pre-multi-media age before the noisy event managers and publicists took over. She didn’t need a breaking news quote, an Instagram post or a tweet or a music video to remind us of her durable presence: she was omnipresent, a reflection of the universalism of the humble radio that could reach every nook and corner of the country in the early post-independence decades. Many Indians might never have seen her, might not recognize her on the street but her voice was enough to establish her permanence in our lives. As Gulzar, Hindi cinema’s eminence grise, put it so evocatively on her passing away: “With Lata, it was a case of ‘meri aawaz hi pehchan hai’ (my voice is my identity).”
Lata di was blessed in a way to be born in an age where cinema’s distinctive identity was its music. The 1950s and 60s in particular was the era of unforgettable playback singing enhanced by the creative genius of the magical lyricists and music directors of the time; the films might not have always been remembered but the songs were eternal. As was the emphasis on song picturisation. I have often wondered: would Madhubala have looked so ethereally beautiful while singing ‘Pyar Kiya to darna kya’ in Mughal-e-Azam without Lata’s voice ringing in our hearts? Or Waheeda Rahman so effervescent while singing ‘aaj phir jeene ki tamanna’ in Guide atop an open truck.
This enduring quality of the music of a bygone era might explain why the number one show on Doordarshan in the 1970s was Chaya Geet: a collection of old film songs where the viewer could be taken on a nostalgic spin into a sepia-tinted past. Which is also why even now, we have a slew of music channels and radio stations which flourish on retro music from another generation. Which is also why even now at a party, the crowd gets excited to hit the floor when a Kishore-Rafi or a Lata-Asha hit number is played.
But while Lata di was a nation’s voice, she was also more than just the collective of the 30,000 songs that she sang across multiple languages. Yes, her voice could evoke multiple emotions: drive a prime minister to tears as she did with Nehru and her soulful rendition of Kavi Pradeep’s classic ‘Ae mere watan ke logo’. Or make us fall in love all over again with a ‘Pyar hua ikrar hua’ or indeed a ‘Tujhe dekha to ye jaana sanam’, two ageless love anthems, quite incredibly sung four decades apart. But her music would never be as overwhelming without the knowledge of the complete dedication to the craft that is her signature tune. As anyone who ever worked with Lata di will tell you, in the music studio and outside of it, she was the complete perfectionist, not a word or a sur out of place. In an age of one hit wonders, she is a reminder of the virtue of devotion to the arts as a lifelong mission.
Indeed, as the VVIPs lined up for her cremation at Shivaji Park, her journey in a sense was complete. The little girl who had received her first music lessons from her father Dinanath Mangeshkar at the age of five, who acted in musical plays, who was the sole bread-winner for the family when her father died when she was just 13, who rose from crowded neighbourhoods in central Mumbai to live in the plush Pedder Road area, Lata Mangeshkar’s life story parallels that of modern India: a struggle against the odds to the ultimate peak of success, driven by raw talent and not lineage. Immortalized in life and death. Let the music play on.
Post-script: If music was her life, cricket was Lata di’s other abiding passion. Once while interviewing her when Sachin Tendulkar was about to retire, she giggled, “When Sachin comes to bat, I stop doing everything, even singing!” And then blushed like any young fan. That was Lata di’s disarming charm: a voice from heaven with a heart of a teenager.