This voice! The music ! : Lata Mangeshkar was the soundtrack to the lives of generations of the Indian diaspora
Two days of national mourning.
Flags at half mast.
As India busied itself with honoring Lata Mangeshkar last week – the woman they simply referred to as the ‘Nightingale’ – I struggled to find a way to explain what her death, at 92 , means for Indians and the South Asian diaspora, and what a Western equivalent even looks like. The closest parallel I could land on? Perhaps Edith Piaf, and what she means to France, but even there the comparisons are wobbly, when you just look at the staggering scale. A career that spans over 70 years (the soundtrack of many generations, including mine). A work that has more songs than the Beatles and the Rolling Stones combined (more than 10,000 recordings, in fact). A gut-wrenching cheer that is synonymous with modern India itself when you consider how ubiquitous it has been in bollywood movies since the early 1950s (a few years after the country’s independence).
“She was neither queen nor president; she has not ruled the oceans nor commanded the armies; her only possessions were a cotton sari and a voice of silk; yet the flag representing a billion people flies at half mast in his honor. Never wonder what real power is again. Author Anand Ranganathan summed up the sentiment when he tweeted this.
Born into an artistic family in 1929, when India was still part of the British Empire – her father ran a theater company – Lata’s career took off as a ‘readback singer’, part of ‘a circle of go-tos who lend their voices to a movie star’s lip-synced lyrics, making them sound great. His voice, increasingly, the most coveted – and embedded in the most evocative songs of all time from the subcontinent. Those that exploded through car windows, enveloped parties and weddings, lingered on holidays and in the local curry shop.
Growing up in Toronto in a home where Indian films were ubiquitous – Bollywood being a cultural lifeline, especially, for South Asians living outside India, sometimes more so than for Indians in India – her gently sloping, octave-sweeping voice was part of my emotional wallpaper. Although, to be honest: I don’t remember precisely when, or how, I came to discern that many of the songs from the most glamorous women you could imagine, in a number of movies, were – most often – the voice of only one woman. And a very simple woman, not particularly flashy, to boot.
That’s the thing: As actresses came and went, generational tastes shifted, and new ingenues rose to the fore, the voice — at least until things went well — stuck. That kind of constancy, itself a shared language in an ever-rotating world, is what many South Asians feel when they mourn Lata.
Lavanya Ramanathan, raised in London, England, deftly explained the connection between the immigrant and the songbird in Vox this week: “His voice was filled with an intensity that conveyed both passion and pain. If you listen, you will know what I mean. You don’t even have to understand the lyrics (often do for me) to understand what I mean. And for so many South Asians around the world, her songs represented so much more than just a melody – she was the voice of a distant land that many of us barely knew, but wished we had.
Growing up in the 1980s following Lata, she continued, “meant pressing play and rewinding on my yellow sports Walkman with its big plastic buttons, I closed my eyes and imagined I was in India.”
By pressing play myself, this week – via YouTube! – I fell down a rabbit hole of his production, music ranging from early black and white cinema classics like “Lag Jaa Galéto contemporary classics likeKabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham“to one of my favorites,”Tujhse Naraz Nahi Zindagi” (a bittersweet melody from the early 80s gem, “Masoom”, about a wife struggling with her husband’s infidelity and the illegitimate child who comes to live with them – a super provocative, time, in Indian cinema.) So many songs that I had even forgotten to know, but were just there – like leaves floating on the surface of a pond, in my imagination.
Mangeshkar herself once said that she doesn’t listen to her own songs because if she did, she would find a hundred flaws in them – a quest for perfection that sets her apart. Renowned music journalist Narendra Kusnur explains, “Her passion and discipline were accompanied by a divine voice, which not only sounded great on her own, but also suited the heroines she sang for, as she polished her voice while sounding like herself. .”
Indeed, her restlessness was so all-consuming that she sang in over 20 languages, not just Hindi, but in languages as diverse as Bengali, Assamese, Gujarati, Tamil, Telugu and Bhojpuri. A discography as heterogeneous as India itself.
Part of the Lata allure, too? A personal style which has never been particularly embellished, but which is its own: this ubiquitous white saree, often with a small band, and a red bindi (dot) on her forehead which – together – was as visually imposing as, say, a Frida Kahlo with her technicolor outfit and unibrow, or a Frank Sinatra, with her fedora and skinny suits. By never wavering in her style – and standing out by blending in – Lata has made herself iconic.
What’s also remarkable is that while Lata gave voice to great love songs and family ties, she herself remained single and childless. In the beginning, it is said, because she was so grounded in her work and because, at a very young age, she had worked to take care of her brother and sisters, supporting their studies and careers. But also – according to legend – because his one true love eluded him: Raj Singh Dungarpur, a famous cricketer who was also a prince, from the state of Rajasthan. Although they were smitten with each other, the relationship was frowned upon by other members of Dungarpur’s royal family, and although the two remained single – and seemingly devoted to each other until his death in 2009 – marriage was prohibited.
Coming from a generation that didn’t discuss such things in public, Lata never really opened up about it, but, in a 2013 interview with the Hindustan Times, she came close. Having already poured it all into her songs, she told the newspaper, “There are things that only the heart should know. Let me keep it that way.