Lata Mangeshkar’s voice defined my grandmother’s youth. I belong to a generation that often rejects new Hindi film chartbusters in favour of indie and international music. Yet, after the last shot is downed and the last EDM track played, it is Tai’s tender “Lag Jaa Gale” that can still make a millennial emotional at four in the morning.
In 1955, my maternal grandmother was an 18-year-old working her first job in the Bombay Telephones company. Landlines were as uncommon then as they are now, but for different reasons – obtaining a telephone connection was expensive, the lines were still manned (and womanned) by operators in a telephone exchange who connected your call to the desired “party”, and interrupted the calling “subscriber” at three-minute intervals to ask if they wished to extend a costly conversation.
My grandmother says she was a “kaccha limbu” on the exchange floor, assisting senior operators with their work. One day, a young woman rang the exchange for a call she had booked in advance, to talk to someone at Jayaprabha Studio in Kolhapur. The operator immediately recognised her voice, and gestured to my grandmother to hurry up and listen in on an extra pair of headphones, because Lata Mangeshkar was on the line.
While my grandmother sealed her lips out of fear of being heard, the operator brushed aside Mangeshkar’s request to be patched in to Kolhapur, and coaxed her to sing a Marathi song first: “Tai, please give us a line or two.” Mangeshkar demurred, but the operator was persistent. The singer complained that the exchange employees were always troubling her and that these requests had become an everyday occurrence. But in the end, she relented, and Lata Mangeshkar sang for a listening audience of two.
At the time, Mangeshkar was in her mid-twenties. She’d already been singing professionally for more than a decade, and had been Hindi cinema’s leading female playback singer for at least half that period. Today, she turns 90. If, by some comical crossed connection, her call was misdirected to a millenial’s cellphone, what would the latter’s response be?
The young man or woman would glance at the unknown number, and cut the call. Or read the Truecaller notification, assume it’s a prank, and disconnect the call. Here’s the most likely scenario: he or she would pick up, listen to Lata Mangeshkar introduce herself, and perhaps hang up after muttering, “Who?”
What some loyal Mangeshkarites may find even more blasphemous is that many folks in their twenties and thirties, who are familiar with soundtracks released during their lifetimes which featured her, may not be big fans of her voice.
From <insert name of deceased composer> to AR Rahman, Mangeshkar has enjoyed a career the longevity of which is unparalleled. But it has been some years since any of her recent songs (yes, she is still recording) became an earworm. Unlike her arguably more versatile sister Asha Bhosle, or other playback singers decades younger than both of them, she isn’t performing down-melody-and-memory-lane concerts across the world. So with more and more young people rejecting even new Hindi film chartbusters in favour of indie and international music, it is entirely conceivable that there exists – or will soon exist – a generation that has never heard of Lata Mangeshkar, much less heard her voice.
What some loyal Mangeshkarites may find even more blasphemous is that many folks in their twenties and thirties, who are familiar with soundtracks released during their lifetimes which featured her, may not be big fans of her voice. If not for being brought up on a musical diet of her songs from the ’50s and ’60s, I would be one of them.
Sometime in the ’70s – perhaps because of a surgery of her vocal cords – her pure, sweet, limpid voice lost its character and acquired a timbre and texture that made her sound screechy, particularly when she hit the high notes. She was never out of tune – not even when compositions in the ’80s and ’90s were mostly tuneless – but this new voice was a little harsh.
But is it possible that over the years, Lata Mangeshkar’s music has lost its relevance?
Any article about Mangeshkar is mostly written in italics, crammed with song after song that the writer lists to prove her already established legend. Instead, I ask you to hark back to the last time you listened to prime-time radio; her songs still rule the air, even if the melodious compositions from the golden age of Hindi film music have been supplanted by her wonderfully campy tracks from just a couple of decades ago. These modern numbers are peddled as old-school on “rewind” programmes which make me feel older than I am, because I actually remember a time in my life when those movies were released.
Think also of the gift that millions of Indians are presenting to their parents and grandparents: Saregama’s Carvaan. Pre-loaded with thousands of Mangeshkar’s (and her contemporaries’) songs, this is the background music to my parents’ life. My father, an inveterate connoisseur of vintage music, even plays it to his plants.
Whose dulcet tones still grace the most frequently played patriotic songs in your colony’s Independence and Republic Day functions? Hers. Who originally hummed the lullabies of your childhood, which you still know by heart? Chances are, she did. Whose songs are still chosen by reality show contestants when they want to prove they have serious musical chops? Hers. Whose voice performs the aalaap that accompanies the Yash Raj logo at the beginning of that studio’s films? Hers.
Lata Mangeshkar is not going away. But every time we look back at her legacy, we use sycophantic phrases like these to describe her: “the most gifted singer of civilisation” and “how can you improve on perfection?”
We don’t mention her ungracious response to an impoverished singer who sounds just like her. We don’t include how her objection to the construction of a much-needed flyover over the road in front of her home is the single most important reason why traffic still jams the area, but neither do we note her protest – on Twitter, at age 90 – against the felling of trees for another development project, far from where she lives. That she is a woman of contradictions.
She is the one who could bring Nehru to tears with her voice, as well as endorse a Prime Minister whose party routinely besmirches his name. She applauded the Balakot air strikes, as well as a Pakistani rickshawala’s cover of a thumri she loves. That her voice defined my grandmother’s youth, and that at so many house parties I’ve attended, after the last shot is downed, the last joint smoked and the last EDM track played, it is her tender “Lag Jaa Gale” that can still make a millennial emotional at four in the morning.
Over half a century has passed since my grandmother heard her sing on the telephone. She says, “I remember it not because of who she was but how sweetly she sang. Her voice is still ringing in my ears.”
As it always will in mine.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Mrigank Warrier is a millennial who disapproves of many things millennial. His reading habit ruined him. Hence, he writes.