Lata Mangeshkar- Maa Saraswathi to Generations of Indians


  On Basant Panchami, the day on which Indians pay obeisance to Goddess Saraswathi - the Goddess of Knowledge, Intellect, Arts, Music and Dance, my mobile flashed the news that Lata Mangeshkar, idolized by millions of Indians as Maa Saraswathi,  lies critical in the ICU.

Not many Indians have been such an integral part of the Indian Ethos for over seven decades as Lata Mangeshkar has been.  From the All India Radio and LP Records and thereafter from Doordarshan Television, tapes, CDs, Walkmans, ipods, and the internet, Lata Mangeshkar's music has been the one constant for many of us. Across punishments in school, nasty teachers, mean friends and competitive exams  to job rejections, bad bosses, wakeful nights with colicky toddlers, stressful PTA meetings and teenage tantrums, there was always the warm blanket of a Lata Mangeshkar song that would set the world to rights! From the first song recorded circa 1945 to as recent as 2019, Lata Mangeshkar has given us a staggering volume of music across different genres in various Indian languages. It is difficult to conceive of a world without her. Reams and reams have been written about her. This is a re- post of yet another piece, written two decades earlier, by a straight-from-the-heart rookie, for an institution called Lata Mangeshkar. Lata Mangeshkar lives on. 


                               (Published in the International Edition of Kalnirnay 2002)

Music and films are two vital components of the Indian psyche. And the two names which dominate the field of playback singing in Indian films - giving it prominence, importance and respectability - are Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosale.

Does one need an introduction to Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosale? To many, these two are the names with which the day begins, as they reach out to the All India Radio. To some others, they are the unobtrusive yet ubiquitous presences of their growing years. And to the younger and the uninitiated, they are singers who are singing for girls old enough to be their grand daughters.

Born to Dinanath and Shevanthi Mangeshkar, Lata and Asha came into professional singing, only to bail out of crisis situations. Lata took to playback singing, in order to support her family after her father's demise while Asha stepped in to support herself and her three children after a disastrous marriage.

Lata was born on the 28th of September 1929. Very soon after her birth, Dinanath Mangeshkar perceived a divine musical gift in his first born. It is said that Lata could repeat, flawlessly, any classical raga, from the age of five - something she picked up when she was playing as her father conducted his music classes. Dinanath Mangeshkar took it upon himself to train and nurture this talent. While the actor Dinanath would go to bed at three a.m, the singer Dinanath would be up at five a.m to train Lata in the myriad nuances of classical music. This training was, however, to be short-lived.After scaling unprecedented heights of fame and material prosperity, Dinanath Mangeshkar succumbed to the lure of alcohol and died in penury, leaving behind a wife and five children. 

The responsibility of ensuring their survival fell on the frail shoulders of Lata who was all of 13 years. Within ten days of her father's demise, Lata donned the greasepaint and faced the camera for a cameo role in Master Vinayak's Marathi film 'Pahila Mangalgaur'. Lata was awkward and uncomfortable in front of the camera. Singing was her forte but the home fires had to be kept burning. So she took on roles that came her way. It was in 1947 that Lata got her break in Hindi playback singing and it was only in 1950, that she arrived, in full glory with the evergreen haunting melody 'Ayegaa Aanewala' with music director Khemchand Prakash from the film Mahal. How ironical that the record label of the song reads 'song sung by Kamini' which is the name of the heroine in the film on whom the song was picturized. Thus began the ascent of Lata Mangeshkar who has since then sung for six generations of music directors over five and a half decades in no less than fourteen languages.

A chronology of her work would fill a tome and no matter how exhaustive, it would hardly do justice to a person to whom music is a faith and a worship to the Goddess Saraswathi. Which is why Lata is always bare-foot whenever she sings, be it on stage or in the recording studio. dressed simply, mostly always in a white saree only the border of which differs each day, here is an artiste who does her riyaaz (Practice) each day as if she were a beginner. Yet she retains an almost childlike love and zest for some of the finer pleasures of life like collecting perfumes. Here is an amateur photographer with an almost professional knowledge of photography. Globe trotting for a good part of the year, here is a simple lady who keeps in touch with the family (including her equally illustrious, Asha Bhosale) that she has raised to self-sufficiency, no matter which corner of the world she is in.

Asha Bhosale at 68, is dubbed as the 'Grandma Madonna from India'. Born on the 8th of September 1933, Asha settled for a life of domesticity, rather early in life. Unfortunately, domestic bliss eluded her and after a few traumatic years, Asha came out of the marriage with three small children to support.Music was in her genes, it was the only thing she was exposed to the only thing she was ever trained in. Moreover with a sister already in the trade, joining her seemed to be the logical consequence. However, it was only wit O.P.Nayyar's pulsating score for the film Naya Daur, that Asha came into her own. Initially, it was said that she imitated the sensuous Geeta Dutt. Gradually, with the faith imposed in her by music directors like S.D.Burman, O.P.Nayyar, Khayyam and others (R.D.Barman especially) Asha carved out a unique style of singing. Sometimes teasing, sometimes naughty, sometimes seductive and sometimes sedate, here was a singer who could only be called versatile.

Asha has literally experimented with music. She has been contemporary without defying or defiling tradition. In fact it was her that the Sitar maestro Ali Akbar Khan selected, to impart those rare compositions of his father and grandfather, that were, hitherto, known only to him. Also when pop, rock and jazz came to India, Asha Bhosle did not shy away from them. She harnessed them and rode them well, opening her second innings with young A.R.Rehman. She has sung with a variety of Western musicians and given them a run for their money and crowned it all by walking away with the Channel V award for her album 'Janam Samjha Karo'So, whether it is Bally Sagoo or A.R.Rehman, Lez Louise or Vishal Bharadwaj, Asha Bhosle is right there, here and now.

In the last five and a half decades, the Mangeshkar duo have held sway over the Hindi Film Industry. Many awards have come their way, all of them accepted with utmost humility. When Lata Mangeshkar was awarded the highest civilian award of India, the Bharat Ratna, she said "This is such a big honour. Compared to other artistes I am such a small artiste." When Asha Bhosle was awarded the Lata Mangeshkar award she received it saying, "To me this award is more precious than the Grammy... Lata Didi is not just my elder sister, she is like a mother". Just as awards have come in droves, so have accusations. A lot has been said about the rivalry between the two sisters.There have been stories about how Lata never sang for O.P. Nayyar because of some personal reasons involving Asha Bhosle who gave him her best. There have been accusations about how the two sisters have sabotaged the careers of many an upcoming female playback singers and music directors. What the truth is no one will know because both of them have largely maintained a graceful silence on all such controversies. It seems highly unlikely, though, that illustrious careers spanning five and a half decades could have been sustained through manipulation. The Hindi Film and music industry is so vast that there is ample space for many. 

So let us not talk about all that. Let us talk of the 250 bed hospital that is coming up in Pune. Let us talk about the scholarships that Lata gives, to needy students of classical music through the Dinanath Mangeshkar Trust. Let us talk of the panache with which Asha Bhosle takes on Western musicians on their home ground and presents the amazing resilience of Indian music to the world. Let us talk about the passion with which they keep the Indian Flag flying high, unifying Indians all over the world. They are quite simply prolific, evergreen and almost everlasting. Let us raise a toast to that!.


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