Years from now, when rny back is bent double with age, I shall tell my grandchildren that I once went to a concert by Lata Mangeshkar. What is more, I shall tell them with pride that I survived the ordeal.
Lata performed last autumn at the Nassau Coliseum in Long Island, the usual East Coast venue for the popular, Bollywood-inspired extravaganzas that seem always to touch a special chord with ex-patriots from the Subcontinent in the US. The Coliseum is an indoor stadium where ice hockey matches are fought out, and can normally seat up to 18,000 beer-swilling, hot dog-munching Americans. On “Lata Nite”, the place was packed to the rafters with desis Sardars, Sylhetis, Pathans, Gujaratis, Sinhalese, Malayalis, Kashmiris, the works —all eating samosas, vadas and dhoklas dunked in tart tamarind chutney.
This being an Indian event (and given our puritanical fetishes), there was absolutely no beer on sale, only Coca Cola, Sprite and a variety of other effervescent drinks. Those in search of any fizz that night would find it, alas, in those drinks alone, for the evening’s star was as flat as a papad. And given that she is in her 70th year, her voice was just as brittle. Not to put too fine a point on the matter, Lata sounded awful, and only marginally better than the handful of jokers she had brought with her as her support act.
As you may have guessed, I am not a fan of Lata Mangeshkar. In fact, I have always disliked her singing. Her little girl’s voice, the relentlessly high octaves, her excruciating humility and the unyielding plainness of her aspect—I have hated them all. I do not need to tell you, by the same token, that a legion of men would have lynched me in a trice had I expressed any of these views aloud in the queue for the restrooms, or the line for the popcorn. (The lyncher-in-chief would surely have been Kanu Chauhan, the real estate dealer from Queens, in New York, whose Rajsun Megastar Entertainment flew Lata to America. By my crudest calculations, the concert made about a million dollars at the box-office.)
Prudently, I kept my thoughts to myself that night. But here, under the protection that this column affords, I will say this: Lata has been bad for Indian music. More than that, she has been a disastrous influence on Indian cinema.
Certainly, Lata is not short of veneration. Glancing at the flyer for the concert, one notes that Amitabh Bachchan once said that “when the voice achieves perfect harmony with a note, it is as if the soul has soared up to become one with the supreme being. That’s how I feel when I listen to Lataji”. The normally measured Ustad Amjad Ali Khan is the author of this hyperbole: “If the Taj Mahal is the Seventh Wonder of the world then Lata Mangeshkar is the Eighth.” Gulzar, given to greater excess, penned this gem: “Lataji’s voice is is a cultural phenomenon of our times. It’s a part of our daily intake. We pass no day without hearing that melodious voice at least once —unless one is deaf.” (My first prize for the most risible quote, however, goes to the late Nargis, who once gushed that “I never needed to use glycerine while emoting to sad songs rendered by Lata Mangeshkar”.)
Had it not been for Lata’s presence —she began singing for films with Majboor (1947) — Hindi cinema might have taken a different path. Producers came to be so utterly reliant on her voice, and the spell that it appeared to cast over the great Indiana public, that the growth of any other type of film but the “musical” was doomed to failure in Bollywood. Of course there were other singers, such as Mohammed Rafi, Kishore Kumar, Hemant Kumar and Asha Bhosle: but Lata was the bedrock of film sangeet. The Indian film-wallahs are notoriously conservative. Having observed how she “made” hits for them, they were unwilling to abandon a lucrative formula. A fortress-like genre was built around her voice, that of the musical block-buster, ensuring that “realist” film-makers would forever be in the doghouse. As if that were not bad enough, Lata’s success gave rise to a style of singing that was blindly imitative. Across the country, women sought to match her voice, producing ersatz Lata-esque sounds that grated more than they gratified. Pakistan may not have much of a film industry, but at least that country’s female singers have character.
Each one sounds different, each has her own voice, her own andaaz. In India, for years now, all chanteuses have sounded exactly like Lata. The grande dame has killed off all originality. Don’t misunderstand me: I do not wish Lata ill. I desire for her, instead, a long and healthy old age. But I do wish that she would retire now, and rest on her laurels. As she showed us at the Nassau Coliseum, the sparkle has gone. Let us move on to the next chapter, and the next voice.
A version of this article appeared in India Today (North American Edition).