A delightful if apocryphal story involves the legendary Hindustani vocalist Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan switching off the radio halfway through a Lata Mangeshkar broadcast, muttering to himself ‘Kambakht ladki besur hoti hi nahin hai!’ (The accursed girl doesn’t strike a single false note anywhere!). This facile technical perfection was in a sense deceptive. It cloaked an intensely complex life and persona, in which deprivation, struggle, consolidation, heartbreak, intrigue, and eventual triumph all played their part.
Lata’s father Dinanath was a legend in his own right. Born to a temple priest and his partner from the Kalavant community— such liaisons enjoyed a modicum of customary sanction if not legal recognition—he overcame his initial disadvantages and established himself as a leading star of Marathi musical theatre, and also Marathi and Hindi films. Unfortunately, bad investments and alcohol abuse led to his decline and early death and left his family in greatly straitened circumstances. Lata, then not yet fourteen, was forced to become the sole breadwinner. Her initial years were marked by struggle and much bitterness. But then success came to her quickly if not easily: she bought her first car when she was only eighteen. This was all the more remarkable because her thin, highpitched delivery varied considerably from the deeper, huskier tones of the era’s leading songstresses. Her ascent coincided with India’s Independence, and some commentators have attempted to correlate the two, postulating her unique delivery as more representative of Independent India: detractors claim that her dulcet tone was more conducive to the male egos that controlled the industry at the time.
Neither explanation can account for her decades-long nearabsolute dominance over the Hindi film industry. Leading male playback singers could maintain their prominence without claiming anything like a monopoly: among female voices Lata stood alone. Even her sister Asha Bhonsle was at one time relegated to voicing for second leads, vamps, and lesser stars. Geeta Dutt eventually faded into the margins, partly owing to her personal issues. Others barely registered a presence. Lata became so synonymous with leading stars that many actresses refused to have anyone else sing for them as tantamount to accepting second billing. In ‘Humko Tumse Ho Gaya Hai Pyar’ from the film Amar Akbar Anthony, singers Mohammed Rafi, Kishore Kumar and Mukesh played back for the male leads, while all three female leads were voiced by Lata alone.
Rumour has it that this stranglehold was carefully engineered: music directors and producers granting opportunities to other singers were discreetly informed of Lataji’s displeasure, her enormous clout in the industry, and the consequent risk of being side-lined. She has been blamed for several singers’ and music directors’ stalemated careers, with what truth we may never know. Her feuds were legendary. Adversaries included composers C Ramachandra, OP Nayyar, and SD Burman; and potential rivals Suman Kalyanpur, Vani Jairam, and her own sister Asha Bhonsle. A chance remark by actor Dilip Kumar caused a rift that lasted several years. Her falling out with singer Mohammed Rafi was much more protracted.
Accounts differ over whether it was about their differing stands on if playback singers should receive royalties; or the Guinness record for the most recorded singer. It is also possible that the dispute contributed to Rafi’s career setbacks.
Set off against all this was her enormous talent. After her father’s demise she undertook rigorous training in Hindustani classical music and emerged as one of the most technically accomplished singers ever in any genre. Coupled with this grasp over technicalities was an unerring instinct for grasping and then giving expression to the emotional content of melody and song text.
This quality proved to be an invaluable asset in her chosen field. It enabled her to synch with a wide range of composers and lyricists cerebrally and emotionally, many of whom relied implicitly on her capacity for giving expression. Certainly, her hold over the industry owed substantially to her enormous talent, which also sustained a consensus among composers and filmmakers that she was irreplaceable. The story goes that SD Burman resolved at his son Rahul’s insistence a rift that had festered for seven years: reportedly Rahul was adamant only Lata could do justice to the songs of ‘Chhote Nawab’, which marked his debut as composer. This uncanny grasp over technicalities and emotive content also gave Lata command over a wide range of song genres. There were some songs she never sang, such as those of a suggestive nature (‘cabaret numbers’, as the charming film-world euphemism goes). But if she agreed to record a song, she did full justice to it notwithstanding her misgivings.
For instance, she was initially reluctant about ‘Main kya karun Ram, mujhe buddha mil gaya’ for the film Sangam. Producer-director Raj Kapoor ultimatel nto recording it, yielding an all-time hit that remains popular till today. But she herself was so appalled with the experience that she flatly refused to see the film once it was released.
Lata’s personal life has been the subject of some speculation. She remained unmarried, reportedly because a relationship with cricketadministrator Raj Singh Dungarpur faltered in the face of parental objections. Other relationships did not work out either. Those close to her recall her with much warmth as a simple, affectionate person, and an enthusiastic and accomplished cook besides. She maintained a studied distance from the glamour and pretentiousness of the film industry and lived most of her life in a relatively modest apartment on Mumbai’s Pedder Road (then again, she was not above using her enormous political clout to help scuttle a mega-flyover project in the vicinity). Drawing conclusions here does seem superfluous, even futile. Ultimately what stands out is a supremely gifted artiste who remained devoted to her art, and never compromised with what she considered her core values. Rest in peace, Lataji, you shall be greatly missed.
Abhik Majumdar has a day job involving teaching jurisprudence and legal theory at the National Law University Odisha (NLUO), Cuttack. His love for music is much older and certainly as deep as his involvement with the study of law. He has to his credit several publications, including Bhimsen Joshi: A Passion for Music (Rupa & Co, 2004).