I am afraid this is not the best way to pay tribute to the lady as she turns 75 on September 28. It has been enough time for her to have made a mark as the voice of women. But she has not been able to do so. Why?
Is being Mother India more important than mothering India?
"Duniya mein hum aaye hai tau jeena hi padega, jeevan hai agar zeher tau peena hi padega…"
Was it inherent guile that gave her the arsenal to poise that poisonous cup close to her lips, as though always ready to give up everything? Or was it a genuine abstinence?
She has a sharp business sense. A knowledge of what people want. You may not hear her sing "Choli ke peecche" or "Sarkaiylo khatiya", but she did lend her voice to a semi-nude Mandakini beneath a waterfall in Ram Teri Ganga Maili. In fact, she was the inspiration behind Raj Kapoor's Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram, which was supposed to tell us that the beauty of the soul surpasses all. And her soul has been carefully cultivated for public consumption.
Hers has been a triumph of image over emotions. As she once said, "I have no sense of fulfillment and no regrets." Someone said that she could be the perennial Meera singing bhajans. But Meera had her own ras, her sense of wanting to be one with her Lord. And it was a complete submergence. Would Latabai manage that? In over six decades, she has accomplished things beyond compare – her voice has remained more or less ageless, she has sung in many languages, she has reached a position where she can refuse awards…. but there is a deep insecurity. Have you heard of Lata Mangeshkar promoting any singer? I am not judging her harshly for it, only examining the complexity of her personality that conceals more than it reveals.
She has often objected to remixed versions of old songs, but no one could question her for bringing out a series of the all-time male greats. Of course, it was smartly titled Shraddhanjali, a tribute! And while a classical singer like Shubha Mudgal can popularise her music by making it accessible to the listeners of today, Lata Mangeshkar rues the fact that despite her training (the glimpses of which we get in the mudkis, which any accomplished gavaiya can manage) she has not been able to bring out any album of classical music. What prevented her? Her days of trying to get a foothold are long over, she could dictate terms, she has been doing all the riyaaz. So what was it?
Fear? Fear that the image would not be able to live up to itself?
I think that is the burden she has to bear for being a woman who had to grow up too soon. The only way she could belong was to keep a distance and maintain her ‘purity'. That she has -- a nightingale on a tree behind the cover of thick foliage.
"Kahan ho tum zaraa awaaz do hum yaad karte hai"
You cannot touch Lata Mangeshkar, they say in hushed tones of reverence. She is the ultimate. She brought tears to Nehru's eyes and a smile on many a face, her songs sweeping us into a world we may never have to experience…which of us would be able to vocalise "Yeh zindagi usi ki hai" even if it is to say "Alvidaaa" when we are being buried alive?
My own attitude has been to ‘reject' her even as I hummed all her old numbers, being a junkie for those renditions. At every milestone, there was a Lata Mangeshkar song to metaphorise what I was feeling. But where was she? Strangely, I have always found her to be too technically proficient (remember Bade Ghulam Ali Khan's comment, "Kambakht besura gaati hi nahin"?). Perhaps it is like the mathematics wizard, Shakuntala Devi, counting numbers and making everyone around her look on her with awe.
How can one identify with a woman in starchy white with the voice of a child?
"Uthaye ja unke sitam aur jeeye ja
yunhi muskuraye ja, aansoon peeye ja…"
It is an old story, of a struggler turning into a survivor. Being the oldest, she had to fend for the family. As she said long years ago, "We were very poor and desperately in need of money. I had, therefore, to work without respite. I remember occasions when I worked without food and sleep for two days and more. And then there were prejudices to be overcome. It used to be said disparagingly in those days that songs sung by Maharashtrians smelt of dal and rice! I had to disprove it and cultivate a fine Hindustani accent as well. There was so much else to learn, too, and I had to do it mostly by myself."
There is a tendency for a woman in a chauvinistic world, and the film industry most certainly is one, to either become defensive or aggressive or create a wall. Lata opted for the last. It was her safe bubble. She chose to be ‘used' on her own terms. She says now that the well-known actresses of the day wanted her to sing for them. I find it an amazing ability to project rather than adapt that has made her the singer of, say, a Meena Kumari. Imagine the breathless quality of the star's voice and Lata's smooth rendition of songs. There is no meeting of kashish. Or a gruff (not husky, please) Rani Mukherjee lip syncing a Lata number. If she managed some wonderful renditions for Suchitra Sen in Mamta it was entirely due to Madan Mohan's compositions. Her voice was best suited for heroines with either honey on their tongues (Nargis, Nutan) or high-decibel shriekers (Asha Parekh, Saira Banu).
She was wonderful as the Voice, not the character. Which is why in the old films, the vamp's songs were sung by the saucy Shamshad Begum. But when Lata went on to render that memorable qawwali in Mughal-e-azam, "Teri mehfil mein kismet aazmaan kar hum bhi dekhengey", I thought there was no question about who ought to be the winner in the muqaabla with Shamshad, but this was a film and Madhubala had to win. By default, Lata did too. Kaanton ko murjhaaney ka khauf nahin. An apt metaphor?
I don't think it is fair to get into comparisons here, but while Noorjehan, her idol, was given to gay abandon, and Geeta Dutt oozed sensuality and pathos in equal measure, while Asha took coquetry to the level of unsurpassed classiness, Lata became the virtuoso. Her finesse touched you, not the feelings.
Was she unfeeling all the way? Could someone truly sing, "Mohabbat aisi dhadkan hai jo samjhayi nahin jaati…" and not feel anything? Do we have to go by the image created? And why was that image created at all? In one interview given after she completed 25 years of singing she had said, "I remember an occasion when I was in Calcutta. An old man saw me and suddenly rushed forward and fell at my feet. He was not an illiterate man, he seemed to belong to the educated middle class. I was so moved by what he did that I started crying. I cried all the way home, and I cried for a long time afterwards."
It is such a pity that she decided to play this role of touch-me-not. Yet, she WAS the diva. There are stories about how budding careers (from Suman Kalyanpur, Sudha Malhotra, Vani Jairam to Anuradha Paudwal, Sulakshana Pandit) were nipped simply because no one dared to question the hegemony. It was a typical reaction of one who wanted to hold on to straws that she had transformed into pillars.
It was this that made Muzaffar Ali choose Asha Bhosle for Umrao Jaan. He could ask for exactly what he wanted; in this instance, he made the singer render the compositions an octave lower than her normal one. It had to suit the fullness of Rekha's voice as well as give an added depth to the poet-courtesan character.
"Hai isi mein pyaar ki aabroo
woh jafaa karein main wafaa karoon…"
Look at it closely and it is so regressive, a woman saying that she would be most happy to be a doormat. I must admit it is among my favourites. It is masochism at its sweetest! "Mujhe ghum bhi unka
azeez hain ke unhi ki di hui cheez hain…"
(I love even the sorrow for it is a gift from him.)
Can one reconcile this fact of palpable, even if turning-back-the-clock sentiments, with the woman who appears cold and distant? And worse, for one who is supposed to be woman power, would she be able to see the conflict?
What do women ever get for the sacrifices they make? And every woman makes them. She gives away large chunks of herself and suddenly finds those pieces of her very being, those mementoes culled from her heart, have become aliens in familiar surroundings. Is it the artist being asked to blank out her own canvas? Or is it the ritual of female sacrifice, where the woman is a lonely hunter, preying on herself? The diva and the devi feed each other and on each other.
Taqdeer ki gardish kya kum thi
uss par yeh qayamat kar baithe…