Lata – Voice of the Golden Era

Posted on May 3, 2011


A new book on a bona fide legend, Lata: Voice of the Golden Era, arrives with two insurmountable problems. The first is a title bafflingly bereft of articles. What, really, is the contention of the author, Dr. Mandar V Bichu? The drab reality that Lata Mangeshkar was “a voice of the golden era,” just one of the many polished singers whose supple vocals shaped a robust body of Hindi film songs, or is she “the voice” that towered over all others? The other issue is that of size – two-a-half kilos worth of glossy paper that, no doubt, brings the best out of the many, many photographs. But what about the arm? The question about coffee-table books that needs urgent answering is how to read them when there’s no coffee table at hand.

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Splayed out on a sturdy surface, however, the primary appeal of Dr. Bichu’s book announces itself – and it’s not the prose. (Sample phrases: “feather-soft, nectar-sweet love songs,” “abidingly beautiful romantic softies” and “songs simply [that] won’t let go of your senses,” all within the same paragraph.) After a brief biography, we get chapters that discuss the singer’s work with the author’s elastic list of major golden-era composers, from Naushad and Shankar-Jaikishan to Khayyam and Hridaynath Mangeshkar. (Each chapter is titled for a collaboration between singer and composer – the Madan Mohan discussion, for instance, is named Woh Bhooli Daastaan.)

Dr. Bichu, in these sections, attempts a little analysis. About Aayega aanewala, from Mahal, he writes, “Now let’s try to go back in time and imagine the listeners’ reactions when the song was first played on radio. Breaking through the stillness of night, the grandfather clock strikes two. A superb blend of violin strains and piano bars creates a chilling, haunting atmosphere. Deepening that mist of mystery, an ethereal voice comes through, bringing with it a disturbing sense of solitude and pain.” And he translates two lines. “The cosmos is silent, even the stars are still / The world is resting but the lovelorn are distressed.” The anecdotes around the song are far more interesting – the fact, for instance, that the final rehearsal started at 6 p.m. and the song was recorded at 7 a.m. the next morning.

Or that Naushad, when his marriage was arranged, had told the bride’s family that he was a tailor, because to families of good breeding anyone associated with films was a pariah. “When the marriage finally took place, the brass band loudly played Naushad’s Rattan songs outside the hall while inside the poor composer kept mum, playing his tailor’s role to perfection!” Amusing anecdotes apart, the real value in these chapters is the gradually revealed appreciation of a singer on the cusp of stardom. Dr. Bichu contends that Lata’s voice was “a godsend for a composer of Naushad’s calibre. Now he no longer had to worry about a singer’s vocal range to compose a tune.” This contention is bolstered by Naushad’s observation that “her voice moved as naturally in a song as a duckling moves in water.”

Therein lies the difficulty in pronouncing a summary judgement on such books. They are obvious labours of love, painstakingly compiled, with a mountain-load of illuminating research, and ultimately handicapped by banal writing – which wouldn’t be a bone worth picking in a fan site or blog article. But in a book that costs Rs. 2995, you want the world and everything within – facts as well as form, elegance along with education.

A handful of photographs almost makes it worthwhile – a young Lata as an actress in Chimukala Sansar, eyes closed and hands on an older woman’s shoulders; Lata and Talat Mahmood rehearsing with Shankar-Jaikishan, accompanied by an accordionist whose smile suggests that he’s attained his life’s purpose; C Ramchandra and Lata performing Aye mere watan ke logon, his jacket as detergent-white as her sari; Lata singing Nain so nain for Vasant Desai alongside a towering, dhoti-clad Hemant Kumar, her head barely scraping the chest pocket of his kurta; Lata strumming a Spanish guitar. These snapshots, simultaneously silent and eloquent, transcend their disappointingly functional layout and provide a parallel commentary on a golden age of Hindi film music.

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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