In a league of her own

by Dr. Mandar V. Bichu

What actually makes Lata - ‘Lata’? What separates her from other singers? What is so special in her renditions that appeals to a listener, be it a commoner or a connoisseur? How can we exactly describe her singing style?

I have always been intrigued by these questions. I keep reading whatever I can about these topics. I keep asking these questions to almost every artist I interview and to every music lover I come across. The reasons to do this are simple. First, I feel that the answers to these questions are important to analyze this important musical and socio- cultural phenomenon, which we were fortunate to witness. Second, such expert analysis enlightens me about the finer musical technicalities of her singing.

Some high-brow academicians have tried to attribute the popularity of Lata’s voice  to ‘modernization of patriarchal norms’; some have rued that her voice became a sort of standard of “ideal femininity” and some have even argued that her vocal style is not representative of the true Indian singing style! If we have to believe them, then a question emerges: How and why did that Lata- style set such high standards of musicality and popularity for such a long period?

When I tried to ask Lata - how she would describe the Lata-style of singing, she brushed aside the question and said, “What style? I don’t think I created a specific style. I just tried to do full justice to the composer’s tune, taking into consideration the (cinematic) situation and emotions in that song. Yes, I tried to interpret it according to my own intelligence and sensitivity. That might have made those songs different.” But I don’t entirely agree with her observation. It tells the truth but not the whole truth. I have always felt that Lata has consciously evolved a distinct style of rendition, which over the years became the most accepted norm of Bhaav Sangeet.

This is my take on what constitutes the Lata- style of rendition and why she is so special!

A voice with a difference

Let us start with how Lata changed the rules of the game in film music to establish a new prototype in female playback singing. The medium of film music is first and foremost about commercialism. Often the easiest way of getting commercial success is to appeal to the baser, coarser instincts of the audience. Sex and sensuality are thus used as prime tools to titillate the senses of the audience. The concept of a hit and hot ‘item song’ has been there since the very early days of film music and is often touted as a surefire way to commercial success. Lata’s voice, with its apparent lack of sensuality should have been a perfect misfit in such a setup and in fact, composers like O.P. Nayyar even thought it that way. O.P. had bluntly put it- “In my music I needed a sexy sensuous heavier voice and that’s why I preferred voices like Shamshad Begum, Geeta Dutt and Asha Bhosle. Lata’s thin thread-like voice was not suited for my music.”

‘Thin voice’. That was considered such a major disqualification for Lata when she entered the film-music in the 1940s. When composer Ghulam Haider first suggested Lata as his playback-choice, the Filmistan boss Sashadhar Mukherji had strongly objected to his suggestion. His   reasoning was sound - “Such a thin voice won’t work in a filmsong.” Based on the order of the day, he was right. Successful voices of those times like Amirbai Karnataki, Zohrabai Ambalewali, Shamshad Begum, Raj Kumari and even Noor Jehan belonged to the heavier, throatier ‘performing’ school of singing. But Ghulam Haider blew his top and told his boss - “The day is not far when producers would queue up to sign the same singer you are rejecting today.” How prophetic his words proved to be!

Compared to  the ruling heavier female playback voices of the 1940s, Lata’s voice was thin and high pitched. But it was also softer, sweeter and mellower. It was a homely girl’s voice! In my opinion, one of the major reasons why Lata went on to rise up to the top in the post-independence film music was the natural purity and innocence of her voice.

Sweet and soft, serene and soothing, sentimental and spiritual – Lata’s voice had all the intrinsic qualities to perfectly suit that era’s idealistic Indian woman’s clean-cut virginal screen image. The classic Indian heroine of those days was an epitome of truth, love, virtue, piety and sacrifice and for the audience, it was very easy to imagine that when she had Lata Mangeshkar singing songs for her!

Some researchers have been baffled and even miffed by how Lata’s seemingly ‘asexual’ voice could strike a chord with the collective Indian mindset. It was simply because her voice reflected the innate goodness of the soul and it brought in the metaphysical aspect over the merely physical one!

Indian ethos

Why the pre-millennium, pre- MTV India saw ideal femininity in Lata’s singing was also because of the beautiful, heartfelt manner in which her songs reflected traditional Indian values.

To understand this point we have to first understand the age-old Indian mindset. An average Indian family growing up in the post-independence, pre-millennium decades had a certain code of conduct, the values of which were handed down over the centuries, from generation to generation. The age of ‘I, Me, Mine’ and ‘Dil Maange More’ had not yet arrived. The woman was the fulcrum of the family. She was the real home-maker, the emotional anchor, who kept the family moored on principles like dignity, restraint, sacrifice, strong family ties, religious spirituality, patriotism, moral rectitude and respect for tradition.

Lata’s Golden Era voice could portray all these emotions with class and conviction. She was not only the voice of the dreamy romantic lover; she was also the voice of the sharing wife, caring mother, doting sister and innocent child of the family. Love songs, sorrowful songs, raga-based songs, folk-songs, bhajan, ghazal, dance songs, festival songs, marriage songs, patriotic songs, lullabies, birthday songs, children’s songs – she practically had a song for every emotion and every occasion in every Indian’s life and importantly these songs derived their musical beauty from India’s home-grown, grass-root musical genres! Through her songs, Lata did not just give voice to the Indian silver-screen’s glitterati but also she gave voice to a great nation’s great traditions and great music!

While listening to current-day Hindi film songs, we realize that they are now essentially made for India (urban India) and not any more for Bhaarat (rural India). Their tunes, lyrics and instrumentation are typically catering to the tastes of city dwellers. In stark contrast, Lata’s Golden Era repertoire was a veritable gold mine of musical riches derived from the soil of  Bharat and such was her virtuosity that she could make all of India embrace that music as its own!

Emoting within the song

Lata also brought in a new-found softness, subtlety and restraint in expressing emotion within the song. Gone was the theatrical, melodramatic and over-simplistic style of the 1930s and 1940s; what Lata evolved was a unique naturalistic yet sophisticated style, which was aesthetically, artistically and emotionally far more satisfying. Mainstream Hindi cinema and cinematic singing have often relied on painting the picture with bold, broad and bawdy strokes, under the pretext that the general public has little patience for subtlety and intricacy. Lata almost never gave in to this silly assumption; her classic songs are most notable for their artistically stimulating underplay of emotion. Even while expressing the deepest passion of love or pain of parting, Lata never goes into an over-the-top, exhibitionist mode. Feelings are displayed ever so delicately - all the while upholding decency, dignity and decorum yet at the same time with so much of depth. This style not only reflected her own conservative upbringing but it also correctly represented the  traditional and conservative persona of the Indian woman of that era. .

Her artistic understatement was a misfit in terms of commercial equations and yet, somehow it touched not only the classes (who were supposed to have the intellectual ability to understand such subtleties of art) but it also appealed to the masses, who wholeheartedly accepted her superiority over other singers.

Perfection of expression

Her classical training is often put forward as a prime reason for Lata’s swift rise over her competitors. True, thanks to her well-trained voice with its wide range, composers got creative freedom like never before. They could now compose the most complex and challenging tune and just hand it over to Lata. She would then give that composition something extra to elevate it into an artistic experience. Lata’s Golden Era songs are epitomes of perfection and precision in terms of musical, verbal and emotive expression.

Mind you, a lot of effort must have gone into making each ‘perfect song’ happen. But such was and is her mastery over craft that more often than not, listeners never get an idea of that effort; it seems so effortless, so natural. The naturalness also stems from yet another overlooked part of her singing - her sound judgment. Seldom, if ever, do we see Lata go into needless musical variations that do not fit into the song’s mood or tempo.

Current-day musical icon Sonu Nigam personally sang and demonstrated this point to me. “Lataji is extremely confident of her singing ability. To go from Point A to Point  B in a song, she will choose just the best way that is needed to traverse that path and than sing it that way. She won’t take an unnecessary detour. She doesn’t try to show off her excellence by doing unnecessary fancy tricks.” Lata’s singing thus reveals her intelligent analyzing capability that has often helped her elevate a commerce-driven film song to an aesthetic, intellectual art form. She thus sang what was unsung before. She presented what was never presented before. In a crass world of commercialism she brought class. 

(This article is excerpted from Dr. Mandar V. Bichu's book Lata-Voice of the golden era, published by Popular Prakashan.)

About the author
Dr. Mandar V. Bichu

Lata Online’s editor-webmaster-curator Dr. Mandar V. Bichu is a pediatrician based in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, who is also a prolific writer-journalist. His fascination for Lata Mangeshkar’s music has resulted in two books-Gaaye Lata Gaaye Lata and Lata-Voice of the golden era, and many published articles.