“The President’s office announces its decision to confer the ‘Bharat ratna’ award upon Ms.Lata Mangeshkar …” The press release is brief and to the point. It doesn’t need to be elaborate. It is merely a formality but a welcome one. At last the country has officially accorded the highest civilian honor to a great artist who deserves it every bit.
Ms. Lata Dinanath Mangeshkar. Not many critics can argue about her singing genius. In last five decades, she has proved it time and again. The first half of her career is beyond compare. In that era, Anil Biswas, Naushad, Shankar-Jaikishan, C.Ramchandra, S.D.Burman, Madanmohan, Roshan, Salil Choudhary, Hemantkumar, Vasant Desai and so many other master composers composed exquisite tunes and Lata added her own magical virtuosity to create unforgettable songs that not only became popular but rather became the landmarks that defined the gold standard for film music. Elevating the tunes to soaring musical heights, evoking a gamut of emotions and encompassing practically every genre of Indian music, her songs captivated the listeners from all walks of life and became perhaps the most glittering chapter of what has been fondly called as the golden era of film music.
One significant thing she achieved through her songs was bringing an unprecedented acceptance and appreciation of film music – a music genre unique in its simplicity and popular mass appeal but mostly looked down upon a ‘cheap’ and ‘vulgar’ by the ‘classy connoisseurs.’ “What is popular is not ‘real’ art” – is a stand taken by many such ‘know-it-all’s. Lata almost single handedly broke this myth. Her choice of songs and her expressive style of rendition brought a never before dignity and decorum in film music. Bade Ghulam Ali Khan calling her ‘Ustaadon ki ustaad’ or Kumar Gandharva pointing out that “What Lata achieves in a film song lasting three minutes is equivalent to what a great classical singer might achieve in a three hour long mehfil”- were not mere compliments for the singer, these were also the appreciating nods for the medium used by that singer.
Her role in popularizing classical music through her film songs has often been overlooked but while I was interviewing him, the tabla maestro Zakir Hussain acknowledged that, “Those songs certainly helped classical music in the long run as audiences could connect a particular raag to a particular song. So Raag Hansdhwani was associated with Jaa tose nahi bolun Kanhaiya and Tu jahan jahan chalega defined Raag Nand.” Today just watch the musical competitions on any TV channel and majority of the classical songs that are chosen by the judges to test, and by the participants to display their vocal prowess are Lata’s masterpieces like Manmohana bade jhoothe and Jyoti kalash chhalke. Those who pointlessly criticize her decision to keep away from pure classical music should remember this immeasurable contribution of hers to simplify and popularize that genre.
The peerless composers of the golden era of fifties and sixties no doubt played their part in creation of the ‘Lata legend’ but if someone tries to brush off her success as ‘all their creation’ then nothing can be far from truth. No one composer can claim that he made Lata – neither Naushad, neither Anil Biswas, neither C.Ramchandra nor Shankar-Jaikishan. She picked up the nuances of singing from every master but finally evolved a style that was unique and very much her own. The sweetness, tenderness and melodiousness of her singing in her heyday have remained unmatched and so has her ability to tune and succeed with practically any composer. To say that all composers reserved special tunes only for her is a statement acknowledging their implicit faith in her vocal potential but unfairly denying the fact that her voice in turn also inspired them to come up with something extra-ordinary. In fact veteran lyricist, the late Majrooh Sultanpuri, had once said, “It is not that Lata always got the special tunes. Most of them were same as what the other singers got. It was her exceptional talent that even turned an ordinary tune into a moving musical experience.”
The second half of her career is the one that did not really go well with her rightfully earned title of the ‘Melody queen’. As early as 1967, Kumar Gandharva had noted that by making Lata sing at abnormally high pitches, some composers were damaging the natural sweetness and flair of her voice. Towards the end of seventies, she had definitely gone into a vocal decline. Her voice started sounding aged and jaded, worse still she even started to miss notes occasionally. This coming from a person for whom Bade Ghulam Ali Khan had said once, “ Kambakht, kabhi besuri hi nahi hoti.” The factors were many. Her age was finally catching up with her. The standard of film music was hitting rock bottom. The inspiration was hard to find for an artist who had seemingly achieved all one could dream and more. Many a time one distinctly got a feeling, especially while listening to some of her songs from the eighties, that there was a lack of effort and a sort of detached disenchanted singing.
There are many – her critics as well as her well-wishers – who think Lata should have quit at that time. But she marched on relentlessly- perhaps just with a burning desire to prove that she was still the best in the business and such was her talent that in spite of singing at about only 10-20% of her original vocal potential, she could still come up trumps – not in an aesthetic sense but certainly in the commercial sense! The soundtracks like Ek duuje ke liye, Love story, Ram teri Ganga maili, Chaandani, Maine pyar kiya, Dilwale dulhaniya le jaayenge, Hum aapke hain kaun and Dil to paagal hai kept on reminding of her Midas touch of belting out hits after hits. An occasional Razia Sultan, Lekin, Rudaali or Maachis even showed flickering glimpses of her best. Looking back, it was good that she didn’t hang her shoes prematurely because even though these soundtracks would not even fare in Lata’s Top 25 soundtracks in musical sense but they certainly have their own place as milestones in the history of Indian cinema. Also thanks to the media explosion in eighties and nineties, the cultural impact of these songs was much greater. Although, these songs provided the fodder for criticism about progressive decline in her singing standards but in a way they also kept the ‘Lata legend’ going on. She just followed the dictum that in the showbiz only the present counts, not the past and she made the present count.
Switching from decade to decade, from an Anarkali to a Julie, from Madhubala to Madhuri, from Naushad to A.R.Rahman she has smoothly glided across the generations effortlessly adapting to changing tastes and trends of audiences without any need to ‘re-invent’ and ‘rediscover’ her singing image. In an extremely competitive and commercialized world of films, she has consistently shown that good music sells and one doesn’t have to resort to cheap and vulgar songs to be popular.
Her private and professional life has always remained shrouded in controversies. Her famous non-alliance with O.P.Nayyar; her tiffs with composers like Shyamsundar, S.D.Burman, C.Ramchandra and Shankar; her temporary fallouts with giants like Rafi and Raj Kapoor over the song-royalty issue; her alleged blocking of other singers; her quiet acceptance of an absurdly high number of songs attributed to her in Guinness book of world records – all these issues have received great mileage in books, magazines and newspapers. She has weathered all these storms with a dignified stoic silence and has never indulged in mudslinging.
There are people who look at her as a kind of Goddess who can do no wrong and then there are people who seem to think she has achieved everything through manipulation. This kind of black and white demarcation labeling one ‘a saint or a sinner’ is never realistic. Real life brings in shades of gray- not just plain back or white. To me, she is just a human being with strengths and weaknesses. Personally I also feel that remaining at top of the profession for more than five decades, she must have stepped on quite a few toes, hurt quite a few souls and bruised quite a few egos. There are very few persons at the top who haven’t done that. But what about trials, tribulations and tragedies in her personal and professional life? Just because they have never been voiced aloud by her doesn’t mean they did not happen. She has never played the sympathy card. She has always given off the air of an empress with a quiet, all conquering confidence and a certain degree of aloofness. A single female playback singer wielding so much influence in an extremely egoistic, performance-oriented and essentially male-dominated showbiz - enough to make and break careers- is a mind-boggling picture but if she really achieved that kind of clout then it was only possible because of her supreme ability to keep on succeeding throughout.
She has been a winner throughout. Through her songs, she has become an integral part of musical sensitivity, cinematic history and social fabric of India. Superstars and starlets have come and gone from the scene, she has outshone them all. She has topped every major national popularity poll outscoring many a legendary artist from Indian music and cinema. As many as three states – Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Goa- have instituted awards named after her to felicitate great artists from the field of popular music – an achievement that in itself speaks volumes of her socio-cultural worth. ‘Bharat ratna’ award is just the final stamp of approval and appreciation on an amazing career of an amazing artist who has been a true gem of India.