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How Marathi-speaking Lata Mangeshkar's Bengali music left a Kolkata boy transfixed

www.firstpost.com | February 8, 2022
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When you listen to Lata Mangeshkar's Bengali songs, it is hard to tell that the singer is a native Marathi speaker. Her pronunciation is exact. Each word properly rendered. Other than Hindi and Marathi, some of her most important songs were sung in Bangla.

I was new to Pune. A sophomore. The newspapers announced that Lata Mangeshkar would arrive in the city to hand out awards constituted in the memory of her father, Deenanath Mangeshkar. Entry to the event was by invitation only.

The venue was the largest auditorium in the city. Expectedly so. I tagged along with a trainee journalist friend who was covering the event. We reached the venue well before time, and found our way backstage owing to the auspices of my journalist friend. I saw Shammi Kapoor and Ustad Sultan Khan waiting to receive their awards. There were several others too.

Then came Lata Mangeshkar with other members of her family. She stuck to a corner in her characteristic white sari. I stood transfixed. Later that evening, I excitedly told my roommate that I had inhaled the same air as Lata Mangeshkar. 

There were very few people backstage. The family asked that she not be disturbed. There were hundreds waiting outside for a glimpse of Lata didi. I thanked my friend for getting there early. I gathered some courage and went up to her. I asked for an autograph. She smiled, and said in that quintessential Lata Mangeshkar voice, “Aapko dungi toh sabko dena padega” [If I oblige you, I will have to oblige others too]. Those words continue to reverberate in my head.

I have recounted this event many times since in quiet excitement and in the pride of an audience with Lata Mangeshkar. After all, this was the nightingale’s voice, the voice that made you laugh and weep, the voice that is an epoch, the voice that comforted you on a dull day, and also lifted your spirits, the voice that became an era and a gharana unto herself. This voice is an institution. That same voice had spoken to me. Me, a nondescript, starry-eyed, autograph-chasing youth.

That evening, I did not get an autograph but I returned home with the gift of her voice – those words that she had spoken to me, only to me, not meant for another audience or recipient. Lata Mangeshkar had spoken to me after all. Words constitute a song. Her utterance comprising six Hindi words was akin to a song — a private melody, written, composed, and sung for a fan. I was its sole listener. 

We all have our private moments with Lata Mangeshkar created while listening to her songs. It feels like she is only singing for the individual listener. She is singing for you. This kind of listening also creates an intimacy between the singer and the listener. This, however, does not happen with all singers. You also listen in an involved way enabled by the singing voice.

Lata Mangeshkar entered our homes and hearts through many such moments. Seldom does it happen that a singer becomes the song. After all, the song is made by a group of people, and the singer is one of them. In Lata Mangeshkar’s case however, her vocal is the epicenter of the song. I sometimes wonder if we would remember the same song if sung by someone else? How she sang a composition, the nuances of her singing, her voice modulation amongst so many other aspects.

The aural memory of her songs often erase their visual memory. I remember the songs, not the visuals or the performers lip-syncing as much. As if her voice is the only constituent of the song, and everything else peripheral.

In the outpourings of grief online, several have moaned the loss of a person who was not their friend or family but it was a kinship created through the repeated listening of her songs. 

Her voice became the benchmark for Hindi playback singing. In an article, noted Indian classical musician Kumar Gandharva observed that there is perhaps no other playback voice like Lata Mangeshkar. He also says that Mangeshkar’s voice has made playback singing popular, and more enriched. This is a very important observation.

When you listen to her Bengali songs for instance, it is hard to tell that the singer is a native Marathi speaker. Her pronunciation is exact. Each word properly rendered. In my humble opinion, other than Hindi and Marathi, some of her most important songs were sung in Bangla. She took special interest in Bengali literature, and learnt the language to read Bengali writers like Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. Her Bengali songs with Salil Chowdhury are especially memorable.

One must also mention her long collaboration with another legend, Hemant Kumar. I feel Salil Chowdhury and Hemant Kumar are responsible for her foray into Bengali music. There was Manna Dey too. Interestingly, many of these songs are non-film songs. Some were regularly released during Durga Puja, the biggest festival in West Bengal. This sense of rootedness in the cultural ecosystem of Bengal is perhaps unrivalled for any other non-Bengali singer.

In Kuheli, she also sang a Rabindra Sangeet duet with Hemant Kumar. Besides, she remained accessible to several young and upcoming composers. If she liked the composition, she agreed to sing their songs. 

Lata Mangeshkar is an obituarist’s nightmare, and this is not an obituary. Since the announcement of her death, several have begun to share their favourite Lata Mangeshkar songs. I say songs because trying to pick one or two is a futile exercise. And there are bhajans and ghazals too. Not film songs alone.

Lata Mangeshkar is her songs. And in that spirit, let me present one of my favourites of her Bengali melodies composed by Satinath Mukhopadhyay to the list:

But can one really stop at one? I promise this is the last one:

- Prof. Kunal Ray, Assistant Professor – English Literature.