How Lata Mangeshkar, All India Radio and My Father Shaped My Journey From Childhood Into Adulthood
- Slight of stature, two black braids framing her sweet face and a bindi adorning her forehead Lata was as essential to my upbringing as Russian Literature and Gabriel Garcia Marquez were.
Like thousands and thousands of Indians everywhere, I too learned of the legendary Lata Mangeshkar’s passing late in the evening on February 5th, 2022. She was 92, developed Covid symptoms and had been hospitalized at Bombay’s Breach Candy hospital for over a month – it was still a shock to the system. Lata Mangeshkar and old Indian film songs are as vital, as all-pervasive, and as important to my life as my parents are or as water and air are to me. I feel them inside of me, I love them and know they are out there, even though I don’t see them.
It’s not hyperbole – my earliest memories have been listening to her lilting voice, like fine crystal or a cut-glass over the huge British-era radio that my papaji (my father’s elder brother and family patriarch) would play every morning at 5:30 am without fail – that was the time the All India radio station would start its daily morning soporific opening tune – the British national anthem “God save the king/queen” yes, even after the British were kicked out decades earlier. Apparently, at the All India Radio, someone had missed out on replacing the early-morning tune with a more Indian representative tune. And I’m not sure when it was changed – just like that giant, old wooden radio that was brought over to my childhood home in Banaras from my ancestral pile or mahal as it was known, and probably bought by my great grandfather (my grandfather and his brother were adopted by their maternal grandma after their mother passed away and their father brought in a new wife as was the tradition those days). But I digress – that story and my entry into this family is for another day. Like that radio, the early-morning wake-up tune was no longer there one day, just like Lata is no more today.
So her death certainly shifted something inside of me. Every February and March I am prone to sadness and melancholy since 2015 when I lost my father. February 2015 was the last time I saw him fighting for his life due to a superbug he contacted at the hospital and March, his birthday and his death anniversary. I woke up feeling that usual sadness, now acerbated by the news of the death of Lata Mangeshkar. You see, after that giant radio, the one all-encompassing influence on me was my father in all things refined and artistic, and curmudgeonly as well. Whether it was books or arts or Hindi film songs and my love for ghazals. My memories are filled with every Lata Mangeshkar’s song that would come filtering out from behind the forbidden closed doors of his study, where he would retire with his rum, his books, his writings and his gramophone, later replaced with a cassette player as Indian music industry by the late 1980s was churning out golden oldies on cassettes that were more easily accessible than the 45mm or 75mm vinyl records.
My father was a connoisseur and a scholar of Indian music, especially the old Hindi film songs and by old I mean old — starting from Devika Rani films to K.L. Saigal and Pankaj Mullick. I learned to appreciate the rich timbre of their voices and the black and white era of Indian films and their playback music – great music directors like C. Ramchandra, Naushad, Anil Biswas, Ghulam Haider and later composers like S.D. Burman, Khayyam, Salil Chowdhury and Madan Mohan. And amidst all these greats stood Lata Mangeshkar – her voice so beautiful and sharp, she could sing in 4 octaves! Through my father’s great door and from his occasional monologues (I wouldn’t dare call it a conversation as we kids oftentimes never had anything to add of any value to this man’s genius) in front of us I learned of the little big things that each of these composers did or how Lata transcended those Nargi’s film songs to a height never before seen or heard.
Slight of stature, two thick, black braids framing her sweet face and always clad in a subdued saree and a bindi adorning her forehead Lata was as essential to my upbringing and journey from childhood into adulthood as Russian Literature and Gabriel Garcia Marquez were (as also Mills & Boone though I never admitted to reading them). My favorite Lata number is “Tum kya jaano, tumhari yaad mein hum kitna roye…” a delectable song from an obscure 1952 film “Shin Shinaki Boobla Boo” and composed by C. Ramchandra. I swear you can cut a paper from Lata’s voice – it’s so sharp, so pure and so magical. Fittingly, she was awarded India’s highest civilian honor – the Bharat Ratna, the Dada Sahib Phalke Award and a Padma Vibhushan. But what was very near and personal to me was the Lata Mangeshkar Award that the then chief minister of Madhya Pradesh Arjun Singh helped create to honor the Melody Queen’s birth in that state. The first recipient of that award was Naushad – as the story goes, it was at my father’s convincing that Arjun Singh went for Naushad. My father at that time was working as an officer on special duty at Bharat Bhavan and helped set up the literary section Vagarth at that Charles Corea masterpiece institution in Bhopal.
It’s so difficult to decide which of Lata’s songs is the greatest — each and every one of them are pieces of faceted gems – “julmi saang aakh ladi….” from film “Madhumati” to the legendary patriotic number “Aye mere watan ke logo..” that famously brought Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru to tears after the Indo-China war of 1962. Or listen to “aap kee nazro ne samjha…” from film “Anpadh,” “Piya tose naina lage re…” from film “Guide,” “Raina beeti jaayee…” from film “Amar Prem” — one just can’t pick and choose. Lata sang for over 8 decades and thousands of songs for hundreds of music composers and actors. Asking to pick one is like asking to choose the best of Martin Scorsese films (in my humble opinion) – they are all greats. Lata in her 70s sang for DDLJ – “Tujhe dekha toh ye jaana saanam” – that’s how versatile she was. Though truth be told her later songs in films like “Veer-Zara” and “Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gam” did disappoint at some level because our bar was set so high by her earlier gems.
And so it’s also befitting that like so many of the legends gone before her, Lata too shall witness post her departure the great divide – over her known association with the Jan Sangh (the extreme right-wing social thinkers who believe India is for the Hindus) though such was her stature in popular culture that no one would dare bring it up when she was alive vs those who insist why to bring it up now, show some respect now that she’s gone – both aspects matter of opinion and correct to whoever believes in them and what is more important to them. And like the great Pavarotti, Ravi Shankar, Pandit Birju Maharaj and the great Kelucharan Mahapatra, the debate between their personal failings and their art they left behind will continue.
When it comes to art, I myself struggle with this – the entire Me Too movement means something to me and horrifying as it is to its victims, I struggle to not see the personal failings while appreciating their art. Lata sang for us all – she sang for divinity, she sang for the country, she sang for composers who were of another religion and she sang for artists who were from other regions – in that sense, she ruled over us all! The activist in me rebels at the notion that my queen believed in folks who think not like me but my heart knows my queen will always be there through her songs and through her voice that united a county like no other could.
Kuhu Singh lives in Eden Prairie, Minn., a suburb of the Twin Cities. Bidding adieu to journalism a decade ago, she nonetheless loves to write and express her very strong opinions on social media and blogs and sometimes in a few Indian publications. She is a Senior Digital Marketing Manager for a broadcast retail company. Race relations, diversity, social issues fascinate and roil her into action. She volunteers her time with certain political organizations and community organizations.
I am an Indian, Muslim, man, Physician, father, and grandfather, and very proudly so. None of these contradict any other. On a genetic basis, I am 98.5% South Asian. When Lata Mangeshkar sings ái mere watn ke logo, I think she is addressing folks like me. That I am a Muslim is a consequence of some ancestor of mine who found his beliefs in Islam. That has nothing to do with my being an Indian. I married a woman who was born in a Hindu family as did my only brother. Our marriages are more than 50 years long and all four of us mourn Lataś death. May God grant her a heavenly pkace, Ameen.