In a random conversation which veered from clothes to films, my mother informed me that the entire lead cast of the 1990s romance Chandni had passed away. I proceeded to add that Yash Chopra, the film’s director, had passed away and the voice of the film, Lata Mangeshkar, was the most recent loss. But Lata jee, was not just the voice of Chandni’s Sridevi, she was the voice of countless others in Indian cinema, having sung in multiple languages during her 70-year strong career. However, with Hindi cinema being the most widely exhibited one, she was in effect a voice that was omnipresent in the soundtrack of its viewers' lives.
I can’t tell you the year that her voice first echoed into my ear, or that first song that I can consciously attribute to her voice. I am also unable to recall whether I heard her first from the classic late 80s television unit that graced my grandparent’s lounge or whether it was during an afternoon ‘antakshari’ session. It is simply impossible to do so. The sheer grandeur of Lata jee’s repertoire makes her impossible to ignore, particularly if you were born before the disco phase of the 80s, when she was primarily the voice of the young, cultured, heroine.
She did not engage in a versatility of genre that would breach that image. There were no discos or cabarets. Pure and pristine was her technique as was her always white sari. This earned her the title of the proverbial nightingale. But, that image is little unfair to her life and work which has been a constant companion of my late night writing sessions.
There was not much discovery that needed to be made in order to listen to Lata’s songs in the 90s. Even though playback singing in the decade was clearly an arena in which ladies like Alka Yagnik, Kavita Krishnamurthy and Anuradha Paudwal competed to be the voice of the heroine, Lata Mangeshkar still convinced many a child of the decade that her reign over our imaginations was supreme.
It was largely possible because of her almost lifelong partnership with Yash Chopra. For as long as he directed, she sang for him with the exception of his last film Jab Tak Hai Jaan (2012) when she had largely retired from film song. Whether she sang for Kajol in 'Mere Khwabon Main Jo Aye' (Dilwale Dulhannia Le Jayenge 1995 dir Aditya Chopra) or her contemporaries such as Madhuri and Karisma Kapoor in the iconic 'Dil Toh Pagal Hai' and 'Raat Ne Kuch Kaha' (both Dil Toh Pagal Hai 1998 dir Yash Chopra), she represented the leading ladies in the same manner as she had since her first popular song 'Aye Ga Aanay Wala' (Mahal 1949 dir Kamal Amrohi).
Time, choice of songs, modernity and perhaps age may have impacted her suitability for the majority of songs in the 90s, but her presence was undeniable because of the layers of emotion she added to the most simple of moments and the opposite was true for the complex. Her ability to act out the lyrics was the rarity that allowed women half her age to convince the audience that it was them not Lata jee who were singing on screen.
Just listen to 'Arey Arey Yeh Kya Hua' (Dil Toh Pagal Hai) in its entirety to witness the romantic turn the song takes suddenly and then hear its total absence when the switch back to the random dance routine occurs. Not once in my childhood did I think it wasn’t Madhuri singing for herself, even though I knew perfectly well otherwise. It is fascinating that the same lady could sing 'Bahon Main Chale Aao' (Anamika 1977 dir Raghunath Jhalani) for the young Jaya Bhaduri and then convince you that it was indeed the actor herself singing the title song of Kabhi Khusi Kabhi Gham (2001 dir Karan Johar).
Incidentally, the young Lata Mangeshkar began her career as an actor. Her passion for music, however, took her from the sets to the recording studio, the vantage point from which she acted forever. My conscious discovery of her non-90s songs was driven both by the fact that I consumed a great deal of vintage Hindi films, and reality shows. The internet of course bridged the information gap between these sources and that of the oral history available from family. Resultantly, her many avatars through the decades, solo or in a duet, began to keep me company.
Late at night when I sit down to write, to clear my thoughts and sometimes to voice them it is Lata jee, as I can’t help but call her, whose songs enable me to do so. It begins with 'Tere Liye' (Veer-Zaara 2003 dir Yash Chopra) where she and Roop Kumar Rathod create a spellbinding effect with their reflection on the 20 something years that Veer and Zaara have spent apart. Depth, pain, despair and happiness all combine together in that song.
Then I switch to the iconic 'Ajeeb Daastan Hai Yeh' (Dil Apna Aur Preet Parayi 1960 dir Kishore Sahu), to make sense of things that have been troubling me. Here the mood is reflective, hopeful and borderline happy. It’s always been a song I’ve turned to progress forward regardless if that is limited to the task at hand or life at large. It is also the song that I’ve been incessantly playing all week. There is such closure that it offers.
Then there are songs of revival and empowerment like 'Aaj Phir Jeene Ki Tamana Hai' (Guide 1965 dir Chetan Anand) where a woman leaves a loveless marriage to pursue her own happiness. There is no remorse, just unabashed happiness. It is contrasted by the depth of 'Tere Bina Zindagi Se Koi Shikwa Toh Nahi' (Aandhi 1975 dir Gulzar) where an estranged couple’s chance encounter is set against vocals that only the audience can hear. It is a complete contrast to the previous track. There are a number of love songs such as 'Jab Pyar Kiya Toh Darna Kya' (Mughal-e-Azam 1960 dir K. Asif), 'Pyar Hua Iqrar Hua' (Shree 420 1955 dir Raj Kapoor) and 'Jo Vada Kiya' (Taj Mahal 1963 dir M. Sadiq) all of them focus on technique, offer brilliant music and through the vocal modulation of the lyrics are promises, oaths and declarations of love.
Her romantic songs are as iconic and relevant as ever, even in 2022. Just listen to 'Lag Ga Gale' (Woh Kaun Thi 1963 dir Raj Khosla) to experience it for yourself.
Lata Mangeshkar, as I have understood after her passing, had the unique coincidence of being a much loved singer through the generations, the socio-economic classes and geographic divides because of her ability to distinguish love from romance, progress from regret, independence from codependency, in comparison to generic distinctions of happy from sad. Her focus on the underpinnings of the lyrics allowed her to express the subconscious emotions of her listeners in a manner that they could never do so themselves.
Lata jee sang for everyone, every mood, the everyday and the extraordinary and it is exactly on all these occasions that she will be remembered. Her work will forever keep every conscious and subconscious listener company.