Today is the day after the Basant Panchami, the day of the immersion of Goddess Saraswati. Today is Lata Mangeshkar’s bisarjan. It happened in the morning while the Panchami tithi had not yet turned intothe sashthi that her body fell still of stirring of life. She is dead now at the age of 92, an immensely successful and a fulfilling life. Indeed, the national flags of at least India and Pakistan may fly half-mast. As a singer who broke into the Guinness Book of Records, Lata will be remembered as the personification of the song in Hindi films. Lata gone is also like the death of a family elder, an icon who lived through ages, associated with moments of many of our lives today. That’s what popular culture does, links our lives to rhythms to lend meaning and a background score to our narratives. That’s what Lata was, the meaning, an overarching one to our lives. One of the many things that we lose as we grow old are anchors of our symbols, patterns, and icons. That loss will be deep.
Yet, I, the compulsive and obsessive sociologist that I am, I find in Lata Mangeshkar, a persona that has defined us in many other ways too. A girl with a dark complexion and a sweet face, school girlish determination that is often due to her naivety in two thick long plaits on either side of her head, Lata is one born in a traditional Maharashtrian Brahmin family, which often is bereft of money resources and social contacts. And here at the age of 19, she loses her father to become the breadwinner of a family of younger siblings and a widowed helpless mother. This is the quintessential Meghe Dhaka Tara, as I see her, with her two plaits, a saree draped protectively and shyly around her as she jostles in the city trains of Bombay to visit the film studios. With the casting couches, male propositioning and male chauvinism, and a thin whiny voice, this girl is now all set to find a toe hold in the world of female singers like Gauhar Jaan and Suraiyya. And yet, she has a strange confidence or non-compromise; she needs money bad, but she won’t bend an inch to get it. She wants to win in her own terms. During her career she fought with all the leading men of the industry, Mohammad Rafi, Sachin Dev Burman and even Kishore Kumar. Through these fights she established her own labour unionish rights, of royalties to play back singers, fees of women singers being at par with those of the men and mostly, to have the name of the singers in the credits. She needed the money, she needed the job, but she refused to lower down her labour rights, her victory is also a great victory of women against the male domination, of a talented individual against a circle of influence and of labour against capital. She is thus the very embodiment of the spirit of the Hindi film industry before it became Karan Joharised into Bollywood.
Lata started her career as a film star, but she hated every moment of that because her face had to be made up and that her face had to be shown. There was some feminine inhibition at exposing herself to a public gaze I think but there was some obstinacy at that too, why should a woman have to be publicly performed to be of importance? That was her conservatism showing but she found an inner power in that too. In her song, she played the part of every heroine to the core, so much so that the heroine had to keep pace with her. Rekha, I think said that she had to struggle to express through her face, songs that Lata sang. She started the trend of studying the actress very closely, talking to her, listening the way she spoke, she nodded her head, she laughed and even cried, a practice that Asha followed too and then she acted out her part through her voice. Heroines like Mala Sinha, Waheeda Rehman and Sadhna shone through as actresses perhaps because they had Lata singing for them. This is perhaps the truest for Nutan and Meena Kumari.
Lata’s drama was her oomph factor; the elder men in the music industry often scolded Asha and her for singing so sexily on stage; she wore the same white saree, had the same kind of drape around her and the same two plaits on a face that wore no make up ever since she fled the sets of films and yet her voice appealed at the level of the gut. In her head, she was so many heroines, romancing, suffering, adventuring, fleeing and being flayed, despondent and jubilant, seductive, and secluded, worshipping the Divine and at the same time luring the man. The sheer extent and depth of the rasas she embraced and absorbed and worked through to produce those masterpieces should have been documented. Unfortunately, her biographers and admirers were enamoured with counts of her successes and not her inner life. It is not as if she had the best voice, but she had a gayaki that I wonder will ever be reproduced.
Lata was unmarried but never unattached. She took on, till her last breath the complete responsibility of her family. She celebrated her own birthday, bought herself expensive sarees and had food with chillies. She enjoyed cricket and watched music reality shows. She was never demure about living life, never apologetic of enjoying it. She was not defensive because she never married, she never felt inadequate if she did not produce children and sleep with a man, for her all such nobility of a woman to be married to justify herself as a successful woman as the insipid Kiran Nooyi. I think that more so because of the last paragraph that she is very justifiably the Ratna of Bharat.