Why Mangeshkar mattered so much
The Mangeshkar I treasure most is her accompaniment to the destitute Nargis struggling to pull a plough in Mother India
Last Sunday, while I was wondering whether I should write this column on the assembly elections or the Union Budget, I heard that Lata Mangeshkar had died. Prime Minister Narendra Modi went to Mumbai’s Shivaji Park where she was cremated that day to pay his respects to India’s Nightingale. Two days of State mourning was also announced. So I dropped all thoughts of budgets and elections and decided to try explaining why Mangeshkar mattered so much.
Mangeshkar’s importance was, in part, because she sang for so many years, and her songs have lasted. She was heard 6.7 billion times on her YouTube channel in the past year. Mangeshkar started her musical education with her father, Deenanath Mangeshkar, but he died when she was 12. She was a member of the Gomantak Maratha Samaj, which was once a community of Goan devadasis (temple dancers).
There were disputes about her family, with some arguing that she was a Brahmin and could not have been a devadasi. Whatever is the truth, Mangeshkar began to hit the highlights around Independence. At that time, Bollywood films depended on singers trained in the courtesan tradition with shrill, nasal voices. Mangeshkar had a classical musical education, and she was determined to write a new musical language. That she certainly did. It became the language of the new India.
In the 1950s, Lata’s voice travelled across South Asia on Radio Ceylon and All India Radio because the medium enjoyed supremacy in the mass media. Mangeshkar’s songs were also heard on another newish mass media: Films. She rapidly became a star of it. As her sister, Asha Bhosle, who was five years younger, started to make a mark for herself, the two developed differently musically. Mangeshkar remained faithful to her training in classical music, but Bhosle experimented more.
As the BBC correspondent in India for many years, I was well aware of the pull of Bollywood movies and songs, which were so essential to the films. Time after time, I would be asked whether I could get Mangeshkar or Bhosle for TV or radio interviews. I never succeeded with Mangeshkar, but was a little more successful with Bhosle. I also watched Bhosle perform in a very lively roadshow in Siliguri along with RD Burman.
But excellent though Bhosle was, there is no doubt that Mangeshkar was the singer of India. She sang in different languages, including Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Punjabi, and Tamil. She sang in ways each listener could identify herself with, be they in love or out, rejoicing or weeping, in company or alone. There were and are Mangeshkar’s Pakistani fans as well. I have just read a lyrical tribute to Mangeshkar in The Dawn. The author remembers the days when Indian films were shown in Pakistan, and he, as a boy, heard Mangeshkar singing. Doubtless, there were plenty of Pakistanis who were saddened by the news of Mangeshkar’s death.
Mangeshkar was important because there cannot be that many people in India who don’t have at least one Lata song they loved. In that way, she held India together in the early days of Independence and holds her together now, just as cricket does. Mangeshkar also loved cricket.
Draping Mangeshkar’s body in the Indian colours symbolised her role in holding the country together as the “Singer of the Nation”. Her importance now lies in her songs. They will continue to play that role. The Mangeshkar I treasure most is her accompaniment to the destitute Nargis struggling to pull a plough in Mother India.
The views expressed are personal