What Lata-di meant to the subcontinent - Hindustan Times
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What Lata-di meant to the subcontinent

Feb 10, 2022 05:55 PM IST

No one has comforted and unified so many millions like the melodious voice of Lata Mangeshkar, cutting across barriers of caste, community, region, even nationality

It was in Pakistan at the peak of the Kargil War that I realised the power of Lata Mangeshkar’s voice. 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 house arrest for hours, before finally being allowed to leave. As we returned a little shaken to our hotel, we suddenly heard a familiar sound: The pianist in the lobby was playing the enchanting tune of Ajeeb dastan hai yeh. He smiled at us, and 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 sense of contentment. Only Lata-di’s voice could cross the tension-filled Line of Control with such ease.

Lata Mangeshkar’s genius was matched by a complete dedication to the craft. Not a word or a sur (melody) out of place, she is a reminder of the virtue of devotion to the arts as a life-long mission (Vijayanand gupta/ht photo) PREMIUM
Lata Mangeshkar’s genius was matched by a complete dedication to the craft. Not a word or a sur (melody) out of place, she is a reminder of the virtue of devotion to the arts as a life-long mission (Vijayanand gupta/ht photo)

It was in Pakistan at the peak of the Kargil War that I realised the power of Lata Mangeshkar’s voice. 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 house arrest for hours, before finally being allowed to leave. As we returned a little shaken to our hotel, we suddenly heard a familiar sound: The pianist in the lobby was playing the enchanting tune of Ajeeb dastan hai yeh. He smiled at us, and 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 sense of contentment. Only Lata-di’s voice could cross the tension-filled Line of Control with such ease.

Truthfully, no one has comforted and unified so many millions across the subcontinent like the melodious voice of Lata-di, cutting across barriers of caste, community, region, even nationality. As a symbol of peace and harmony, Mangeshkar typified why music touches the soul, “moonlight in the gloomy night of life,” as someone once described the joy of a song.

As India celebrates 75 years of Independence, Lata-di’s voice is arguably the most defining marker of Indianness. Between her debut film song in 1943 and her last song, a tribute to the Indian Army, in 2019, Mangeshkar saw as many as 15 prime ministers come and go. Is there any other Indian artiste who has so mesmerised civil society over such an extended period? Amitabh Bachchan, a remarkably enduring superstar, has delivered box-office hits, anchored mega TV shows and sold a range of commercial products for decades. For over two decades, Sachin Tendulkar was the ultimate poster boy of cricket, the other great Indian passion, his every stroke being replayed in our homes through the phenomenal reach of live satellite television.

But Lata-di’s appeal is unique because she flourished in a pre-multimedia age before the noisy event managers and publicists took over. She didn’t need a breaking news quote, an Instagram post, a tweet or a music video to remind us of her durable presence. She was omnipresent, a reflection of the universalism of the ubiquitous radio and Vividh Bharti across the country. Many Indians may not have recognised her on the street, but her voice was enough to establish her permanence in their 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 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 be remembered, but the songs were eternal. So 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?

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. This is why we have a slew of music channels and radio stations, which flourish on retro music. This is also why even now at a party, the crowd starts humming in unison 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 she sang in multiple languages. Her voice could evoke a range of emotions: Drive a prime minister to tears as she did with her soulful rendition of Kavi Pradeep’s classic “Ae mere watan ke logo”. Or make us fall in love again with a “Pyar hua ikrar hua” or a “Tujhe dekha to ye jaana sanam”, two ageless love anthems, quite incredibly sung four decades apart. But her genius was matched by a complete dedication to the craft. Not a word or a sur (melody) out of place, in an age of one-hit wonders, she is a reminder of the virtue of devotion to the arts as a life-long mission.

Indeed, as VVIPs lined up for her cremation at Shivaji Park, her journey was complete. The little girl who 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 13, who rose from crowded neighbourhoods in central Mumbai to live in the plush Pedder Road area, 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. Immortalised 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 teenager’s heart.

Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and authorThe views expressed are personal

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Rajdeep Sardesai is senior journalist, author and TV news presenter. His book 2014: The election that changed India is a national best seller that has been translated into half a dozen languages. He tweets as @sardesairajdeep

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