Lata Mangeshkar: Soundtrack of the subcontinent

Published : 08 Feb 2022 08:44 PM | Updated : 08 Feb 2022 08:44 PM

February 6th. There was not an eye that was dry as Lata Mangeshkar’s cortege made its way to Shivaji Park, Mumbai. Draped in the national flag, her body was handed over to her family to be cremated with full state honours, her pyre lit by her brother, Hridaynath Mangeshkar. She was 92.

The Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, himself flew down from the national capital, New Delhi, to offer his tribute. He said that he was “anguished beyond words”: “The kind and caring Lata Didi has left us. She leaves a void in our nation that cannot be filled. 

The coming generations will remember her as a stalwart of Indian culture, whose melodious voice had an unparalleled ability to mesmerise people.”

Thousands of accolades poured in not only from the President of India and the who’s who of the land, but also the ordinary people of India. For the latter, Lata was so much a part of their lives. She sang over 10 thousand songs, in over 35 languages, in every possible genre.

One of India’s greatest living composers, A.R. Rahman, summed up her place in the heart of millions when he said, “She was part of a soul, part of a consciousness of Indianness, Hindustani music, Urdu, Bengali and Hindi poetry and songs. This void is going to remain forever.”

When West Bengal Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, declared that in her state only Lata Mangeshkar songs would be played at every public place and government establishment for the next fortnight, some wondered how Banerjee would find so many Bengali songs by the singer.

They needn’t have. Lata recorded over 180 songs in Bangla, some of them so popular that they were remade in Hindi. Salil Chowdhury’s “Ja re ud ja re panchi” instantly comes to mind. 

Politics divides, but Lata unites — this truth was borne out by the fact that the Prime Ministers of both Pakistan and Bangladesh sent in their heartfelt condolences too.

Lata received every possible honour, accolade, and award during the six decades or so that she reigned over India’s film and popular music industry. Her crowning glory was the Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award, conferred upon her by the Government of India in 2001.

She had already been conferred the Padma Bhushan in 1969, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 1989, the Maharashtra Bhushan in 1997, and the Padma Vibhushan in 1999.

Lata was in London when she heard the news late at night. The next morning, her friend and confidante, Raj Singh Dungarpur, asked, “How does it feel to be a Bharat Ratna?” With childlike simplicity she replied, “Now that you ask me … bahut achha lagta hai.”

We all have our favourite Lata stories. Speaking to my mother on the day of Lata’s demise, I remembered listening to the latter’s songs first sung by my mother when I was growing up before hearing the actual recordings on radio. 

My mother, who is herself 88, reminisced how feeling the sea breeze from the Dadar balcony when she was a college girl, listening to and humming Lata’s songs gave her generation a sense of innocent expectations about a better future.

“It was the 50s and India was newly independent.” Lata’s voice defined our hopes for India." My mother added, “The greatest thing about Lata-ji was her simplicity and humility. No matter to what heights of fame and fortune she reached, she never became arrogant or conceited.”

True, Lata remained guileless and untainted, her smile as sweet as when she was a young girl who made it against all possible odds in Mumbai’s cut-throat film industry.

Fate, it is said, always triumphs over human actions. In a strange and sad twist, the substitution, during the Republic Day parade of one of Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite hymns, “Abide with Me” by “Ai Mere Watan Ke Logon,” has now become a requiem for India’s most influential and best loved singer, Lata Mangeshkar.

Now, when that song is played, we will remember not only the brave soldiers who laid down their lives on India’s frontiers, but the “Nightingale of India” who sang it, bringing tears to the eyes of then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. 

It was British Labour Party head, Michael Foot, who had introduced Lata in 1974 before her concert at Royal Albert Hall as “the voice of India.” Now it feels as if India has lost its voice.

Bringing her out of virtual retirement for Veer Zaara (2004), the legendary Yash Chopra would have none but Lata for his title song, “Tere Liye.”

Her voice slightly tremulous, the song still went on to capture the hearts of millions in the subcontinent, propelling the film to a box office hit. Today, some of the lyrics, so poignant, convey what so many feel: “Dil Mein Magar Jalte Rahe, Chaahat Ke Diye/Tere Liye, Tere Liye.”

Lata was a nonagenarian, who had lived a full life, when she left us. Covid-19 complications and multiple organ failure were given out as the causes of her death. But the voice that fell silent on Feb. 6 will live on forever in our hearts.

Makarand R. Paranjape is a Professor of English at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. 

Views are personal. 

Source: Gulf News