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With Lata Mangeshkar, Indian music has lost its impeccable voice.
I first saw Lata’s image on the cover of an HMV record player at a neighbour’s house. There was not a single day in those years, growing up during the ’70s in a small lane of a railway colony near Guwahati, that passed by without Hindi film songs and a Lata song. They would be heard from every home, played either on radio, or the record player. Walking home from school, I would catch the santoor of “Na Jane Kya Hua” (film: Dard, 1981, music: Khayyam, lyrics: Naqsh Lyallpuri) on the radio, and not miss the entire song till I reached home, for I could hear it being played in every house. Apart from the newspaper, the radio was a key instrument that connected us to the community, real and imagined.
The first song of Lata’s I learnt to sing as a child was the extremely popular Bengali song from the film Rag Anurag (1975) “Oi Gacher Patay Roder Jhikimiki”, for which Hemanta Mukherjee scored the music. The other Lata songs in Bengali that touched a chord include the poignant “Bujhbe Na Keu Bujhbe Na”, from Kabita (1977), a film based on a working-class woman’s life, and the non-filmi song, “Aaj Noy Gun Gun Gunjon Preme”, sensitising the middle class on its socialist responsibilities. Both songs are composed by Salil Chowdhury. In contrast, you have the misty song “Otho Otho Surjai Re” from Anusandhan (1981), by R.D. Burman. Lata’s voice was intrinsic to the world of Bengali popular music. She was translating her tongue from one language to another, and hearing her it didn’t occur to us that she wasn’t Bengali. Her voice had expanded the range of the octaves and the Bengali music composers of that era had no hesitation to choose Lata over others. It was in JNU that my friend Ravi Ghadge introduced me to Lata’s Marathi songs. One among them that stayed with me is “Me Raat Takli” from the film Jait Re Jait (1977), with music by her brother Hridayanath Mangeshkar.
Lata’s voice is a cultural tributary of the nation, connecting its many regions. Singing in so many tongues, she was an exemplar of the modern self-in-translation. As part of our musical upbringing, Lata’s singing introduced us to the world of Hindustani tehzeeb. Talented Muslim and Hindu artists together produced the finest popular music of the century. This collaboration is an essential part of Lata’s contribution and legacy.
The most memorable compliment for Lata perhaps comes from the anecdote by the late Pandit Jasraj recollected by Javed Akhtar.
Jasraj had gone to meet Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan in Bhopal. Suddenly the song from Anarkali (1953), “Ye Zindagi Usi Ki Hai”, came on the radio. Khan Saheb heard it for a while and exclaimed, “Kambakht, kabhi be-suri nahi hoti (Damn, she never sings out of tune).” The playful grudge in that exclamation by the master is the best tribute of all.
There are too many Hindi songs of Lata to name. I shall restrict myself to 12 songs I consider part of an adolescence of longing that now belongs to the persistence of memory. I have tried to strike a balance between mood and beauty in making these choices, with melancholy as guide. I begin with “Aye Dil-e-Nadan” from Razia Sultan (1983), where Khayyam produces the melody of “thahrav” from Jan Nisan Akhtar’s words. The song moves like a camel. There is a slow movement with a repetition of notes which makes you feel the song moves two steps ahead, and goes two steps backwards, like walking on sand. It is an audible illusion. Lata’s voice is as haunting as a moon in the desert. There is a seamless dissolving of music and its void. “Dikhayi Diye Yun” from Bazar (1982) is again Khayyam setting Mir Taqi Mir’s poetry to music. What is most striking in the song is how the last word of each line stretches and often undulates like a wave to create a ripple effect. Lata sings it with the heavy mood – and breathing – of grief the song portrays.
Roshan (Roshanlal Nagrath) teams up with Sahir Ludhianvi for “Duniya Kare Sawal” from Bahu Begum (1967), a finely tuned ghazal. Lata sings through the Urdu phrases like a gypsy. There is another ghazal by the same duo of Roshan-Sahir, I especially love: “Jurm-e-Ulfat Ke Hume Log Saza Dete Hain” from Taj Mahal (1963), a sarangi-based ghazal, where love’s defiance of royalty is sung with poise and a tone of irony and sarcasm.
Two gorgeous songs composed by Jaidev add to the mood: “Ye Dil Aur Unki Nigahon ke Saaye” from Prem Parbat (1973), written by Jan Nisar Akhtar, where Lata sings with carefree robustness. The line “Dharakte hain dil kitni aazadiyon se (The heart beats with so many freedoms)” captures the spirit of those times and these: the desire for freedom is always measured against its refusal. The other Jaidev song from Reshma Aur Shera (1971), written by Balkavi Bairagi, takes us back to the desert. “Tu Chanda Main Chandni” is set in the light but intricate Raga Maand. The santoor and sarangi keeps the interlude heavy and light in turn. Lata handles the variations in rhythm and tone with ease.
From all S.D. Burman songs, I choose “Piya Bina” from Abhiman (1973), because it suits the slow melancholic mood, more than the memorable songs in Vijay Anand’s Guide (1967). Written by Majrooh Sultanpuri, the song is a conversation between Lata and the flute. The expression of rift is so delicately wrung that you can hear the sweetness of love’s trembling.
The Madan Mohan song which fits the mood from Hindustan Ki Kasam (1974), made by Chetan Anand, on the India-Pakistan war of 1971, is “Hai Tere Saath Meri Wafa” written by Kaifi Azmi. You wonder where those days and years have gone where a poet could write (and we could dream along with him): “Kuch dharkano ka zikr ho, kuch dil ki baat ho, / Mumkin hai iske baad, na din ho na raat ho (Let there be mention of heartbeats, let there be heart-talk, / it’s possible, after this, day and night dissolves into nothing).” There is a disembodied spirit in the lyrics, which is perfectly tuned to give the impression of a voice that sings from the clouds. Lata rises up to the moment. Her voice floats through the air.
From Salil Chowdhury, I choose “Na Jaane Kyon” from Chhoti Si Baat (1978), beautifully written by Yogesh. Longing is lost in wonder. Desire mirrors the changing colour of time. Being partial to the ghazal, I must return to Madan Mohan’s thumri from Jahan Ara (1964), written by Rajinder Krishan, “Wo Chup Rahe To”, set in Raga Bahar. The sitar and the sarangi produce a wonderful effect together along with the rhythm.
Two songs remain in the bag. The first will be a surprise for some, a discovery for others. It is a forgotten treasure that doesn’t find mention even among Laxmikant-Pyarelal’s solos of Lata. The slightly upbeat ghazal in Deedar-e-Yaar (1982), written by Sahir Ludhianvi: “Tumko dekha toh samajh mein aya / log kyun but ko khuda mante hain.” The combination of piano and (a sparely-used) sarangi is quite unusual. A ghazal set on piano is rare in itself. The lyrics offer the song its idolatrous charm. The rest is Lata.
The journey ends with Ghulam Mohammad’s “Chalte Chalte Yunhi Koi Mil Gaya Tha” from Pakeezah (1972), written by Kaifi Azmi. A mix of Raag Bhoop and Raag Kalyan, the orchestration is deceptively simple, in the Keherva Taal. The extinguishing of lanterns, the train whistling in the background, are haunting impressions of evanescence. The repetitive lines add to the song’s lyric quality and effect. The music of memory lies in its repetition. The rhythmic beats of the ghungroo revolves around the dancing body trapped by longing. Performed on screen by a courtesan, the song flies out of its social and existential context, and becomes ours. The stranger you met on the way breathes in that song.
Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is the author of The Town Slowly Empties: On Life and Culture During Lockdown (Headpress, Copper Coin, 2021), Looking for the Nation: Towards Another Idea of India (Speaking Tiger, 2018), and Ghalib’s Tomb and Other Poems (The London Magazine, 2013).