Nightingale Of India, And Pakistan: Ali Sethi Pays Tribute To Lata Mangeshkar, Film Companion

I grew up in the 1990s in Lahore and I was lucky enough to know grandparents on both sides of my family. My daadi – my father’s mother – was a very important part of my life when I was a kid. And as with many South Asian families, I was kind of raised by them as my parents were working. I also spent a lot of time with my naani and nana, grandparents from my mother’s side. One of my earliest memories is the sound of those spaces – the sound of my daadi’s room, the sound of my naani’s car, the sound of their teatime rituals with their friends, their fiddling with the antenna until it caught Doordarshan so that my daadi could watch Chitrahaar on Wednesdays. That feeling of almost natal safety, comfort, love, protection, warmth, security. Home – in the deepest, most ineffable sense of the word. Those are completely bound up with Lata ji for me. Sooraj ka dhalna, shaam ka aana… It makes me emotional saying these things because Lahore is so polluted now that you cannot even see the sunset anymore, but with Lata ji’s passing I feel like I am mourning the passing of a map of my heart.

I am in tears, but my mind is also struck by how much power a musician in South Asia can have if they are able to have access to us, like Lata ji did for sixty years of her singing career. Lata ji, Noor Jehan, Fareeda Khanum, Mehdi Hassan, Rafi saab, Kishore da, Hemant Kumar. These are people who gave us not just songs but a sense of the sacred, a sense of the spiritual. They gave us the inflections for celebration, for mourning, for partying, for union. My sense of play is so tied up with Lata ji, singing those lovely Radha-Krishna ditties in the form of film songs in the 1950s and 60s. My sense of shaam ka aana, melancholy, lighting a cigarette and drinking a cup of chai is bound up with her singing Tere bina zindagi se koi shikwa toh nahi. My relationship with my entire extended family – my cousins, my aunts and uncles, my memories of my Bua’s house in Islamabad – it’s all bound up with Hindi film songs.

There was something about the way she sang that to me feels very Gandhian. It was very spiritual.

I am a performer. I sing a lot of contemporary songs in my concerts but when I start singing a “Kabhi Kabhi Mere Dil Mein” or “Naam Gum Jayega” – and this is true for all contemporary musicians from South Asia; I was speaking to Shilpa Rao the other day and we were talking about this – our eternal, evergreen memories get activated. I think this is the best of us. Given what South Asia is becoming today – so toxic, intolerant, polarised, communal minded, so chauvinistic, so mindless as well in terms of our consumption habits, in terms of what we value, and also deracinated, increasingly rootless, not just because we want to be, but that’s the current of history: we are diasporic, we are exiled, we are expatriates, we are increasingly urbanised and gentrified.

With all of that happening, our distance from what Lata ji embodied becomes greater and greater. Her passing is an epic, watershed moment because it makes us pause and ask ourselves, ‘Who were we, and what are we becoming?’ These are not just abstract thoughts. I’ve had these conversations for the last two days with friends and family from all over the world in relation to Lata ji. A friend of mine who grew up in London rang me up and said, “You know, I feel like my grandmother has passed away, or something. I’ve just been in this kind of mourning for two days and I can’t get out of it”.

Nightingale Of India, And Pakistan: Ali Sethi Pays Tribute To Lata Mangeshkar, Film Companion
Lata Mangeshkar and Kishore Kumar.

She was a part of a generation of singers and musicians, poets and lyricists who had no choice but to hone their craft at a very early age if they were to have any real shot at making it in Bombay. And it was also an extremely fertile, cosmopolitan, multicultural, multi-religious, multiethnic milieu. I mean, there were Goans and Maharashtrians, Punjabis and Kashmiris and Bengalis, all kinds of people hanging out together. Just think about it, it’s almost impossible today. You would get on a train from Amritsar and be in Calcutta in two days and then you were on the stage and there was a Parsi producer who was hiring you and then you were going to perform for the Maharaja of Jodhpur and then you were off to work with an Anglo-Indian actress like Patience Cooper on her next movie set. Lata ji was formed in that world and her way of singing and her musicality encompassed that vastness and richness.

Her ability to, first of all, perfection – pure perfection – not needing to be tuned the way that all of us are so dependent upon tuners and technological mediation to record something, that intuitive perfection came from years of riyaaz as a child from tuning taanpuras and pitching her voice in that way. I was talking to Amitav Ghosh about this the other day that I feel like her voice was a very elevated and elevating aesthetic. There was something about the way she sang that to me feels very Gandhian. It was very spiritual. It was, somehow, anciently superior, and in a way that was not alienating or egotistical. There was a kind of mystical refinement in her voice. She brought out the best in you. She spoke to the best in you.

So much of the singing today is projecting power, projecting muscularity, or projecting voluptuousness… So much of it comes from Western mainstream pop music, and I think it’s toxic after a while.

It’s not the kind of ego-full singing that is now the norm where people are constantly doing what we call vocal fry and doing these sexy modulations with their voice in order to project power. So much of the singing today is projecting power, projecting muscularity, or projecting voluptuousness and it’s become almost habitual now. It’s like a tic that we all have. So much of it comes from Western mainstream pop music, and I think it’s toxic after a while: there is no room for repose, or for all those other anciently desi attitudes within music which are spiritual and convey detachment, melancholy, yearning, commemoration, patriotism.

There are so many kinds of sensibilities that not just Lata ji but her entire cohort could effortlessly bring to music. A sense of rural play that comes to us from Uttar Pradesh, from Braj Bhasha, from those folk traditions – she brought all of that into contemporary Bombay cinema. The way she would say ‘Aji chhodo’, it became a part of the way we would carry out courtships and our marriages and our funerals. She played the role that, I think, scarcely a politician or a leader can play. But people like Lata ji and Nusrat saab got to play that kind of role of a collective voice. I am realising only now how deeply, deeply she has formed us all. You think of her as a singer, but she is actually the ether. She is the air that we breathed for sixty years.


There is an almost platonic yearning in her voice – I think that’s what really set her apart from everybody else – that became the ideal of platonic love, even though there’s romance and sensuality also in a lot of what she has sung. To my mind she’s a kind of Gandhian singer because she upheld this maternal, really nourishing, but also somehow melancholy… I just don’t know how else to say it.

To think that that was the ideal for sixty years in India and Pakistan is kind of extraordinary. It allowed for so much poetry. Think of all the wonderful Gulzar songs that Lata ji has sung. Think of the kind of painterly abstraction in a song like “Is mod se jaate hai, kuch susth kadam rastePatthar ki haveli ko…” What does this mean? You can’t interpret it in a literal fashion at all. It’s abstract, evocative, and almost in a kind of dream language… She’s using raag Shyam Kalyan and Yaman to make this beautiful musical landscape. The alaps she has in there are just eternal. The song is almost 50 years old now but you play it in a hall in Chicago or wherever and everybody, including kids and old people, light up. It speaks to us. What she’s given us, really, is a kind of – and I hate to use the word, because it’s so overused and commodified – identity, a pehchaan. And more than that a self knowledge, knowing who you are. My own sense of self as a spirit in the world is completely mediated by Lata ji.

As told to Sankhayan Ghosh

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