In April 1967 late litterateur Pu La Deshpande commemorated 25 years of Lata Mangeshkar’s singing in his appreciation which was later included in his Marathi book गुण गाईन आवडी. I have tried to capture his sentiments in my English Translation.
राज्य सुखी या साधुमुळे शूरा मी वंदिले (I curtsy the brave)
The tune whizzed through the auditorium like a scintillating arrow shot at the speed of light. The entire assembly was fixated by the performance of a diminutive lass as she warbled the letter ‘रा’ within ‘शूरा’ that follows ‘राज्य सुखी या साधुमुळे’. Was that nine-ten year old child aware of the effect of her dulcet tones? Those notes ensnared the entire Palace Theatre in the city of Kolhapur. Who would expect a little skinny but fully confident girl, at an age where she would be praised for singing (much simpler) ‘घेऊनि ये पंखा’, to appear on stage and mesmerise with ‘शूरा मी वंदिले’! How did Babalal, the tabla player, as if accompanying an experienced singer, keep up to those beats with excessive pomp, and how on earth did that kid reach the finale of this verse, breaching the entire octave, while balancing the baggage of rhythm! Many musical maestros’ had enacted their melodies here. Now the same stage held its breath in awe as a prodigy, who still had a few years to reach puberty, was unleashing a miracle. Thrilled by her performance, the audience was swept aside as the emotions like surprise, happiness and the memories of her skilled father flooded their conscience. A robust round of applause ensued even before the opening lines were completed. Even those who claim to have got 20 t-shirts for being there and doing that would have pinched themselves. Every smallest granule of that tune was pure, dripping with melody. Every speck of the rhythm was flawless. The approach to finale resembled the flight of an eagle. If not for the sight of that frail maiden, the congregation would have concluded that this voice belonged to a veteran singer, someone with decades of practise under her belt.
Earlier Kumar Gandharv, in his ninth year, at the Jinna hall in Mumbai, had shocked on debut. And a few years before that, a young Bal Gandharv had captured the hearts of theatregoers with his prowess. And now a new miracle unravelled. Bal Gandharv, Kumar Gandharv and Lata Mangeshkar — each chose a different path in music to illuminate it with their supreme brilliance.
Tradition is fundamental to the world of music. Artists boast about their lineage. There are a few who rest on the laurels of their lineage. But I have seen very few artists that worship nothing but tune and rhythm. One should listen to such artists to understand what it takes to sing ‘झरा मूळच्याचि खरा’ or ‘मम सुखाची ठेव देवा‘, or ‘म्हारो जी भुलो ना माने‘ or ‘आयेगा आनेवाला‘. It has been 25-30 years since Baby Lata sang ‘शूरा मी वंदिले’. The musical memories of her father, Dinanath, had not faded yet. People still remembered the nuances of his songs blasted out in a stunning voice as he played the character of Dhairyadhar. Hence, the unanimous reaction of the assembly was, “Wow! That reminds me of Dinanath!”.
After that day, his beloved daughter carried forward nothing but his tradition. Not the one of imitating her father. That proud father would not have approved of it anyway. He was the one who brought his own singing style to the Marathi Stage. Mr. Dinanath would sing in a way only Mr. Dinanath could. His daughter carried forward this tradition as Lata sang like only Lata could. During that period several (female) newcomers tried their luck in movies as playback singers, each struggling to be ‘just like Lata’. Some may have earned kudos with the praise that “it reminds me of Lata”. Any artist who ‘reminds such and such’ is considered second class not only in the field of music but also in all other fields of art. In the last 25 years, Lata has sung Ghazals, Dadras, Thumaries and thousands of songs with different tunes, and all of them remind us of one and only Lata. She is a special case, in a category of her own, ‘sui generis‘!
Who cares about the type of song when every pore of tune and rhythm is so vibrant? Is there any point in needlessly delivering the same few notes in an ultra slow tempo, ‘swatting the flies of rhythm’, and then, as if, waking up after a slumber, jumping over the last few notes to avoid paying the taxes at denouement’s toll booth, to be called a ‘khyal‘ singer? Every split-second of a melody must be full of substance, nay, even the silence, during the pause, must be deafening. Even the three and a half minute song sung for a movie must display the grasp of harmony typical to (lengthy) khyal singing.
Everyone acknowledges Lata’s command on melody. Those who relish flavours of every genre of music are mesmerised by her immense command of harmony. Each and every word is delivered precisely, exactly like her melody. Not the expansive harmony. Flying like a butterfly, smoothly taking off from one speck of beat to another. Kumar, Bal Gandharv and Lata are blessed with the heavenly insight of movement! What speaks in a song is the rhythm. When songs sung by such artists, who are born with the rare gift of complete grasp of rhythm, are attempted by other singers then everyone notices that something is missing. Lata’s songs have been sung by many girls with beautiful voices and some of them managed to attain the temper of her voice. But there is always a difference between an original and its print. And that difference is the lack of precision in melody.
Lata is blessed with a voice box that can hit the centre of ‘the circle of rhythm’ while picking even the millionth smidgen of its flowing harmony. Not only the consonants but also the vowels in her song are full of texture. Lata sings a lullaby, “धीरे से आ जा“, where the light sprinkling of harmony, as if touched by the divine, begins soon after “आ जा”. Any artist will find it difficult to capture those bearings. It is not easy to juggle the notes at the right spot. I find her singing exceptional during such moments. Just like the sprinkling of notes in this solo, a lullaby that shakes you up from your sleep, are innumerable others that are hidden in every pore of the hundreds of vinyls that play her songs. It is difficult to express what is sharper, the tip of the stylus that turns in the pores of microgroove record while playing her songs, or the melody that comes out of those pores.
In ‘the dawn song(भूपाळी)’ by Honaji Bala, the words ‘आनंदकंदा प्रभात झाली‘ are completed with the ‘eee’ sound which penetrates the Shadja (षड्जं) exactly like the tip of the aforementioned stylus. There is a similar spot in ‘जा जा रे जा साजना‘. In ‘कैसे दिन बीते कैसी बीती रतियाँ‘ after ‘हाये’ there is a similar scattering of melody. There are plenty of other examples! Madgulkar, in his poem called ‘जोगिया’, describes the melody coming out of heroine’s throat as ‘स्वरवेल थरथरे फूल उमटले ओठी’ (when the ivy vine of melody shivers, a flower blossoms on her lips). Lata’s voice often remind me of this line. Her songs are like the flower on the vine of melody. Hundreds of such flowers have blossomed in the past 25 years, and how so simply. This is a garden of several flowers where words, melody and rhythm appear in amazing sizes, smells and colours.
I always feel that a city like Mumbai deserves a soaring museum of music like the one for paintings. All kinds of music from different countries should be recorded either on tapes or LPs. It should comprise of plenty of small rooms where visitors are able to listen to these songs. The museum should have photos and documentaries describing how the artists looked, lived and performed. It should have a big library with books on history of music in different countries, its sciences and the biographies of various artists. A library of books, another one for LPs, one for tapes and a library of documentaries. Those thirsty for melody should pop in to return fully sated. One of the sections in that library will be full of Lata’s songs. I do not think any other artist has sung so many different types of songs. For the last 25 years, day in and day out, exceptional music is extravagantly elicited. Our day begins with her voice. Afternoon, evening, night and late nights are accompanied by her melody. Atmosphere permeates with Lata’s voice with rising and setting sun and moon. An engineer on the radio once told me that voice of no other singer has been fortunate enough to incessantly globe-trot through our atmosphere in the form of sound waves. I do not find any exaggeration in his statement. Who knows when, where and how you will stumble upon Lata’s voice! One of the lines from a poem by Anil goes —
आज अचानक गाठ पडे —
भलत्या वेळी भलत्या मेळी
असता मन भलतीचकडे
“Today, all of a sudden (I) run into (that) — at a strange time and place when my mind is elsewhere”
I remember several such incidences. I was travelling in Indonesia, several hundred miles from India. A small group of Indonesian villagers had assembled in a settlement in a remote forest listening to Lata’s song on a phonograph. They neither knew our language nor our music. Then there is a story of a tent in a cantonment in the Himalayan mountain range at the time of Chinese attack : we ended up there while travelling to Ladakh. Lata’s songs, played on a transistor, accompanied the small contingent of 8-10 soldiers where the macabre solitude of the exile was more freezing than the devastatingly cold night. Lata’s voice calling out agonizingly to remember the sacrifices made by the armed forces put a tear in millions of eyes. I looked at the contingent of those soldiers enthralled by Lata’s voice in the snowcapped peaks and felt that this ethereal voice is as mighty a favour on our world as the sacrifices made by these soldiers!
Both the villagers in Indonesia and our soldiers in the Himalayas are simple people; neither an expert in the art of singing. I also found Bhurji Khan, son of Alladiya Khan Saheb, a great scholar of Indian Classical Music, engrossed in listening to Lata’s songs on a gramophone when I visited him once. After hearing ‘आयेगा आनेवाला‘, Kumar Gandharv said, “If you want to hear how the third note of Indian Classical Music sounds on a Turkish Guitar, then pay attention to Lata’s voice.” From the assembly of illiterate villagers to those living in posh houses on Malabar Hill and from school going children to the very old, everyone has been captivated by the magic of Lata’s melody. Indian Film Industry has discovered the heavenly tree that grants all our desires in the form of Lata. She grants whatever is desired by the seeker of melody. Ghazal, Thumari, Dadra, Qawwali, Bhajan, Lullaby, Folk Songs, Romantic Songs, Children’s Songs, Songs preferred in Noble circles — every wish of the demanding seeker is fulfilled. Indian music is blessed to find such variety and the high quality in a single artist!
Scientists recently created a new electronic machine called Computer capable of performing miracles. These machines can execute mathematical feats outperforming the human brain. For example, a task that needs 25 clerks working for a month can be completed within a few seconds. God has gifted us such a musical computer in the form of Lata. Several singers practice relentlessly to perfect a specific pitch but Lata easily delivers those tones, difficult ornamentations, and the minute differences in harmony with a perfect timbre. Some movie songs are based on classical music. Lata’s tune in such songs is so good that even the boastful scholars and maestros, if they have the humility, would bow to her prowess. I am sure, if someday a western music director wants Lata to sing an English song, then this woman will scare the living daylights of occidental singers. Her melody has the tenacity to conquer hitherto unknown destinations.
Her voice is as pure as the water from the highland springs. The one who wants to add his colours is given a free hand to demonstrate his virtuosity. Her voice will turn those colours into blooming flowers of melody in a jiffy. It seems her melody has the same virtues as the philosopher’s stone. Once touched by her voice, anything will turn into gold. And it is not just the timbre, she is equally astute about acting. A film song must be acted out in the same way a dialogue is delivered. I just do not understand why Lata is labelled as a playback singer. In fact, the artists on whom her songs are picturised should be called playback actresses. Most of the time their acting fails to live up to the emotions expressed by Lata’s voice. Lata sang a song called ‘तू मेरे प्यार का फुल है‘ in the film ‘Dhool Ka Phool‘ where a mother is singing to her orphan newborn. This song should be studied to understand both acting and singing. In this song, Lata crooned every single word of the song as if releasing a flower, petal by petal, in the stream of tune. I have observed that some actresses act out her songs on the silver screen without moving a muscle on their faces. Such lifeless movement makes me feel that these artists should be hidden behind the screen and instead the camera should pan to moon, sun, stars, leaves, flowers, water, rivers, mountains etc. Lata conjures a dream world with her tenor and the beautifully acted out voice. Just the way ‘lip sympathy’ appears fake so does the comatose lip movement of these actresses. That is the reason I wonder why she is called ‘background singer’! Shouldn’t the artists, who fail to reach the depth of emotions conveyed in her songs, be called ‘background actresses’ instead?
I do not have a benevolent relationship with Hindi films. But if the two sisters, Lata and Asha, decide to ‘opt out’ then the glitter of film stars will fade immediately! Radio Ceylone will fail to attract listeners and All India Radio will be rebranded as Nil India Radio. The world of Hindi Film Industry has been held in place primarily by its music directors and especially due to Lata’s voice. This is similar to a Military Band taking over the responsibility to secure a nation. Music directors are fortunate that a miracle called Lata arrived 25 years earlier in the Hindi Film Industry. She is the uncrowned empress of this world for quarter of a century. Her public appearance is as rare an event as the Kapila Shashti Yog. She remains aloof from the attractions of varied publicity events like Premiers and Jubilees. In any case, does a Queen need to prance? Only the maids show off. Her voice has ruled the hearts of millions for the last 25 years. A music director may be green or a veteran, it feels that melody has sprung into life as soon as Lata appears in front of the microphone and disappears from the marketplace. It is unbelievable that one person has been singing continuously for 25 years.
By his virtuoso singing, her beloved father, ruled the Marathi Broadway surprising one and all. When I pull out the balance sheet of my life, most of the cherished moments on the positive side are illuminated by the singing of Mr Dinanath. My eyes shine listening to the lyrics written by the towering talent of Savarkar, delivered from the voice box of Mr Dinanath, resembling the zeal of conquest in a war horse. I still get restless by his carefree virtuoso technique in performing rapid melodic passages at the speed of light. Those are disconcerting songs – songs that bewilder. Not the ones that make you drowsy. Owing to the times and the limitations of commerce in that era, the kingdom of Mr Dinanath’s art was fairly limited. His darling daughter extended the boundaries of that kingdom limitlessly. How do we repay the debt of these talented artists! Where should we cherish the treasure of hundreds of Lata’s notes? It will have to be written in our memories and left behind! This debt has been rising for quarter of a century. As debtors, our only prayer to these creditors is – ‘may you get richer every day so that our debt increases’.
There is no limit to our demands for melodious music. And we will forever remain beggars, asking for more. Tukaram begged to Lord Vitthal, “पोटा पुरते देई विठ्ठला मागणे लई नाही लई नाही” (“Oh Lord, I do not ask for more, provide me barely enough to just survive, I do not seek any more”). While providing enough to make him feel gratified, Lord Vitthal must have discovered that Saint Tukaram’s hunger could never be sated. Similarly Lata has increased the appetite of millions of her fan while fulfilling their hunger for melody. Will we ever know who stored this musical treasure trove inside her! I am a person who gives credit to the elders for blessing me and as a result I have achieved a little something in my life. I think, Mr Dinanath similarly handed over his treasure, savoured in the bonds of heart, to his children. Before turning ten, Mr Vitthal’s children in Alandi started seeking alms in the form of ‘words of sacrifice to please the Self of the Universe’ and similarly the kids of Mangeshi‘s Dinanath were just a few feet tall when they dedicated themselves to hard penance for excellence in music. Lata was the oldest child. She carried out her responsibility (after her father’s early death) and spread divine music in all directions. Lata has maintained her place for 25 years in the Film Industry, a world of illusion, notorious for disregarding yesterday’s gems as today’s stones. She has lived her life with remarkable reclusion despite being an integral part of this world. She is a part of everyone, by virtue of her melodious music, while herself not being a part of anyone. Several times in a day, All India Radio hails the name of this artiste who has dedicated her life to worship music. Her crooning cannot be measured by conventional scales. Every note in her three and a half minute vocal is decisive. The architecture of Taj Mahal does not need any refinements. Resplendent moonlight does not need further corrections to incandescence of stars. Her vocals share the same absolute essence of the grand pronouncement, ‘That Thou Art‘. She has the larynx fine tuned to express euphony and apperception to anticipate accord. Harmony is as vibrant in her latest LP as the one in her earliest recordings over 25 years ago. It will neither fade nor can it be copied.
She is an honourable girl with righteous siblings. As a child she used to live in a tiny house close to the Palace Theatre in Kolhapur. I first saw her in those days and stand witness to her rise conquering all the musical frontiers till date. Let this voice box never tire. Let her sing for several more years. A folklore suggests that peepul tree in Saint Dnyaneshwar‘s garden had golden leaves. These siblings have a similar peepul tree in their backyard; this one is full of melody. Together they have sung as many songs as the leaves of a peepul tree satisfying the hearts and minds of millions.
The conceited blusterers of music sneer at film songs. Those are the people who rate classical music superior simply because they shut their ears when listening to popular music. Simply stated, film music is the folk music of our times. Lata Mangeshkar is truly our ‘National Artist’ – the National Singer. Singing in the ‘National Programme’ does not make you a National Artist. Making your home in the studios of All India Radio in not enough. You have to live in the hearts of your fans. No one but Lata has the good fortune of attaining this. Today her vocals are the only ties that hold Panjab, Sindh, Gujrat, Maratha, Dravid, Utkal and Bang together. I think that barring the unfortunates, those who are deaf by nature or due to their own bias, everyone else in our country is attracted to her melody. Lata’s fame is unparalleled. Her vocals are a gift of god and what a gift it is! The prima donna has worked hard to refine her god-given talent with the deep knowledge of her craft. Her unsurpassed acclaim does not need the decoration of a few letters which a civil award adds to a name. We should still adorn this additional feather to her cap lest the future generations find us ungrateful. Songs from movies should not be considered fleeting and thereby treated with contempt. Neither the singers nor its accomplished lyricists deserve neglect. Do we treat jasmine with contempt? Picking up the gems from the treasure of tunes to adorn a three-four minute film song is anything but simple. The chasm of every second in that interval must be padded carefully. The high-brow connoisseurs, those who perhaps do not understand singing, may comment, “We do not listen to anything other than classical music”. These people are akin to those who call themselves an aficionado of flowers and boast that they rate lotus, an emblem of Indian culture, highly but find jasmine inferior (!). These people entered the kingdom of music by mistake. They play these mind games because they are insipid with paralysis. They are stubborn because they have put blinkers on their eyes and cotton in their ears. The tunes in Films, Theatre, tamasha, kirtan, bharud and various festivals are the blossoming flowers of music. Why would anyone deprive themselves of its fragrance? Hapless are those who worship at the altar of formless classical music but fail to appreciate these well-dressed angels! We will not tarnish our minds with this pretension. Welcome everything around you by keeping your eyes, ears and mind open. Nowadays radio has made life very simple. One can listen to different types of music while lying in bed. Ignorant people crank up the volume but we should not blame film music for their insensitivity. Indian Film Industry is fortunate to entail a number of music directors who have exhibited exemplary excellence in composing tunes. Lyricists have penned passionate songs for them. These compositions can be ingeniously employed towards introductory training of Indian Music. And what would be better than employing Lata’s indubitable intonation to achieve the same?
Lata has secured an enormous empire of melody! The sun does not set on this empire. A day begins. Several households tune in their radios. A typical news broadcast incorporates depressing stories of war, riots, arson, power politics et al making one wonder whether that is all that encompasses life — and just like the rays of sun that exculpate darkness, Lata’s melody bursts like an arrow to eliminate those blues. It makes you believe that even if life is devoid of delight, one should carry on living to simply rejoice her craft. Familiarity to her music does not breed contempt!
Whenever I listen to her songs, the permanently etched memory in my mind is readily recalled. I visualise her petite profile chanting ‘शूरा मी वंदिले (I curtsy the bravery)’. I tell myself — this girl may not have any idea that while listening to her ‘I curtsy the bravery’ at the Palace Theatre, several of those present must have told themselves that ‘I curtsy the consonance’ of this divine music. Lata is fortunate that her innumerable admirers appreciate her several recordings over 25 years by whispering to themselves – “Wow! We salute your sonority!”. But we are more fortunate for obtaining the opportunity to appreciate her.
Those like me who were born before her, have no other claim of superiority apart from our advanced age. We bless her from the bottom of our heart, “Dear Daughter, may you continue to earn such appreciation — may you live long!”