On The Lata Mangeshkar (1929-2022) Debates
The singer who began her career in 1942 passed away yesterday. How to produce a coherent, complex, and meaningful articulation of her legacy?
Smack in the summer of 2004, sociologist Sanjay Srivastava published Voice, Gender and Space in Time of Five-Year Plans: The Idea of Lata Mangeshkar in the Economic And Political Weekly. Srivastava described Lata Mangeshkar’s voice “as an aesthetic marker of ‘modern’ Indian female identity”. Mangeshkar’s voice has often been considered a cypher, an ideal even — the music critic Raghava Menon had even called her singing “the ultimate measure of sweetness in a woman’s voice”. But Srivastava’s argument was broader, more perplexing. He postulated that the theoretical woman produced by this voice was tied to certain developments in Indian modernity — including Nehru’s 5 Year Plans, the slow but steady ascent of Hindu Nationalism, and the conception of femininity as docile and graspable. He was, thus, trying to write a “social biography of Lata Mangeshkar” and through it map the making of the singer. The singer was, thus, embedded in her time, produced by it, as opposed to a singer charting her career as time warped and wefted alongside.
Later, in the autumnal months of 2004, began a battle of words in the magazine that would spill into 2005. Economist Ashwini Deshpande rankled at the simplistic narrative of Srivastava. Deshpande thought Srivastava was flattening a complex career that began in 1942 when she was only around 12-years old, and trailed through decades in which cinema, masculinity, nationalism, feminism moved mountains, collapsed into itself, and was born anew, reincarnated with vengeance, virility, and vim. Mangeshkar’s last recorded song came out in September 2021.
She had reportedly sung in 18 Indian languages, around 6,000 songs by the early 1990s itself. In an almost 8-decade career, a time period this wide, this deep, this meandering, how can one have the audacity to look for patterns? How can Lata Mangeshkar be a stand-in for the monotone female when her voice and its variations were as polyphonous as they came?
“As one recalls the women to whom Lata gave voice, one is struck by the bewildering heterogeneity of personalities and character they portrayed in films. Madhubala, Geeta Bali, Nutan, Waheeha Rahman, Nargis, Meena Kumari, Vaijanthimala, Asha Parekh, Mumtaz, Hema Malini, Sharmila Tagore, Zeenat Aman, Parveen Babi, Rekha, Dimple Kapadia, Madhuri Dixit, Kajol, Karishma Kapoor, the list is endless. The characters portrayed were tawaifs, college girls, housewives, doctors, cops, mothers, daughters, urban women, rural women, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, upper caste, low caste: an incredible array of characters.” — Ashwini Deshpande
There were also semantic differences that Deshpande and Srivastava argued over — what is a “falsetto”, what is a “thin” voice — as opposed to the “thick” voices of Hindustani classical singers, a thickness that was defined by how indistinguishable from male voices they sound. Deshpande accused Shrivastava of writing about Mangeshkar as a “subjugated, suffering woman”; she refused Shrivastava’s description of her voice as “shrill adolescent-girl falsetto”. (The falsetto derives its thrust from falseness, a false voice that the castrati — castrated males — would sing as women, since women couldn’t perform. What is false about her voice, Deshpande asks?)
One got a sense that the two were talking at cross purposes, with Deshpande wanting to foreground the artist, while Shrivastava is attempting to produce a grand historical tapestry using the artist as an anchor — a convenient narrative device, if you may. (As Deshpande notes, Shrivastava doesn’t even refer to any of Mangeshkar’s songs in his piece. In Shrivastava’s retort, he tells her to check the footnotes. To talk of an artist’s art in the footnotes is surely a marker of where the emphasis of the piece is.)
This distinction produced a telling dichotomy. How do we tell stories of artists, especially one whose work reached as far back as the boiling years of World War 2 before India’s Independence, and leapt as forward as the contemporary? By speaking of the time that produced them or the artist that participated in the times they lived through?
In Shrivastava’s telling time had all the agency. Mangeshkar comes across as a figure not just flattened but also more graspable, understandable. He calls her perception as that of a “virgin mother”. Deshpande, on the other hand, seeks to swerve the floodlights onto the artist — time is happening in the background, uncommented — complicating their world, their ideas, their morality. No one narrative emerges. One is looking for patterns, one is looking for pathos. Both are seeking to understand The Artist. Who is more right?
And it is at this juncture of the piece that Lata Mangeshkar becomes Lata ji.
An exhilarating rush of songs was produced on Twitter yesterday when news of Lata ji’s death broke in the morning. I, too, hacked at my memory for the first inklings I had of her artistry, and the first inklings of my feelings towards her artistry. I belonged to the generation that could only appreciate Lata ji's music in retrospect — by the time I was of discerning age, she was almost 75 — with all the gossip swirling around her myth, her voice now ageing with that distinctive, leathery brilliance. She was unmarried, and when I was told this, it was wrapped in the romance of her artistry — that she refused men because she only courted music.
Some people didn't get her music, her voice. Many made fun of its nasal twang — and I wouldn’t mind this jesting and jousting as a child. I wasn’t a fan. She wasn’t of nor for my generation.
Something is to be said about the affinity for artists of the generation you live through. There’s a palpable physicality of sharing time, which gracefully lends itself to nostalgia as you both age. For me, to discover Lata ji’s music, however, was an effort. It involved my father dictating lists of movies, it involved listening closely to the lyrics of songs thrown around lazy games of Antakshari, trying to hold onto the lyrics in my memory before I can type them out neatly into the discerning search bar in the one computer we all shared. (Sometimes I would write the lyrics on a piece of paper, then stick that onto the fridge with one of the many floating magnets, so I wouldn’t forget to look it up next when surfing on the internet’s shoreless space.)
But given that Lata ji also sang sparse song every few years, there were certainly glimpses of effortless love, too. She wasn’t entirely in our past. In 2005, a senior in my high school, who used the same bus, had smuggled his walkman into his schoolbag. On our way to school, a blurry morning, he plugged in his earphones. When I asked he told me he was listening to the cassette of Veer-Zaara. Hmm, I wondered. There is something so charged, so emphatic about a love story that names its protagonists in its title — Heer Ranja, Romeo Juliet, Laila Majnun.
For the next year and a half I would circle around the film without watching it. The poster with Preity Zinta looking like she was in the nude had shaken my mother. My brother tried to convince me against using a slot in the local video rental parlour on this sob-fest. The reviews weren’t great, he told me, not that my conviction shook. I remember insisting, successfully, and like fresh fruit turned to pulp, pulping each time Lata ji’s voice would push through the film — as the alaap in ‘Kyun Hawa’, and as the moaning, almost tired vocals in ‘Tere Liye’. It lent Preity Zinta’s character a ghost-like, disorienting elevation. Preity Zinta was around 30-years old. Lata ji was 75.
What is it about older voices for younger actresses? The anthropologist Lawrence Cohen has a fascinating interpretation — “[O]ld Lata’s voice rejuvenated the middle-aged actresses, allowing them to reprise their moment of youthful cynosure when their bodies could stand for all India. The relation between actress and singer was made explicit: one did not experience the conjoint young body/old voice as seamless and obvious, but as anticipatory, as youthful body awaiting completion through the Voice.”
Over the years as artists, musicians, and composers of her generation died, her name and related anecdotes kept popping up. Books were being written, mythologies cemented. Suddenly, the desire to know the artist produced a curiosity that was interested in articulate patterns, in “phases”, in consummate adjectives, uncomplicated by the artist’s personal beliefs. It is a travesty that the only way we can show respect, mourn respectfully, love respectfully, is to chop off any veneer of criticism, and thus complexity. She was a great artist but had her issues. She was a great artist and had her issues. What’s the difference?
I think of the scene from The Disciple where, when confronted by the knowledge that his musical idol was also a bigot, the disciple does not know what to do but throw the full glass in front of him, emptying it onto the face of the man furnishing him the facts. We don’t know how to love a complicated figure, because we don’t know how to love complicatedly. There is reverence, hatred, and in between, there’s boredom, the mundane.
In his later retort to Deshpande, Srivastava wrote what I consider to be a very profound idea, “The pleasures of ‘fan-dom’ and of critical thinking are not really … mutually exclusive.”
I wonder about this distance — the one between the pleasures of fandom and the pleasures of reason. To sense in Lata ji’s voice an invitation to weep and welter, but to also know that she sang the signature tune to the Rath Yatra that snowballed into the demolition of the Babri Masjid. To participate in her genius, swoon at stories of her rehearsing for days, standing by the mic for hours at a crumbling age, even as it swirls with the stories of her suppressing other talents of the time, to emerge as a musical monopoly. The singer Sharada, for one, had accused Lata of manipulating her out of a successful musical career. Yet, in a time of deep parochial patriarchy, in the world of cinema which was riven with its own prejudices, she refused to work with music directors who gave her the voice of the “second lady” in the film, she parted ways with — to later patch up — Mohammad Rafi when he was at his career crest due to a royalty disagreement. She ushered in the era of a powerful woman even if she didn’t necessarily usher in the era of powerful women.
Whispers of this are emerging on the periphery of Twitter — whether to speak of her genius and her penchant for pushing her weight around. Her legacy awaits complexity as much as it does waxing playlists. In the interim, we can merely soak in her art, marvel at her range, getting as close to what AR Rahman called “one of the last pillars of the last century’s legacy of Indian music.”
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