Lata Mangeshkar: The Singing Avatar

Lataji was THE standard, beyond anything known, immortal and transcendent

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

When I was a medical student in Calcutta (now: Kolkata) in the late 1960s there was a classmate who was from Khar, Mumbai. On one occasion when she came back from a holiday, she narrated to our group of friends with great pride that a small niece of hers living in Pune had been blessed with a visit by Lataji. The story was that her niece was very fond of Lataji’s songs, and she wrote a letter to the latter expressing a wish that she would like to meet her, and would she also bring a particular type of doll that she liked? Lataji fulfilled her dream…

Not one, but more likely millions of her admirers both in Bharat and abroad would no doubt have equivalent if not similar direct or indirect experiences to share. The most accessible encounter if I may put it this way, especially for those like us of the diaspora, is to be enraptured by her singing, as have generations of music lovers during her musical lifetime that spanned almost 80 years, from 1942 onwards, and others to come as long as, one can fairly say, humankind exists.

For she is no less than a Singing Avatar.

The term ‘Avatar’ became mainstreamed in common parlance in the wake of the 2009 film of the same name. But the idea originates from Bharat’s philosophy and is captured in Shlokas 7 & 8 of the Bhagavad Gita, when Krishna Bhagavan tells Prince Arjuna: 

 Yada  yada  hi  dharmasya  glanirbhavati  bharata |
Abhythanamadharmasya  tadatmanasrijamyaham ||

Paritranaya  sadhunang  vinashay  cha  dushkritam |
Dharmasangsthapanarthay  sambhabami  yugyuge ||

‘Whenever there is a decline of righteousness (dharma) and rise of unrighteousness then I Myself come forth. For the protection of the good, for the destruction of the wicked, and for the establishment of righteousness, I come into being from age to age.’

According to what has transpired in write-ups about her, one may consider Lataji’s fight for and winning the rights of playback singers to royalties and picture credits (they had hitherto been denied of them) as a form of ‘establishment of righteousness.’ But this engagement was far surpassed by what she will ever be remembered for: her singing in that unique voice. When professional artists and singers concede that ‘there was no one before nor will there be anyone after’ like her, who are we common mortals to contradict them? After all, they all do their best to emulate her singing. It is common to refer to a ‘gold standard.’ As far as Lataji is concerned, she was THE standard, beyond anything known, immortal and transcendent.

Those belonging to the Indian tradition may be said to be biased in her favour when praising her singing. But that she transcended barriers is evident from the reaction of a young Russian lady, who only knew a few words of Hindi, after listening to her rendering of Lagja Gale… from the film ‘Woh Kaun Thi.’ She was so emotionally stunned that she had to recoup herself for several seconds, eyes closed, before she said: ‘The whole song was like a dream. The voice was not human, cannot be human. It was like that of a fairy.’ Singer Abida Parveen of Pakistan who had met her said her voice was nothing less than divine.

All this is in accord with the ‘before’ and ‘after’ appreciation of her singing sorority and fraternity, that she was indeed a voice from the beyond. And that is why ‘yuge yuge’ – from age to age – she will have to come. Not in another thousand years maybe will we have such a presence – but in the meantime, her singing will continue to resonate in our hearts and in our imagination.

In our hearts most profoundly, for that’s the unfathomable depth where we actually feel her singing. If I may paraphrase from an advertisement for Heineken beer in the 1970s in the UK (which was removed because it was judged indecent), said ‘to reach parts where other beers cannot reach,’ Lataji’s singing touched chords in the core of our being that others cannot penetrate.

To be fair, though, there are many singers who can stir our emotions as strongly – Anuradha Paudwal, Kavita Krishnamurthy, for example – but again, they themselves bow to her uniqueness. In Indian singing contests which are meant to encourage and support emerging talents among young Indians, and which are regularly featured on TV channels, such as Indian Idols, the judges themselves invariably prod the contestants by referring to Lataji’s singing of the same song they would have sung. And I must say that there are some outstanding youngsters who to lay persons like myself are already pitched at such a high level that one wonders if there could be anything more. And yet there is…Lataji.

Where is one to begin from among the over 25,000 songs that she sang in nearly 1000 films, to which must be added the ghazals, bhajans, etc., which she said she enjoyed recording more than the film songs. It was not until the stirrings of love during my teenage years that I truly began to feel what power her singing had! To this day, ‘Tera mera pyar amar…’ from the film ‘Anamika’ can bring about the same churn within! As for ‘Lagja gale…’, it will forever carry the potential to make one swoon as it melts the heart and brings it almost to a standstill.

But I began, so to speak, differently: fighting with my sister over her repeated singing of ‘Man Dole Mera, Tan Dole Tera…’ from the film ‘Nagin’. That was the early 1950s, and I guess I had no clue about what singing was all about – unlike my classmate’s niece alluded to above who was obviously much ahead, and well primed by being submerged in that ocean of musical sounds in which are immersed Bharat and her citizens, sounds which permeate to their vocal apparatus by a kind of cultural osmosis, shakti-laden memes.  How often I have experienced this first hand!

Indeed, one winter evening in New Delhi, in a locality not far from the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences, where the population was mostly from the working class, as I was walking, I heard a bhajan being sung. It was so melodious that I went towards where the sound was coming from, and I could not help but stop and listen. There was a small gathering, people sitting on the floor mostly, in what appeared to be a makeshift pandal (tent) – for it was cold – and listening to the singer who was playing the harmonium. To think that there are millions like him…

But to come back to Lataji, every song of hers evoked the emotion of the moment it was meant for – romance, love, remembrance, happiness, sadness, gaiety, nostalgia…There are so many iconic songs that it is impossible to list them, but perhaps the one that stands out the most is Aye  mere  watan  ke  logon…’ which came in the wake of the war between China and India in1962. It still brings tears to one’s eyes, as it did when it was first sung by Lataji.

Each one of us has our own favourites among Lataji’ songs. Thanks to the MBC-TV team for the programme on Wednesday last, ‘Lata Live’, which was well put together and spanned Lataji’s repertoire of songs and featured short video clips wherein Lataji spoke about her singing and other matters related thereto.

During the broadcast on Indian TV on the day of her passing, Tuesday last, it was a treat to listen to the conversation between her and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for whom she was ‘Lata-Didi.’ They were trying to outdo each other about who had more humility!

Privileged indeed are those who could relate to her as Lata-Aunty or Lata-Didi, and fortunate indeed the land who bore such an Avatar. In the words of AR Rahman, globally acclaimed music composer and singer from Chennai, Lataji is not just an icon, she is ‘India’s consciousness,’ her chaitanyam.

Shubh  sadgati to her atman. Om Shanti.

* Published in print edition on 11 February 2022

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