Issue 19

Lata Mangeshkar: The Sweet Sound of Indian Unity

Lata Mangeshkar, our very own Koh-i-Noor (mountain of light), the Indian Malika-e-Tarannum (queen of melody), will always be one of the brightest jewels in the crown that adorns India’s rich and varied cultural landscape. She lent her voice to generations of actors over a brilliant and magnificent career spanning over six decades. Her repertoire traversed virtually every genre of Indian music, every major Indian language and all possible human emotions.

Lata Mangeshkar’s singing is typically described in hyperbolic terms, but the remarkable feature of her singing abilities is that no number of hyperbolic adjectives seem to adequately capture her musical virtuosity and genius. This is not to be dismissed as a manifestation of adoring, uncritical fandom: this is as true for the millions of her fans as for the connoisseurs. Hindustani classical music maestros have commented on the perfection of her sur (pitch and tone), mastery over laya (rhythm) and her ability to produce very subtle and minute, utterly gorgeous harkats and murkis (quick small variations) that lifted the melody to heights possibly beyond what the music director envisaged. As singers who have attempted to reproduce even a fraction of those subtle touches would know, these movements that sound so easy and effortless in her voice are impossibly difficult. The only singer who matches this talent is her sister Asha Bhosle.

Her individual life story resembles the script of many of the movies she sang for. The tragic and untimely death of her father led her to start working at the age of 13 when most girls are still playing with dolls. She did not attend regular school but learnt to read and write at home. Her attention to language and her perfectionism can be seen in the way she enunciates the lyrics of the language she sang in. She initially tried her hand at acting but did not succeed, possibly because her looks did not fit the standards of conventional feminine beauty of the time. Despite her prodigious talent, her entry into playback singing was not a cakewalk. But after the 1949 super-success of Mahal (for which she sang “aayega aanewala”), there was no looking back. There have been excellent obituaries that capture various aspects of her life and career as it hit stratospheric heights.

Lata understood the exact emotion behind each song and transmitted that very precise sensation to her listeners, who felt as if that song was being sung for them individually, narrating their personal story: the first heady sensation of being in love, the exhilaration of the first kiss, the longing, the waiting, the desire, the romantic banter, rebellion against authority, the heartbreak, the dizzy heights of happiness, the depths of despair, patriotic pride, spiritualism and appeal to the divine, love for nature, philosophical musings, rejecting inequality and injustice – there is a Lata song that expresses all these emotions and states of being.

Her life has been subject to intense scrutiny both during her lifetime and after her death. The internet is rife with all kinds of half-truths and misinformation. She busted many of those myths in her conversation with Nasreen Munni Kabir. Many commentaries after her death were truly bizarre both because they had nothing to do with her music (her most defining characteristic), and because of their extreme self-righteousness that substituted for factual correctness. She was attacked for epitomising Brahmanical privilege, which was odd to say the least, since she didn’t come from a Brahmin family.

Much ink has been spilled over her monopoly power. She was a superstar whose career intersected that of all the male movie superstars, some of whom she outlived: from Raj Kapoor to Dilip Kumar to Rajesh Khanna to Amitabh Bachchan to Shah Rukh Khan. Can anyone seriously argue that her superlative musical talent did not play a role in making their films super successful?

So many of us adore our male superstars but are quick to run Lata down. During her active years, she stood tall like a colossus in a male-dominated world. If we are determined not to discuss her music but other aspects of her personality, why not discuss how she managed to negotiate the very harsh and difficult world of Bombay cinema?

She, like other superstars from sports, industry and Bombay cinema, was friendly with the fiery right-wing Shiv Sena chief, Bal Thackeray. One can (and should) discuss factors that made Shiv Sena so powerful in Mumbai and Maharashtra that it ended up developing alliances with a host of very prominent individuals. Coming to Lata, the question to ask would be this. Did her proximity to the Shiv Sena prevent her from forming deep friendships and bonds with Muslims? Some of her best output has been in collaboration with Muslim artists – actors, music directors, lyricists and poets. For her, they were artists, human beings and her natural collaborators, whom she deeply respected. She never shied away from expressing her respect and love for them publicly. They were as much a part of her personal life as she was of theirs and their families’.

Her universal appeal was evident in the collective outpouring of grief and mourning that the nation plunged into as she left this earth. It didn’t matter that her death was foretold by her recent ill-health; when it actually happened the shock was heartfelt and palpable. It wasn’t just Indians who were grieving as if they had lost a family member. The grief transcended national boundaries.

Lata Mangeshkar sang of harmony and love, and her persona united India across divides — class, caste, religion, gender, linguistic. The despicable attempt to stir up controversy over Shah Rukh Khan’s dua at her funeral was massively rejected. This shows that there is an enormous number of people who refuse Lata’s memory to be tarnished by cheap and ugly gimmicks, and I daresay, by uninformed analyses. As we bow our heads collectively in her memory, we would do well to revive and strengthen the inclusive India which is defined by the sweet sound of her music.

Ashwini Deshpande is Professor of Economics and Founding Director, Centre of Economic Data and Analysis (CEDA) at Ashoka University. She is passionate about Hindi film music and has written occasionally about it, including a long essay on Lata Mangeshkar as part of a debate.  

Picture Credits : Maharashtra Times

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 8

Remembering SOPHIE

On the night of 31st January, as I was scrolling mindlessly through twitter, I came across a tweet from one of my mutual followers  that changed the course  of my night, for the worse. The tweet read, “Devastated to hear about the loss of SOPHIE. I thank you for helping me become who I am today, and who I might be tomorrow” attached with a picture of the phenomenal pop producer, SOPHIE Xeon. These rumours were later confirmed by SOPHIE’s UK record label, Transgressive, that released a statement regarding the 34-year-old artist’s tragic death in Greece. The statement read, “True to her spirituality, SOPHIE had climbed to watch the full moon and slipped and fell.”  

Rather than talking about emotions, naming them and laying things out for the listener, SOPHIE’s music was obsessed with the power of emotions, as can be seen in her singles  “Bipp“, “Like we never say “Goodbye“, and “It’s Okay to Cry“. SOPHIE’s heavy fixation on the power of giving yourself permission to feel with full intensity, without any inhibitions is a constant reassurance to all  LGBT+ teenagers who grew up questioning their validity, in places where disruption of the cisgender-heterosexual norm is almost always met with backlash. SOPHIE’s music not only provided some solace in a world where growing up closeted is nothing short of hell, but was also full of hope for a future world that was representative of everything progressive — the kind of world you would want to live in. 

SOPHIE’s unapologetic attitude towards her music and herself has not only been influential and life changing for the pop music industry, but also for her fans. From the very beginning of her musical journey, SOPHIE  adamantly refused to put her face on her work, or even create social media accounts in a world and industry that relies so much on social media — she claimed that she wanted her music speak to for her instead, and thus served as an inspiration for fans worldwide by showing them that it is not necessary to adhere to the rules that the world has set up for them, in order to live in it. But, this did not let SOPHIE shy away from reclaiming her voice and space as a transwoman, undeterred by the long list of critics and journalists who were constantly over analyzing her work and misreading it, some going as far as misgendering her.

SOPHIE was always a huge advocate of transparency and authenticity, both through her music and her words. Electronic music is often considered inauthentic or inferior to music that is more vocal in nature, however SOPHIE believed that “authenticity” is an individual and evolving process. In an interview with Sasha Geffin  early on in her career, she said, “A lot of people are interested in recreating an idea of the past, like the post-punk era or something, and would view this kind of recreation as less authentic…I think being completely authentic about the time you live in is something that I would view as a career-long objective — to find out what is authentically this moment.” Music was her way of asserting her true identity and expression. It was a reciprocation of how she experienced the world around her.

In a world where the LGBT+ community, especially transgender and non-binary people, are expected to provide evidence and justification for their identity all the time, SOPHIE’s music comes as an escape, creating an environment of experimentation and innovation that is like a playground for gender expression and identity. 

Calling SOPHIE a revolutionary genius is not an overstatement because she was light years ahead of her peers when it came to creativity and vision. She influenced an entire generation, both as an artist and as a person by reconstructing pop music and reimagining a worldview that places innovation at its core. 

SOPHIE’s loss is enormous for the music industry, but it is an even bigger loss for her family, friends and fans, whose lives SOPHIE coloured with compassion above everything else. They will live up to her legacy and keep honoring what was so close to her heart. 

Image Credits: SOPHIE, YouTube

Madhulika Agarwal is a third year English and Media Studies major who is interested in literature by children and for children. When she is not lamenting over her tiktok career that ended before it could start, she likes learning about animals and reading books with good art in them. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).