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Lata Mangeshkar: The nightingale’s tryst with Rabindra Sangeet

They say music traverses beyond language, so does Lata Mangeshkar. Sahapedia looks at how the Melody Queen is not only an institution in Bollywood, but her command over Rabindra Sangeet and contribution to playback singing are facets that are equally impressive

Sanghita Sanyal | Kolkata |

Lata Mangeshkar, the name says it all—a name that epitomizes a number of paradigms and shifts, yesterday and today. Born on September 28, 1929, in Solapur, Maharashtra, in a Marathi family of linnets and larks—melodious parents and four younger siblings—Mangeshkar embodies a number of aspects that call for a revelatory analysis, at any point in time. As she turns a year older, we look (forward) at her and be as mesmerized as antiquity has always been.

We, thus, celebrate with a rather different take on this Bharat Ratna, who lights up India’s culture space. As one of her dear friends and biographer, Nasreen Munni Kabir writes in Lata Mangeshkar in her Own Voice, ‘Her songs have helped spread an appreciation of Hindi film music throughout the world. In India, she has achieved iconic status, and created everlasting music that has become the soundtrack to our lives.’ But beyond that, the fact that she is the only Asian to receive platinum disc from EMI, London, also speaks of her international standing.

Lata Mangeshkar, the Power House

Reigning over the charts and hearts for about 70 years, there is no doubt that Mangeshkar is an institution in Bollywood. This is not just for her magical voice, but also her unparalleled contribution in giving playback singers their due and credit. She helmed the plea for royalty for the playback singers, which till then would go to producer, composer or even the actor.

By virtue of being a prime and early example of women empowerment in the country and music industry, the Nightingale of India also becomes a face of many such unknown Indian women, who have been there and seen it all—been the bread-winner of a big family, and grown to a level to be the kingpin of India’s highest grossing film industry. So when she says, ‘It was not really the external influences that made me a singer. Music was within me. I was full of it’—it makes perfect sense.

But it would be a cliché to consider Lata Mangeshkar thus, until we shed light on her versatility. With a titanic presence in B-town music, she has also proved equal mettle in non-film ghazal, bhajan, khayal, devotionals, and every other kind that is worth a rendition as well. They say, music traverses beyond language, so does Mangeshkar. Her voice not only strikes a chord in a million hearts by songs in Hindi or Marathi, her first language, the genius has a record of singing in over 36 languages national and international taken together, which also includes Swahili and Nepali.

Lata Mangeshkar and Rabindra Sangeet

In India, if classical music is held at the highest pedestal with its musicological poignancy, then closer home, our Rabindra Sangeet (songs of Rabindranath Tagore) occupies a very coveted place in national culture. The bard’s songs are universally relatable and acknowledged, albeit rather stringent in their grammar, notational structure and emotive acceptability. Mangeshkar’s oeuvre contains a spectrum of over 185 Bengali songs that include film and non-film modern (or adhunik) songs, and also Rabindra Sangeet. It remains a matter to reckon that out of about 3,000 Tagore songs, Lata Mangeshkar has sung just a handful, of which just six songs are extant and opens up a new trajectory of music research.

These songs—mostly recorded as early as the 1950s—owe their inception to Hemanta Mukherjee, who had been instrumental to involve Mangeshkar to sing Rabindra Sangeet. The iconic Shanganga gagane ghor ghana ghata, Modhu gondhe bhora, Hridoy amar nachere ajike, Tumi robe nirobe (Kuheli), Tomar holo shuru amar holo shara, and Shokhi bhabona kahare bole, eggs me to shed light on an observation.

These songs mostly recorded as early as the 1950s, with one in 1972, with Kavita Krishnamurthy as Mangeshkar’s young duet artiste in Shokhi Bhabona Kahare Bole (Sriman Prithviraj) were sung and picturized at a time when veteran Bengali, female Tagore music exponents were at the peak of their career, and would often sing in films too. Yet, we find that Mangeshkar’s acceptance in Bengal (as she sang the songs parallel to other types of film and non-film Bengali modern songs) was overwhelming and stayed grounded in the charts for decades. We cannot deny another fact: At a point, when other Bollywood singers like Kishore Kumar, Asha Bhosle had lukewarm response from Tagore enthusiasts, Mangeshkar was already recognized, without infringing any copyright issues.

Mangeshkar would never have detractors among the Bengali audience who, despite being classicists when it comes to acceptability of Tagore’s songs, have recognized the melody queen’s zealous perfection in bringing out the best emotive grandeur of the songs in the reels. As far as Tagore songs are concerned, Mangeshkar never had to seek for translations for acceptability; she was among the primary non-Bengali singers (already established in commercial genres of film music) who were given a chance with the faith that none would be able to do more justice to the songs of Gurudev than them.

Till now, being the only Bollywood recipient of Desikottam, the highest award and epithet from Visva Bharati University, together with Rabindra Sangeet maestro Kanika Bandyopadhyay, another legend par excellence, in the late 1990s only consolidates our viewpoint: The recognition, thus, makes us believe that Lata Mangeshkar proved her worth as she scaled the heights with her perfection, and not her reputation.

Sanghita Sanyal teaches English at Loreto College, Kolkata. The article was initially written for, an open online resource on the arts, cultures and heritage of India. Sahapedia offers encyclopedic content on India’s vast and diverse heritage in multimedia format, authored by scholars and curated by experts — to creatively engage with culture and history to reveal connections for a wide public using digital media. Views expressed are personal.