Looking for Lata Mangeshkar: The Woman Behind the ‘Diva’

‘As an old film junkie, there was a Lata Mangeshkar song for every emotion I felt. But where was she?’

4 min read
Hindi Female

“Kahan ho tum zaraa awaaz do hum yaad karte hain”

(Where are you, call out to me, I miss you)

No one can touch Lata Mangeshkar, they’ve always said with hushed reverence. She was and will remain the ultimate. She brought tears to Nehru's eyes and a smile on many a face, her songs sweeping us into a world we may never experience.

As an old film junkie, there was a Lata Mangeshkar song for every emotion I felt. But where was she?


A Triumph of Image Over Emotion

If Lata Mangeshkar could so successfully be the voice of India, why didn’t she become the voice of the Indian woman and a symbol of empowerment? Because she personified our obsession with the woman on a pedestal who abstains from all worldly desires. She was a Mother India prototype without mothering female India. My tribute to her is to examine the complexities of her persona that concealed more than it revealed.

“Ek Radha, ek Meera donon ne Shyam ko chaaha

Antar kya donon ki chaah mein bolo

Ek prem deewani, ek daras deewani”

(Radha and Meera, both loved Shyam,

What was the difference between the two?

One desired his love, the other an opportunity to see him)

Hers was a triumph of image over emotion. As she once said, “I have no sense of fulfilment and no regrets.” She could have been the perennial Meera singing bhajans. But Meera had her own raas, her sense of wanting to be one with her Lord. And it was a complete submergence. Did Latabai manage that?


'I Cried All the Way Home'

There is a tendency for a woman in a chauvinistic world – and the film industry most certainly is one – to become defensive or aggressive or create a wall. Lata Mangeshkar opted for the last. It was her safe bubble. She chose to be ‘used’ on her own terms. All actresses of the day wanted her to sing for them. It was an amazing ability to project rather than adapt that made her the voice of, say, a Meena Kumari. Imagine the breathless quality of the star's voice and Lata’s smooth-as-honey rendition of the songs. The level of kashish (attraction) was not the same.

While Noorjehan, her idol, was given to gay abandon, Geeta Dutt oozed sensuality and pathos in equal measure, and Asha Bhonsle took coquetry to the level of unsurpassed classiness, Lata was the virtuoso. Her finesse touched you.

What about the emotions? Could someone truly sing, “Mohabbat aisi dhadkan hai jo samjhayi nahin jaati…” (love is a heartbeat that can’t be explained) and not feel anything? Do we have to go by the image created? And why was that image created at all?

In one interview given after she completed 25 years of singing, she had said, “I remember an occasion when I was in Calcutta. An old man saw me and suddenly rushed forward and fell at my feet. He was not an illiterate man, he seemed to belong to the educated middle class. I was so moved by what he did that I started crying. I cried all the way home, and I cried for a long time afterwards.”


She Had a Sharp Sense of What People Wanted

Yet, she was the diva. No one dared to question the hegemony. In all these decades, she accomplished things beyond compare – her voice remained more or less ageless, she sang in many languages, she reached a position where she could refuse awards. But did she promote any singer?

She seemed to have a sharp sense of what people wanted. She may not have sung a “Choli ke peecche” or “Sarkailo khatiya”, but she did lend her voice to a drenched-in-transparent-white Mandakini beneath a waterfall in Ram Teri Ganga Maili. In fact, she was the inspiration behind Raj Kapoor's Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram, which was ostensibly about the beauty of the soul that surpasses all, even if that soul was carefully cultivated for public consumption.

She objected to remixed versions of old songs, but released a series on the all-time male greats titled Shraddhanjali. She rued that despite her training, she could not bring out any album of classical music. But with all her clout, what prevented her from doing so? Fear that the image would not be able to live up to itself?


The Burden Lata Had to Bear While Growing Up

“Uthaye ja unke sitam aur jeeye ja

yunhi muskuraye ja, aansoon peeye ja”

(Go on bearing their atrocities and keep living

Keep smiling, keep swallowing your tears.)

It is an old story, of a struggler turning into a survivor. Being the oldest, she had to fend for the family. As she said years ago:

“We were very poor and desperately in need of money. I had, therefore, to work without respite. I remember occasions when I worked without food and sleep for two days and more. And then there were prejudices to be overcome. It used to be said disparagingly in those days that songs sung by Maharashtrians smelt of dal and rice! I had to disprove it and cultivate a fine Hindustani accent as well. There was so much else to learn, too, and I had to do it mostly by myself.”

What do women ever get for the sacrifices they make? And every woman makes them. She gives away large chunks of herself and suddenly finds that those pieces of her very being, those mementoes culled from her heart, have become aliens in familiar surroundings. It is the artist being asked to blank out her own canvas in a ritual of female sacrifice.

I think that is the burden she had to bear for having to grow up too soon. The only way she could belong was to keep a distance and maintain her ‘purity’. That she did, as a nightingale on a tree behind the cover of thick foliage.

“Taqdeer ki gardish kya kum thi

uss par yeh qayamat kar baithein”

(Was the tragedy of fate not enough

that I committed this outrage, too?)

(Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer. She tweets at @farzana_versey. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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