Is Lata Really A Failed Goddess?

Author: Dr. Mandar

Farzana Versey's article ‘The Devi V/s Diva. Lata Mangeshkar- The Failed Goddess?' about the pluses and minuses of Lata as a singer is as biased as it gets.

The writer wants to portray Lata as an achiever who through her  technical mastery and commercial acumen managed to achieve so much in the field of popular music. She further goes on to imply that Lata sang most her songs without emotions and still succeeded just because she was technically good. This is one piece of writing that tries to trash Lata as a singer and as an icon and tries to give it a logical feel through some meaningless, pointless rambling. That includes some silly statements like crediting the beauty of her Mamta-songs to composer Madan Mohan (The songs were composed by Roshan!) and trying to say that her voice was not suitable for many heroines like Meena Kumari. (Imagine songs like Ruk Jaa Raat and Hum Tere Pyar Mein Saara Aalam Kho Baithe in any other voice!)

Yet, Vesrsey writing - ‘My own attitude has been to ‘reject' her even as I hummed all her old numbers’ here is representative of a viewpoint of a significantly large number of people out there. Yes, I have met many of them myself.

Music being such a subjective thing- one voice or one song affecting different persons in diametrically opposite manner, it is but natural that such a disagreement exists over what constitutes good, emotional singing and what doesn't.

Let’s see what is the core point here. The strength of Lata as a singer lies in her ability for understatement. Restraint in externalization of emotions is the beauty of Lata's singing and that's what lifts her heyday's renditions to great artistic heights. But this very point, which attracts me and many others to her singing, alienates many others who prefer the more overt, externalized display of emotions- the most common example being Asha's singing.

The thing that strikes me the most is Lata sang for a medium of Mainstream cinema, which has always relied on the assumption that the picture has to be painted with bold and obvious strokes to make it appealing for masses and yet, she never- well, almost never gave in to that rule. Her artistic understatement was a misfit in terms of commercial equations of the medium and yet, somehow that touched not only the classes (who were supposed to have the intellectual ability to understand such subtleties of art) but also could convert the masses- or the majority of them into wholeheartedly accepting her as someone superior to others in the same league. That the masses could somehow relate to her ‘technically superior, emotionally deficient' singing so much so to make her the ‘voice of nation' is something really difficult to digest for many detractors.

For such detractors, the entry under ‘Lata Mangeshkar' in the Encylopedia of Indian cinema should come as a shot in the arm.(I am recalling it from memory and wish someone reproduces it verbatim!) Edited by one Asish Rajadhyaksha, the encyclopedia gives one of the most carped info about the singer, failing to mention her role as the voice behind practically every major composer from golden era and then going on to include a Khyal singer Neela Bhagwat's opinion that ‘Lata's voice sadly became the concept of beauty for Indian middle-class'! The grouse about Lata runs deep in many minds and Farzana Versey is just one of them!

The objections to Lata- the singer are many – too thin a voice, too sweet, too perfect, too technical, too detached, unemotional, not great post-'55, not good post- '70, rank bad after'80, redundant after '90. Add to that the complaints against her perceived persona- too domineering, monopolistic, politicking, hard core commercial, hypocrite, ungrateful towards mentors, needlessly continuing her career etc. etc.

Some of these objections are valid, some downright ridiculous but the fact remains that Lata has provided enough arsenal for her detractors to downplay her artistic achievements.

Versey is trying the same game here. Only the tone is pseudo-intellectualistic, trying to rationalize and generalize the personal dislike into proving somehow that Lata doesn't really deserve what she has achieved. Lata's amazing capacity of conjuring commercial success out of nowhere (Veer- Zaara being the recent example!) even in her faded and jaded, creatively barren and technically deficient latter years has been even more frustrating to handle for such critics for just when they write her epitaph, she scores one over them.

Over the years, I have learnt to accept the shortcomings of Lata- the singer and Lata- the person. She is no Goddess but her prime era voice was plain divine. This feeling is intensely personal- only it is shared by thousands, if not millions.

Lata- the icon has certainly made me proud and has given me a lot of joy. Yes, she has also frustrated and disappointed me at times but that doesn't diminish the greatness of her artistry and achievements. So if someone like Farzana Versey wants to play the wrong note, she is welcome to voice her opinion.

I don't give a damn! Or perhaps I do!

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