The story of India's nightingale: Too little too late


Lata Mangeshkar...in Her own voice
Conversations with Nasreen Munni Kabir
Niyogi Books, 2009,
pp 268, Rs

Nasreen Munni Kabir’s Lata Mangeshkar, in her own voice is a magnificent production as a book. It is rich in values of printing, design and presentation. The photographs of which there are plenty are indeed a treasure. All of which certainly qualify this expensive publication as a coffee tabler.

Having said that, one deeply regrets the woeful inadequacy of content. Those of us who were fortunate to have grown up with the music of the second part of the last century contemptuously described as ‘film songs’ are able to realise the power of that music.

We grew up and the music grew with us. Hardly could anyone guess when Lumiere Brothers brought the phenomena called cinema a year after its invention to Bombay in 1896, that the seed was going to grow into the largest film industry in the world.

More importantly, when sound came it came to us with songs. They transformed from mainly tunes based on Indian classical ragas to songs which began using western orchestra modules. By the 40s great the New Theatres with Pankaj Mullick had begun using the western orchestration generously.

Lata happened at the right time when there began a confluence of musical influences from all around the world miraculously honed to serve the cause of Indian classical music, no less, which came to be called ‘film songs’. The principal fault of the book is that it still treats this phenomena as just that — ‘film songs’.

It has plenty to tell of Lata’s life from the girl’s orphaned days which are well known. But that life does not essay in depth the songs she sang. Those were great years when music became divine. It could be the euphoria of an independent India that caused multifaceted musical creative forces to converge on the film world, even as instrumentalists who were later to become famous performers in the international arena.

Poets whose work is now revered, like Sahir in the North and Kannadasan in the South turning out memorable lyrics which were set to tune by giants of music who seem to come from nowhere.

And fellow singers. Each of her fellow singers possessed a unique voice like Shamshad, Surinder Kaur, Meena Kapoor, Rajkumari, Geeta Roy, Amirbhai Karnataki, Zohra, Surayya and others creating an aura over Lata’s voice which is probably why Lata would never be Umm Kulthum (Om Kalthoum) of Egypt, or Edith Piaf of France, or Miriam Makaba, the Mama Africa or even the tragic Maysa of Brazil, for Lata literally rode the crest of a wave.

Indeed Geeta and Shamshad continued for sometime as touchstones of quintessential female voices but ultimately Lata’s sister Asha alone remained and has now transcended. For me the pre-Lata period still has an insouciant charm with the voices dominating the music. What has Lata got to say about those years when the transition happened — “In 1948 I was working on Mahal, Barsaat, Andaaz, Dulari, Badi Bahen and Girls School...So there was a lot of work and it was going well. I recorded two songs in the morning, two in the afternoon, two in the evening and two night.”

That’s it. There is no word about how each song emerged. They were all hard task masters at the time. There were several rehearsals and the final take was only when the maestros were totally satisfied. Perhaps, there was one exception to this and that was surely C Ramchandra the man who eventually made Jawaharlal Nehru summon Lata to congratulate her when she sang Ai Mere Watan ke Logo.

The emphasis of the author is so very wrong that this book will leave no one satisfied particularly because all those who mattered and who would have been in a position to fill in for the ‘lapsed memory’ of Lata are now dead.

At the least the author could have cross checked her information. She claims that Lata has sung over 25,000 songs. A Pakistani musicologist had disproved the claim of this entry in the Guinness Book of Records by establishing that barring a few hundred regional and non-film songs, Lata’s total number of recordings was less than 5,100 while her sister held the highest recording till then (1989) at 7,500! I fervently hope that when an account of the life of the  redoubtable Asha Bhonsle is ever done, it will be done with greater dedication to the music we all love.

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