“Genius” is measured by the quantum of work that is at the pinnacle of the creator’s domain. Someone with just 10 pieces that break into that range can be considered extraordinary. A small handful of artists in history have broken that benchmark by a factor of 50 to 100. Another qualifier would be having exerted a great influence on the genre of one’s choice. The longevity of one’s work is also a powerful yardstick. Lata Mangeshkar has bested all of these, and then some, making her a remarkable phenomenon in the world of music.
At the grand old age of 90, Lata Mangeshkar still rules over a billion hearts. Hers is one of the most recognizable names in the world and the most familiar voice for the entire Indian subcontinent. She hasn’t sung much over the last few decades, but songs from the peak years of her career, continue to be enjoyed and inspire generations of music fans as well as musicians.
Let us look at the fabled voice for a moment. Its mellifluous tone has been compared to that of a piccolo. Within the constraints of this thinness, its harmonics are like those of a finely crafted, perfectly tuned instrument. One advantage of a thin voice is the ability to hit a note precisely. Conversely, even small deviations stand out more starkly. It takes an immense amount of effort to hone such a voice to be unerringly in tune without sacrificing its inherent sweetness.
The combination of a prodigious gift and hard work has earned Lata the reputation of having the highest levels of shruti-shuddhata. It has earned her encomia from maestros of classical music, who are notoriously hard to please. One such musician was Pt. Ravi Shankar, whose composition “haay re vo dina kyo.n na aaye” bears testimony to that precision of sur.
If sur is the mother of our music, laya is definitely its father. Lata is gifted with an uncanny sense of rhythm, rivaling that of highly trained classical musicians. This can perhaps be best illustrated through examples. In “manamohanaa ba.De jhuuThe” set to the 12-beat ektaal, she consistently approaches the sam (the beginning and end of a rhythm cycle, but also the point of resolution of tension in classical music) with the aplomb of a khayal singer.
In Sajjad’s masterpiece, “ai dilarubaa nazare.n milaa” the tune is loosely pegged on the taal scaffolding, where most lines start just after the sam giving the song a dreamy intoxicating atmosphere. Lata has sung this with great finesse, underplaying the rhythmic sophistication required to belt this out.
Even in seemingly innocuous – rhythmically speaking – songs like “is mo.D se jaate hai.n” or “ba.De armaano.n se rakhaa hai balam” she gets the off-beat pieces and rhythm variations, which you hardly even notice due to her natural, almost casual rendition.
The mainstay of Hindi film music is its poetry and conveying the meaning and emotions involved are of paramount importance. One of the basics is of course pronunciation and legends of Lata striving for perfection of talaffuz (the art of Urdu pronunciation) abound, but it is good to note that her pronunciation is very good to impeccable in many languages.
She also has an uncanny ability to leverage poetic cadences to enhance musical value without compromising sur-taal, be it through word grouping, balancing the length of vowels and consonants, or playing with the length of words themselves. Lata excels at this, through her own efforts as well as mentorship of great music directors she worked with. Her facility with these aspects of singing is showcased in songs such as “be_imaan tore nainawaa nii.ndiyaa naa aaye”.
As in all art, subtlety in emoting is hard but it is the hallmark of greatness. Lata excelled in this department as well. The suppressed ebullience (a seeming paradox!) in “bhiinii bhiinii hai miiThii miiThii hai” truly enhances the intended mood of the song.
The understated blue mood in “jal ke dil khaak huaa” has the power to break your heart.
Or, in the case of “tum kyaa jaano, tumhaarii yaad me.n ham kitanaa roe” the protagonist’s dejection is accentuated by the fine balancing of shades of emotion.
Asha Bhosle had once said that Didi’s singing can be like a reversible waterfall – the same going up or down. This refers to her ability to navigate complex melodic structures with consummate ease. Nowhere is this ability better showcased than in her classical-based songs. From a technical perspective, her taans are usually excellent, each note resplendent on its own as well as in its melodic context. Her Brindavani Sarang based song “aajaa bha.Nwar suunii Dagar” is like a brisk-paced bandish abounding with taans. It is juxtaposed with a fine classical song of Manna Dey, himself a master of classical-based songs. Not only is Lata’s song the winner in the dramatic context of the movie, but it also stands out as the superlative effort vis-a-vis another masterpiece.
This kind of vocal wizardry is also on display in songs such as “ae rii aalii piyaa bin”, “kuhuu kuhuu bole koyaliyaa” and so on.
Lata’s sense of melody is such that she can make any tune her own. Anil Biswas had tellingly said that once she came to the scene, music directors were set free, knowing she could render whatever they composed. This refers not only to her technical prowess but also to a refined aesthetic sense that could grasp the nuances of a composition and interpret it or improvise on it to create a fantastic piece of art.
Indian film music is a mosaic of many genres, including classical, semi-classical folk, sugam, bhakti, etc. and even borrowing from world music. Lata has internalized the finer points of many of these genres.
Her ability to bring out the soul of sophisticated raagas is legendary, witness her interpretation of Jaijaiwanti-based “baa.Ndh priiti phuul Dor”, perhaps bringing to mind the praise heaped on her by Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, whose own Jaijaiwanti is highly regarded.
In Ghulam Mohammed’s adaptation of the traditional dadra (a folk-inspired semi-classical song type) “ThaaDe rahiyo o baa.Nke yaar”, Lata deftly injected elements from the Thumri anga into the song.
Not only did she do justice to the folk melody in “o daiyaa re daiyaa re cha.Dh gayo paapii bichhu_aa” but also improvised the oi oi oi on the spot to add color – that musical intellect at play!
Her bhajans are second to none, and the bhakti ras is evident in the Gaud Sarang based “allaah tero naam”.
Some people opine that Lata Mangeshkar should have or could have been a classical singer, and similar points of view.
Listening to the Thehraav (unhurriedness of presentation, which is considered to be a hallmark of great classical singing) in her songs, and her mastery of sur-taal there is no doubt she could have been a great khayal singer. Or hearing the taasiir (the ability to create effect, one of the core aesthetics of semi-classical music genres) in her Thumri (a primary semi-classical genre) type of songs, she would have made a top-notch singer of that genre.
However, we ought to be thankful that she remained a film singer and took that idiom to great heights. We are indeed fortunate to have witnessed such a singer in our lifetimes. Her legacy is invaluable – cherishing it and keeping its memory alive for posterity is the greatest tribute we can pay to her.
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