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Hema Mangeshkar. After 90 years, the name doesn’t just sound off, it sounds wrong, like calling a rainbow a rock. The name Lata Mangeshkar was born with is something for history and biographers to contend with. For us, for fans, it’s just Lata. Did I just say “us” fans? Did I just include you, dear reader? My apologies. Maybe you’re not a fan. Maybe you don’t care for the kind of songs she sang, the kind of music directors she sang for. Maybe it’s a generational thing and you don’t see the hoo-ha about Lata and, say, Madan Mohan, one of the approximately 10,66,703 composers she sang for. You could call them the Shah Rukh and Kajol of their time. They had that thing we like to call chemistry because we have no other word for the mysterious amalgamation of substances that results in something like Zara si aahat hoti hai

No, you don’t have to know this solo from Haqeeqat, and you don’t have to know about Haqeeqat, either. This song is about a woman thinking about her man. When she hears the slightest of sounds, like a footstep, she thinks maybe it’s him. That’s the first line. Listen, I’m not trying to get you to like this song. I’m just saying why I think it’s great. It’s great because it gives me that happy ache one feels when the heart is filled with love. This line I have just written, right here – that may be a reason younger listeners have drifted away from Lata. It’s too archaic a feeling. It doesn’t sound like something you’d see on a screen. It feels like something Ravi Varma should be painting about, with a swan or a peacock in the corner of the canvas.

Maybe it’s a generational thing and you don’t see the hoo-ha about Lata and, say, Madan Mohan, one of the approximately 10,66,703 composers she sang for. You could call them the Shah Rukh and Kajol of their time.

This piece came about because I wanted to write something about Lata, on a landmark birthday. But it also came about because of a highly scientific study I conducted, where I Whatsapped two of my colleagues, millennials both, and asked them about their favourite Lata Mangeshkar numbers. (The study was so scientific that 50 % of my respondents were female, and 50% male.) The woman hemmed and hawed and said she knew Asha better, the “hot, hep sister”. Lata was the one who sang “sad patriotic songs”. Which one, I asked! Aye mere watan ke logon, of course. Of course, she knew other Lata numbers, like the ones from… Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. I wanted to weep, but one does not weep in science. One just gathers data.

The data I got from the male colleague was along similar lines. He had heard patriotic songs like… (see paragraph above). He had heard Lata in some AR Rahman songs like Luka chuppi. He said he had heard about the greatness of Lata’s songs, but he’d not heard many of the songs. I have a theory. I think it’s because he’s from a generation that sees songs, first. He said he’d heard more Asha songs, pop numbers like Jaanam samjha karo. Now, that was a video that featured Milind Soman and Helen Brodie. You see it first. The song sticks. And then, when you hear it again, you see the visuals inside your head. It’s not like how I heard Zara si aahat hoti hai, on the radio, without knowing anything about who was in the scene, what it was about, where it was set. You heard the song, first, and you imagined it, the way sentences make you imagine characters in a novel.

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As anecdotal research goes, some of you may point out that not all millennials are this way, that we still have television programmes where aspiring singers with throats made of gold launch into Lata numbers to show how well they can shine. But that’s, again, seeing. It’s not really listening to a Lata number. The Lata number, on TV, is a hoop of fire and you want to see if the contestant can leap through it and land unscathed. I’m talking about the larger world outside, where songs like Zara si aahat hoti hai just aren’t made that much anymore. You have the odd Sawaar loon, from Lootera, which I heart with all my heart. But again, today’s songs are out on YouTube first, and you see them, as an audio-visual experience. Ranveer Singh and Sonakshi Sinha come before Monali Thakur and Amit Trivedi.

And even I will admit that the visuals of Zara si aahat hoti hai are “boring”, in the sense that this woman is just ambling along, dreamily. The zing of a Raj Kapoor or Raj Khosla or Vijay Anand song picturisation, just isn’t there. Or maybe it’s, again, the “archaic” sentiments in these songs. Take another Lata-Madan Mohan beauty, this one from Anpadh. The mukhda starts high, Lata high, and then, it dips at the antara. It gives you (okay, me) the shivers, this reversal of how songs usually progress. But in the first line, the woman says, Aap ki nazron ne samjha pyaar ke kaabil mujhe. Your eyes, O man before me, have considered me worthy of love. I can see why Mala Sinha is five hundred shades of happy. I mean, that’s Dharmendra in front of her, Dharmendra of the 1960s, practically a billboard for strapping Punjabi maledom. Still, that word: worthy. Why couldn’t the song have been a duet? Why couldn’t he, too, have said he was ecstatic that she considered him worthy of her love? The words wouldn’t sound so slavish, then.

If you dismiss “problematic” art, you’re right. But art is also of its time, and this was that time, at least on screen. I have heard criticisms of Lata’s voice that it was too virginal. I agree, but then, the times were virginal, the heroines were virginal, the movies were virginal – even when they weren’t. I’m thinking of Dastak, which the respondents of my highly scientific study would probably take for a Sushmita Sen starrer. No, this is the one with Rehana Sultan, who marries Sanjeev Kumar and moves into a house formerly occupied by sex workers. I know it’s a big stretch imagining Sanjeev Kumar as a lusty newlywed beckoning his wife to bed, but make the leap of faith and you get Baiyan na dharo (Madan Mohan again; this isn’t intentional, I swear). 

It’s a strange situation. The camera moves in and out of the bedroom. Inside, there’s Rehana Sultan singing, Sanjeev Kumar listening, and outside, the residents of this red-light area are mesmerised by this “gaanewali”. At the end of the song, Sanjeev Kumar says, “Kuch hi der pehle main jaanwar tha. Tumne insaan bana diya.” He’s talking to his wife, but he’s really talking about Lata. The purity, the divinity in the music, has soothed his savage breast. Then there’s the song from Tere Mere Sapne, and no, not the film that gave us Aankh maarey. This is the one with Dev Anand and Mumtaz, and this time, the woman beckons the man to bed. This song isn’t by Madan Mohan, phew. It’s SD Burman’s Mera antar ek mandir… The camera focuses on Mumtaz’s face, as she becomes (I think) the first Hindi-film heroine having an orgasm, but the song isn’t about bodily bliss. It’s a balm over a scabby patch of a marriage. Inside me, there’s a shrine to you. Again, not the most equitable of sentiments. But that’s what lovemaking sounds like in Lata’s voice. That’s why she probably isn’t the “hot, hep sister”.

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The timbre of the films matches the timbre of the celestial voice, and Shreya Ghoshal’s success notwithstanding, I don’t know if millennials care for “celestial”. This isn’t a judgment. If art is of its time, then its cachet changes over time. One way to celebrate Lata’s 90th would be to simply list ten (or ninety) songs. I could talk about Piya bina, from Abhimaan. Amitabh Bachchan and Jaya Bhaduri have separated, and she’s singing this sad ode to her singleton state. SD Burman drives the message home with one predominant instrument (the flute) wafting over one plaintive voice (Lata’s). But that would just be another list-making exercise, and my definition of ‘great” wouldn’t be yours, and it certainly wouldn’t be the millennials’. (For one, I certainly wouldn’t include a single song from Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, by which time Lata no longer sounded like the Lata we knew from the radio.)

One could get slightly political and talk about the number of careers Lata has allegedly destroyed – and wonder if cancel culture should be invoked in at this point (though, to me, none of the singers who called her out in this scandal were a patch on the Mangeshkar sisters). One could talk about the composers the great lady has worked with, but would anyone read a piece with names like Khemchand Prakash and C Ramchandra? (Would Google even recognise them as SEO keywords?) Some might say that that’s what’s important, to write about Lata and C Ramchandra, and link to a YouTube video of the honey-sweet Na bole na bole re, from Azaad, so at least one person or two will click on the link and “discover” the magic all over again, but I have my doubts about the number of people who seek out music from the past, and those people, I bet, have already sought out those songs.

So will we still be talking about Lata ten years from now? That’s what this is about, really. My generation will be a decade older, and I surely hope I’ll be writing, but will some website still want a Lata piece? Or even an Asha piece? We are already at a time when “retro Hindi music” goes back only as far as RD Burman, who, incidentally, made Lata sing a great “Asha song”: Baahon mein chale aao, from Anamika. And Lata sang it amazingly, employing the dynamic vocal range we usually associate with her “hot, hep sister”. But what will “retro Hindi music” be ten years from now? Jatin-Lalit? Will Lata be remembered as the voice of Kajol prancing about in a towel in Mere khwabon mein jo aaye? I hope I’m proved wrong, but I have a feeling my millennial colleagues will have the last laugh.

One could get slightly political and talk about the number of careers Lata has allegedly destroyed – and wonder if cancel culture should be invoked in at this point (though, to me, none of the singers who called her out in this scandal were a patch on the Mangeshkar sisters).

But that’s the nature of pop culture. It’s a bubble of time we live in, and after a while it goes pop. And we float towards the next bubble of time. Maybe all each one of us can do is hold on to the incandescent memories of each bubble, for as long as we can, like the people who listen to the opera. At first, the art form was a popular entertainment. In Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, the American historian Lawrence W Levine, quotes how opera was heard  in the drawing room and concert halls, as well as whistled by the street boys and ground out on the hand organs. Maybe a certain kind of older film music – Lata’s, and everyone else’s – is something like that. At first, it’s everywhere. And then, it rises and becomes rarefied, transforming from “pop culture” to “high culture”.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to liken Lata to an opera singer. The series of  staccato notes Salil Chowdhury put her through (Woh ek nigaah, in Half Ticket) could shatter the proverbial crystal. Later, Shankar-Jaikishan used Lata in the tradition of bel canto opera composers, who showcased the higher voice registers with breathtaking stylings. It was the look, we shot this entire ten-minute sequence in one unbroken take of its time. Listening to the mind-boggling vocal acrobatics in Aji rooth kar ab (Arzoo) or Jaao re jogi (Amrapali) makes me return to the point about hearing versus seeing. These songs make me stop in my tracks, close my eyes, listen. And that’s just not how most people consume music anymore. They want it like wallpaper, in the background, while they browse or drive around. The world turns. Music, too.

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