Lata Mangeshkar: Pure musical genius

Mayank Chhaya-

Awakened by thirst for water, I discovered the passing of Lata Mangeshkar around 2 a.m. my time on Sunday.

The first lines that came to my mind were from a song that she did not sing but Kishore Kumar did.

It is from the 1965 movie ‘Teen Deviyan’. It was from the song

ख़्वाब हो तुम या कोई हक़ीकत कौन हो तुम बतलाओकौन हो तुम बतलाओ.

Majrooh Sultanpuri writes in it:

“मिल ही जाती हो तुम मुझको हर मोड़ पे

चल देती हो कितने अफ़साने छोड़ के”

Here is to the preternaturally gifted Lata Mangeshkar whom we met at every twist and turn of our lives as her songs left many glorious tales in their wake.

When was there ever a time in the last 75 plus years when there was no Lata Mangeshkar? Her life and career paralleled the story of India right from the time of the 1942 Quit India Movement, the year when barely as a 12-year-old she sang her first song for a Marathi film “Kiti Hasaal” until now. That the song was never used is incidental.

There are no comparable instances in the world where a single singer became the articulator of a nation’s heartbeats. One could say the same of Mohammed Rafi and Kishore Kumar but Lata Mangeshkar remains unrivaled in the exaltation she enjoyed not just a singer but as a human being.

As journalists and others jostle to pay their tributes, I am trying hard to avoid adding one more humdrum remembrance to the bunch. I do not want to get too precious or pious about my tribute because there is enough of that going around.

In keeping with my tangential life as a journalist, I interviewed Mangeshkar only once; sometime in September or October of 1986. It was courtesy of dear friend, fellow journalist and celebrated Marathi writer Shireesh Kanekar, who knew her very well for decades. If there is one journalist, who could write authoritatively and with extraordinary insights about Lata Mangeshkar’s life and personality because of his decades-long conversations with her, it is Shireesh. He ought to write but that is another subject.

Shireesh and I went to her Prabhu Kunj residence on Pedder Road in Bombay. There was a vendor dressed in a somewhat frayed dhoti and shirt with a wicker basket on his turbaned head waiting outside her partially open door. As it turned out, the basket contained a variety of firecrackers. It must have been just before Diwali.

As the charming woman spoke to order the kind of firecrackers she wanted, the vendor’s eyes lit up and ears perked up. It was a voice that he and the rest of India were so intuitively attuned to. I don’t think when he showed up at the door, he was aware that it was Lata Mangeshkar’s home.

I too was hearing her voice for the first time in person. For a moment I thought she was merely transmitting a voice that was so assuring in its immediate and intimate familiarity. After the vendor left, she greeted me more formally and Shireesh amiably because she knew him very well. “Diwali aa rahi hai na? Mujhe patake bahot pasand hai,” she said in her lilting tone that triggered a dozen songs of hers at once in my mind.

The problem with having heard her songs all through one’s life is that when one finally met Lata Mangeshkar one ended up having a false sense of familiarity. Merely because one knew her voice so well, it did not mean that one knew her at all. As is my wont, I observed her a bit. Her body language was that of a very polite person who was nevertheless in supreme command of her space. She was aware of her genius without showcasing it. She smiled and laughed in turn as Shireesh initiated the conversation in his inimitable style of an accomplished and bitingly funny raconteur.

Quite gracefully, he then told her I was going to do the bulk of the interview. Much to my post-interview chagrin, I realized that I should not have conducted the interview in English. Although she understood it perfectly, she did not speak the language that well. I could have easily done it Hindi. In fact, I would have enjoyed doing it in Hindi. The interview was meant for the weekly Blitz, now defunct but then a very high-profile media presence in Bombay because of its founder-editor, the flamboyant Russi Karanjia. I have the clipping of that Blitz interview which started with her encounter with the firecracker vendor.

As the interview progressed and layers of her public image of great piety fell, it became increasingly evident that she was razor sharp, witty and joyous person. As I found later, she was also an excellent mimic. Mangeshkar had a terrific sense of humor which she shared with those she knew well. I was obviously not one of them.

I remember I kept trying to attach the glorious voice to her as a person. It often happens with great singers that their speaking voice is very different from their singing voice. In fact, more often than not their speaking voice can be a disappointment. Not so with Lata Mangeshkar. It made me feel while speaking to me she could start singing at any moment in the same breath. One got the sense that one had caught her in the middle of a certain rhythm.

That explained to me her formidable reputation as someone famously never off-key or pitchy. The great Indian classical music maestro Bade Ghulam Ali Khan memorably said of her, “Kambakht kabhi besuri nahi hoti. (Damn! She is never off-key.)” Truer words for a singer were never spoken.

As someone so relentlessly celebrated, worshipped and deferred to, one could see that in her many personal interactions with admirers—those photo-ops seekers—she would come across as distant and even disinterested. My immediate sense from that one interview was that while she may have been outwardly humble about her gifts as a singer, she was fully aware of them and had no designer coyness about them.

Her ideological proclivities were clearly in alignment with the current brand of Hindu nationalism but then that was something she grew up with as a child. That was her natural ideological habitat. That is subject that requires no elaboration in this piece.

In Lata Mangeshkar’s passing, let India and the world remember what pure musical genius is.