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The ever-present backdrop

by Arunabha Roy

Most friends I know that are fans of Lata Mangeshkar have always been that - avowed and unequivocal. Their appreciation for her voice, her songs and her unexceptionable position in the annals of Hindi film music and beyond - has never known demur, doubt or an alternative narrative. My own story has been different. Of all the Lata Mangeshkar fans I know, I am possibly the one to have “discovered” her magic the latest.

My South Mumbai provenance and being a child of the eighties largely answer for that fact. Hindi films and film music were not the dominant subject of interest and engagement in that place and time. Nor was regular radio-listening a practice at home or within one’s peer circle. Being a Bengali home, music was certainly in the foreground, but was represented by a motley mix rather than focussed pursuit of any single artist or genre. We counted in our modest repertoire a single Lata LP with 12 of her Bengali songs, together with desultorily acquired tapes of her devotional songs. Though we listened to them with love, this listening never approached any sort of systematization. There was no curiosity about or awareness of names of iconic films, composers, actors or lyricists.

Nevertheless her voice was inescapable, ubiquitous, and very early on like most Indians, one could instantly distinguish her voice on encountering a song heard playing from afar. Paraphrasing what a noted filmmaker-lyricist described in an interview, you unfailingly encountered her somewhere or the other, as you progressed through the day. Every year during the Ganapati festival, we rejoiced to the sounds of "sukhakartaa dukhahartaa" and "gaNaraaj rangi naachato" played over loudspeakers. Her film songs were of course regular staples on Chitrahaar and Chhayageet, wherein a nascent interest was sown.

By the close of college, and beginning graduate study abroad, I had transformed into an ardent fan – but of a different Hindi film singer. This was also the time when I began to follow actively discussions on an internet group of music enthusiasts -comprising members across age-groups and countries. While younger members wrote with passion of composers and songs from the 70s and later, the group was also graced by members in their fifties and sixties. These latter shared their memories of listening to “aayega aanewala” and “aa ja re pardesi” played as the latest new song on the radio in their year(s) of release, thus complementing and broadening the ambit of songs one discussed.

An overwhelming majority on the group swore by Lata’s voice and her songs. The forum was the setting for animated and at times acrimonious debate on the relative merits of various composers, singers and periods. My favourite singer of choice was often pitted (at times unfairly) unfavourably against Lata. I bridled and rose in spirited defence. Reflecting on those callow days, it is a matter of some mortification at what I must have thought, believed and written then, armed by the strength of conviction that only ignorance can muster. A few knowledgeables chose to humour me, overlooking the arrant nonsense of what I wrote, and instead sharing with me vintage songs - in a bid to compensate the void of my listening experience.

These generously shared tape compilations (at times travelling across continents via post) introduced me for the first time to the music (and in some cases even names) of such doyens as Roshan, Anil Biswas, C. Ramchandra, Madan Mohan, Sajjad Hussain, Shyam Sundar, Chitragupt, S.N. Tripathi, Shankar Jaikishan, Salil Chowdhury and many others. In one instance Mandar Bichu, all the way from Dubai, together with a tape of rare songs I had requested in the voice of my then favourite singer, seditiously slipped in a couple of tapes of his own favourite Lata songs. It was in these tapes that I listened for the first time to “jadoo bhari ye chandni” (Madam XYZ), “ye chand ye sitare” (Halaku), “aankhon mein sama jaao” (Yasmin), “poochhoongi ek din” (Barkha), “nigahon mein tum ho” (Jadoo Nagri) among other favourites.

These listenings engendered a slowly dawning revelation of the incomparable virtuosity of the vintage Lata Mangeshkar song. The late nineties was also when, for a brief window, HMV brought out of its vaults and published for public consumption film soundtracks of a large number of 1950-60s era classics. For the first time, in those pre-YouTube years, could a listener like me acquire familiarity with truly esoteric, then almost mythical-sounding soundtracks, films that I had heard only the names of – titles such as Tarana, Raag Rang, Anokha Pyar, Shin Shinaki Boobla Boo, Ashiana, Saiyan, Lahore and many others. Grudgingly at first but ineluctably, the realization was brought home: here was a voice with an entirely different magic and appeal compared with anything I had heard or liked before, one that had somehow passed me by in all these years.

While the process of being drawn into her music was gradual - and it is well-nigh impossible to pin down an exact time or date to when the conversion happened, I like to believe it is when on Lata's 70th birthday, a friend privately shared a Lata compilation dedicated to the occasion titled "Man Veena Ke Taar". Beginning with Sudhir Phadke's song from Gokul Ka Chor: "dheere dheere, kis ne chheDe man veena ka taar", it was bookended by Jaidev’s gem from Kinare Kinare: "aaj achaanak TooT gaye kyon, man veena ke taar". The selection lovingly curated rare representations of her trajectory from her earliest beginnings "chiDiya bole chu chu chu" (Jeevan Yatra) and “Khaamosh fasaanaa hai” (Heer Ranjha) to her work with prominent as well as lesser known composers in the 1950s. While the songs were uniformly excellent, two pathos-laden renditions in this set stood out: Anil Biswas' "baras baras badli "(Gajre) and V. Balsara's "sunaayein haal-e-dil kya, ham hamara" (Madmast). These two songs decisively set me on a course of discovering, appreciating and re-discovering her songs that continues today.

A first phase that lasted for about a decade involved a dedicated exploration of all of her songs with a limited set of lionized and prolific, favourite composers. Social media's advent and the availability of reference material including the Geet Kosh greatly facilitated this - when one tallied lists, made assorted "my favourites of xyz composer" lists, struggled to accommodate all of one's favourites into a paltry 75- minute CD, shook one's head at the impossibility and futility of the task, and abandoned the effort. Through making acquaintance with people from all parts of India, a parallel discovery of her rich work in other languages, particularly Marathi, happened. I have perhaps never been so grateful for the three years of Marathi I had in school, as when two decades on, it afforded me a purchase on so many of the great songs in that language, with generous help from Maharashtrian music-lovers.

Facebook brought me in contact with a fan and record collector who had collected her songs, lived and breathed them for decades on, and knew almost everything conceivable about them. This concluded the final step in my journey into her music.

Hitherto, exploration of her music had proceeded on the strength of recommendation - recommendation in the form of a recognized name - that of a composer, of a loved star, of a well-spoken of film etc. Now the entire playing field was laid open. Through the efforts of my friend who without fail concluded each day with a post of a Lata song pre-1960 on his wall, I came to know and love so many new songs that were never written about, discussed or recommended before. Songs with unknown composers who had scarcely a song or film apiece with her in their entire work, under-recognized songs of great composers that had fallen unsung and neglected, even songs I was familiar with but had failed to earlier appreciate.

Today that music is so organic a part of one's life that its enjoyment is not confined to the process of searching out a song and listening to it, any more. For the most part her songs come to mind unbidden, time and again over a single day. Ever so often a phrase in a song not sung by her reminds one of an identical snatch phrase in one of her old songs. When this happens, interest in the current song ceases and one racks one's memory for the original phrase, not content till one has identified it. Sharing her songs is no longer about physically sending across the song, per se - democratization of music availability in the YouTube era has made that redundant. Instead it has become a process of highlighting and sharing with like-minded people her trademark but subtle nuances, accentuations and technical niceties in a song - and the joy when one discovers that friends too single out those very moments. It is the pleasure of discovering extended film-versions of her well-loved songs containing an additional or different stanza, previously known only in their foreshortened 78-rpm record versions, cruelly excised at the 3:15 mark. It is the pleasure of learning new Urdu words from online Urdu dictionaries when one feels that the enjoyment of her well-articulated renditions in the 1950s of the great shayars would not be complete without an understanding of those words.

It is the joy of coming across her vintage songs in the unlikeliest of places - listening to "dil chheD koi aisa naGma" a song practically forgotten in India itself, played over the radio in a non-descript Elephant and Castle Indian eatery, of running into "kaanha ja re" at an upmarket Covent Garden restaurant when one would instead expect Honey Singh or Kanika Kapoor to blare over the sound waves. Of listening to "dil ki nazar se, nazaron ke dil se" in a Tooting restaurant on a blighty Diwali evening, the world around seemingly ceasing to exist as she holds the high note at "kyo.n bekhabar ..." Of watching Satyajit Ray's Mahapurush and her voice, unannounced and unobtrusive, forming the mise-en-scene as her New Delhi song "zindagi bahar hai mohabbat ki bahar se", plays over the radio. Of watching Rituparno Ghosh's "Unishe April" and hearing once again her voice over the radio in a scene with the plaint :

 "miTTi se khelte ho baar baar kis liye" ... And is that not indeed what her voice has been all along, for all of us who grew up in the India of those years: a quiet but ever-present backdrop to the stage of our daily life ?

The most pithy, worthy description for the phenomenon I have come across is from film director Kumar Shahani, who simply described her as being “part of the air of India” Growing up in the 80s, that was so natural, so evident a truism, one would scarcely think to remark on it or feel otherwise. Till even 15 years back, one simply alighted at Mumbai, boarded the taxi, and breathed that air instantly. One was home before one had actually arrived.

Today, when music has moved on: when alternate, strange sounds and voices have taken over, it is a rude realization that the air has been usurped.

How much the poorer we are for it!

About the author
Arunabha Roy

Arunabha Roy is a is an applied scientist who grew up in Mumbai and now lives and works in Bangalore. This Golden Era music enthusiast, who despite spending many years in the West (US and UK!), has only seen his love and admiration for Lata Mangeshkar's music exponentially increase over the years! Spending hours chatting about her songs and craft with like-minded music lovers is his most favourite pastime. Since 1999 he has been in thrall to Lata Mangeshkar's songs of the 1950s.