How I grew up with Lata Mangeshkar’s voice

POV

How I grew up with Lata Mangeshkar’s voice

Illustration: Arati Gujar

Every family has stories they remember in good times and bad. A funny incident involving a loved one, a road trip gone awry, a prank that backfired, or some memorable tidbits keeping you company as you graduate through life.  In my family, an oft-repeated story is how once the Goonj Uthi Shehnai (1959) audio cassette was playing and my elder sister, then a toddler, confounded by the voice emerging out of this curious-looking box walked up to it and pressed the record button accidentally.

My Lata connection would always be bound by home and nostalgia, and a story about that Lata song my sister once interrupted.

Lata Mangeshkar’s melancholic “Dil ka khilona haye toot gaya, koi lootera aake…” was interrupted and my sister’s little voice, all panicky and confused, got recorded as she called our grandma for help. This episode became an endearing memory for the family and slips into our conversations frequently. This was perhaps how I was introduced to Lata Mangeshkar before becoming aware of her ubiquitous presence and influence on India.

One of Hindi cinema’s greatest and longest performing artists Mangeshkar is among the select few legendary figures considered synonymous with the industry and, as the popular opinion goes, beyond comparison and reproach. Like many people of their generation, my parents, too, enjoyed listening to old Hindi film songs. The radio would almost always be tuned to Vividh Bharti – the glorious repository of Hindi film music – or else the tape recorder would be playing tracks from my mother’s impressive collection of Hindi classics.

Mangeshkar is among the few legendary figures considered synonymous with the music industry and, as the popular opinion goes, beyond comparison and reproach.

Some of my faint preschool day memories are of Anarkali’s (1953) “Yeh zindagi ussi ki hai,” Baharon Ke Sapne’s (1967 ) “Aaja piya,” and Baiju Bawra’s (1952) “Bachpan ki mohabbat” being played repeatedly at home. Though I didn’t quite understand these songs, they sounded pleasant and the singer’s voice extremely melodious. The catchy tunes of “Mann dole” (Nagin, ‘54) and “Bichhua” (Madhumati, ‘58), and the playfulness of “Ichak daana” (Shree 420, ‘55) were more up my alley. It was here among these evergreen hits that I got unwittingly drawn into the ever-expanding world of Lata songs, a world I am still discovering. A world built on melodies of all kinds and for all moods – romantic, tragic, philosophical, patriotic, and devotional; with a dulcet voice working like a charm on any leading lady who lip-synced the lyrics.

It was among her evergreen hits that I got unwittingly drawn into the ever-expanding world of Lata songs, a world I am still discovering.

Given the pervasiveness of Hindi film music in the Indian way of life, artists like Lata, Rafi, and Kishore became constant companions. At home, in neighbourhood shops, bus stops, family functions and festivals — the familiar voices playing in the backdrop as one went on about life. Many of her colleagues passed away. Some faded. But Lata marched on, her music adapting to the next generation. It became easy to understand the meaning of the words ‘Lata ji ki anmol aawaaz’ that fans swore by. In the early ‘90s, it was impossible to attend a wedding without hearing “Mere haathon mein nau nau chooriyan” (Chandni, 1989) or “Sun sahiba sun” (Ram Teri Ganga Maili, 1985) playing on full blast or for that matter escape Lata and SP Balasubrahmanyam’s massively popular romantic duets from Maine Pyar Kiya (1989).

Many of her colleagues passed away. Some faded. But Lata marched on, her music adapting to the next generation.

Even as one got introduced to the Anuradha Paudwal-Alka Yagnik-Sadhana Sargam era of Bollywood music, the grand dame was still capable of belting out roaring successes like Hum Aapke Hain Koun (1994), Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), and Dil To Pagal Hai (1997). Though she was less active than she was in previous decades, when a song demanded gravitas, filmmakers would rely on Lata. For instance, in the 1992 super hit Khuda Gawah, the only female solo number “Tu mujhe qubool” is performed by her. It is an emotionally-charged song in which a daughter confronts her father for not acknowledging her existence.

When I first watched the picturisation of Guide’s (1965) “Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai,” I couldn’t believe it was a Lata song. It begins with an empowering declaration “Kaaton se kheench ke yeh aanchal/ Tod ke bandhan baandhe paayal,” and Lata’s superlative rendition melds into Waheeda Rehman’s exhilarating embrace of life and liberty, blurring the lines of playback singer and onscreen performer. Similarly, if you listen to the exquisite, calming “Aye dil-e-nadan” (Razia Sultan, 1983) and then move to a straight-up frothy “I’m very very sorry,” (Chaand Kaa Tukdaa, 1994) you may be amazed by the range of this songstress who sang for generations of film stars without getting jaded or limited.

In all these years of listening to old Hindi songs and reading up about them, it’s not surprising that all admirers of such songs share the same sentiments about their go-to Lata songs.

For years, I have resorted to listening to Mera Saaya’s (1966) “Nainon mein badra chhaaye” every time I am looking for a breather. A magnificent sitar prelude with a santoor and tabla interplay followed by Lata’s faint echoing voice, calling from a distance like an old memory, is an ethereal experience. Recently, I came across a lovely tweet about some listeners’ heartening association with another Lata classic, Anupama’s (1966) “Dheere dheere machal.” In all these years of listening to old Hindi songs and reading up comments about them on YouTube, blog posts, and social media, it’s not surprising that all admirers of such songs share the same sentiments about their go-to Lata song(s). Some find succour in “Lag jaa gale” (Woh Kaun Thi, 1964), some relate to “Kuch dil ne kaha” (again Anupama),  and some have found “Ajeeb dastaan” (Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai, 1960) meaningful.

Lata’s music has transcended borders, given people across generations something to bond over, and felt so personal and permanent.

Lata’s music has transcended borders, given people across generations something to bond over, and felt so personal and permanent. The singer’s politics, however, has always underwhelmed. In an industry built primarily on syncretic beliefs, Lata has cultivated several deep and meaningful associations with secular and progressive artists like Dilip Kumar, Nargis, Yash Chopra and is universally known for her professionalism. Yet her inclination to support a certain kind of ideology only undermines these associations. She is often criticised for not using her influence as a cultural icon – bestowed with the highest national honour, the Bharat Ratna – to speak truth to power or furthering social consciousness. “I am a singer, not a speaker,” she once said when she was describing her unfruitful term as a Member of the Rajya Sabha. That said, seldom has an artist command an aura of such permanence, that bouts of doubt and revaluation are rendered inconsequential. To me, my Lata connection would always be bound by home and nostalgia, of old cassettes, a tape recorder that no longer works, and a story about that Lata song my sister interrupted.

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