Lata Mangeshkar, 92, plans to croon again defying attitudinal and technological change

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If Lata’s ‘Allah, Karam Karna’ and ‘Allah Reham” are popular among the Muslims, two of the Indian cinema’s best bhakti (devotional) songs, “Allah Tero Naam Ishwar Tero Naam” and “Prabhu Tero Naam” are sung six decades after she rendered them in Hum Dono.

Legendary singer Lata Mangeshkar Photo: Facebook profile photo @LataMangeshkar

A digital collage of Lata Mangeshkar’s 92 songs sung for as many music directors was produced to commemorate her 92nd birthday this week. As her legion of fans around India, South Asia and the South Asian diaspora globally, from government leaders to farm workers, paid tributes to her, the music legend has announced that she plans to “sing again, very soon.”
Although she has announced retirement many times before, this should not surprise anyone. Along with the Covid-19 pandemic, noise and air pollution in central Mumbai where she lives have held her down. But not any longer. For, she can’t stay away from singing.

She told noted cinema chronicler-film critic Subhash K. Jha in an interview: “I do plan to sing again, very soon. Well-wishers and dear ones like you have been urging me to return to singing. But this pandemic has made it difficult for me to venture out for anything. Aap sochiye ke mere liye kitna mushqil hai gaane se door rehna (just think, how difficult it is for me to stay away from singing)”.

This age-defying feat may well be one more record set by India’s longest-singing Nightingale. Hers is one voice that has reverberated since 1942, which means she will be celebrating eight decades of an outstanding singing career.

Concern over conflict among communities

As much significant as her long innings, if not more, is her expression of concern at the prevailing social conflict among communities, because it comes from someone who has been known to be sympathetic, emotionally, if not politically, at one time with the right-wing “Hindu nationalists” who form the current ruling dispensation at the national level.

She told Jha: “Main aapko sach bataoon? Main andar se dukhi hoon. (Should I tell you the truth? I am sad from inside). There is so much division in the country. People are getting more and more into ‘Main Hindu hoon, woh Mussalmaan hai (I am Hindu, he/she is a Muslim). This climate of suspicion and hostility must stop.”

“I had hoped and prayed that this kind of divisive atmosphere would have long ago ended. But I am sorry to say it’s getting worse. People are killing one another in the name of religion.”

Nobody has so far responded to this voice of sanity. Hearts and minds that have nurtured her singing appear to have hardened and numbed.

On her birthday on September 28 came the release by Vishal Bhardwaj and Gulzar of an unheard song titled ‘Theek Nahi Lagta’ (It doesn’t seem right) sung in the 1990s, but never released. The theme of the song is not known. But its title seems to reflect her present mood.

A unifying voice

Told that hers is one voice that unifies all Indians, she quipped: “That is music to my ears. Believe me, when you say this I feel very humbled. At the risk of sounding immodest…”

Lata Mangeshkar on Sept. 9, 1938. Photo she uploaded Sept. 9, 2021. Photo: Facebook @LataMangeshkar with the following words – Namaskar.aajhi ke din 9 September 1938 ko Solapur ke Nutan Sangeet Theatre mein maine pehli baar mere pitaji ke saath shastriya sangeet aur natyageet ka karyakram pesh kiya tha,jis mein maine Raag Khambavati gaaya tha. Ye photo usi karyakram ke liye khinchwaayi gayi thi.Mujhe aaj bhi yaad hai ki mera gaana hone ke baad baba stage oar aaye aur gaane baithe,main wahin baithi hui thi , baba gaa rahe the aur main baba ki godh mein sar rakh kar sogayi.Kiti meethi yaadein hain.

Lata has sung on for four generations or five, depending upon how you count the length of a generation. If numbers are the yardstick, there are many conjectures about the count of songs she has rendered over nearly eight decades. Suffice it to say that she has recorded songs in more than a thousand Hindi films and lent her voice in over 36 Indian and foreign languages, though primarily in Marathi, Urdu, Hindi and Bengali.

o retain that unique, childlike, freshness in voice at this age is itself a miracle or a record of sorts. Her singing truly defies attitudinal and technological changes that occur with each passing generation.

Till she voluntarily cut down her singing assignments in the late 1980s, Lata faced no competition from any of the female singers, barring her sister Asha Bhonsle. Though Asha’s career ran parallel with hers, it was on a different note and scale musically. Tales of competition between the two abound, and even movies have been made on that theme. The fact is both are still singing.

She has lasted so long and dominated because she has adapted. She filled in the vacuum caused by the departure to Pakistan of Khursheed and other playback singers after partition. Emphasis was on Urdu, while her forte was Marathi and Hindi. A story, real or apocryphal, has it that music composer Anil Biswas introduced her to Dilip Kumar on a Bombay local train, saying she would be singing for their next movie.

Kumar, an aesthete even before he became an experienced actor, politely probed Lata’s family and cultural background – of a Maharashtrian from the Konkan region and a family of renowned singers. He happily welcomed her with the caveat that her Urdu pronunciation would probably need to be rescued from “a possible aroma of daal-bhaat gruel,” the region’s rice-and-lentils meal. Kumar himself grew up in Deolali, Maharashtra.

Diligent training, versatility

Lata engaged a maulvi to polish her Urdu and acquired flawless diction. That diligent training was to reflect in her rendition of Ghalib or Sahir Ludhianvi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, or Shailendra. Even Mohammed Rafi couldn’t equal that although he read and wrote in Urdu by heritage. Often in his singing, critics have said, the Punjabi tendency to pronounce waqt as wakt was discernible; not with Lata.

Her versatility has been acknowledged in both Hindustani Classical and popular Bollywood music alike. “Amar Akbar Anthony”, an evergreen 1970s film, has a medley rendered by three top singers of the day, Mohammed Rafi, Mukesh and Kishore Kumar, singing for characters played by Rishi Kapoor, Vinod Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan. But only Lata crooned for all the three heroines: Shabana Azmi, Parveen Babi and Neetu Singh.

Indian cinema, even the much-maligned Bollywood, is a secular place where bhajans (devotional song with a religious theme or spiritual ideas, specifically among Indian religions) of Mohammed Rafi and naats (poetry in praise of the Islamic prophet Muhammad) of Manna De abound. If Lata’s ‘Allah, Karam Karna’ and ‘Allah Reham” are popular among the Muslims, two of the Indian cinema’s best bhakti (devotional) songs, “Allah Tero Naam Ishwar Tero Naam” and “Prabhu Tero Naam” are sung six decades after she rendered them in Hum Dono.

Her “Aye mere watan ke logon,” in the wake of the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict, first rendered on the sands of Mumbai’s Chowpaty, remains a landmark event that reflected the mood of the nation. In attendance and in tears, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru told her: “Beti, tumne toh roola diya (my daughter, you have made me cry).”

Awards, affection

Like the number of songs she has sung, the awards she has been conferred with are difficult to count. Again, suffice it to say that along with Satyajit Ray, she has been honored with Dadasahb Phalke Award (1989), the ultimate in Indian cinema and Bharat Ratna (2001), India’s highest civilian honor.

Lata had at one stage declined awards saying she had received far too many and would like other, younger artists to be considered. But she did not hesitate to accept the Bharat Ratna (Jewel of India) .

Asked at the investiture ceremony if she was moving away from her earlier decision, she explained that awards for her professional work by private bodies were one thing, but an award by the President of India was an honor no Indian could refuse. It is human to expect a reward or award for work done and more so if it brings excellent results that make people of the country proud.

The best tribute to her, she told Jha, came decades ago. The great Hindusthani classical vocalist Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan once famously cursed her:

“Kambakht kabhi besura nahin gaati.(Damn, she never sings out of tune)” She wistfully says: “Aap dekhiye uss ek shabd ‘Kambakht’ mein kitna pyaar hai. Itna pyaar mujhe mila. Mujhe aur kuch nahin chahiye. (Note the affection in that word ‘kambakht’. I have never received more love than that. I want nothing more.)”

Mahendra Ved .Photo: southasiamonitor.org

The writer is a veteran journalist and South Asia watcher. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at mahendraved07@gmail.com.

 

 

 

This article first appeared in South Asia Monitor on Sept 30, 2021. Used with permission from SAM.

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