. . . . . .  

On 22 January 1901, when Queen Victoria died after a 64 year long reign, few Britons then could remember a time when she had not been on the British throne.

On 6 February 2022, Queen Elizabeth II celebrated the 70th anniversary of her accession to the same throne. Only a clutch of the elderly will recall a pre-Elizabethan age.

Similarly, with the passing of the legendary singer Lata Mangeshkar on Sunday, few can recollect a time when Lata’s haunting voice was not part of their everyday life. She sang bhajans and geets to start their day, love songs for the anguished, sad songs for the emotionally crushed, happy ditties for those light of spirit, duets for those who wanted two for the price of one, and uplifting songs to raise the spirit of her nation.  

She came into prominence in the 1950s simultaneously across a divided subcontinent. In those days, Indian films were shown in Pakistani cinemas without inhibition. As a pre-teenager, I heard her songs first at the Indian High Commissioner’s residence in Clifton Karachi, where Raj Kapoor’s film Awaara was shown in his garden.

I grew up, as most of my generation did, to her innumerable songs lip-synced by film actresses from Nargis in the 1950s, Vyjayanthimala, Hema Malini, Dimple Kapadia, to Kajol in the 2000s. Their faces grew younger but their singing voices on screen remained as ageless as Lata’s dulcet tones.

My first sight of Lata was on Amritsar television in the 1970s, when she gave one of her rare concerts. During this one, she sipped water constantly to moisten her throat. Nur Jahan used pats of butter to lubricate hers, others something stronger.

Listening to Lata live was a privilege. Initially shy of public appearances, the attraction of performing concerts before a subcontinental diaspora scattered across continents proved too lucrative.  

I attended her concert in Abu Dhabi on 28 January 1983. She spent the afternoon rehearsing, and that evening gave a faultless performance. Dressed in a bordered white sari, she approached the stage, removed her sandals and then began with a sacred sloka. What followed was a ceaseless ragamala of ‘golden oldies’. Her crescendo was Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram - the title song from Raj Kapoor’s film that he built around Zeenat Aman’s disfigured face miming to Lata’s invisible voice.

After the show, Lata joined a group of us who had been invited by the sponsor. She entered and sat demurely on a settee, alone. Others were hesitant to sit next to her. I did. Tongue-tied - what does one say to a legend? -  I mumbled inadequate praise and then asked for her autograph.   

One would have imagined that she was very careful about her throat. No, her sponsor explained. Over lunch, she relished the spicy pickles and fiery curries as if her vocal cords were made of iron.

My wife and I encountered her again briefly at the Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Palace. Earlier, she had recorded songs for Gulzar’s Maachis, then under production. From him we learned why Lata was so bankable. She could listen to a song crooned by the music director twice, perhaps thrice. When she had mastered the tune, she would record it in less than three takes. She saved the studios time and the producers money.  

She never forgot how she had been exploited in her youth. Her voice was divine but her mastery over it was painstakingly honed. She knew its worth. That divinity notwithstanding, she battled to secure her eminence in Bollywood, behaving less like a nightingale than a cuckoo. She nudged competitors (even her younger sisters) out of the field until she held Bollywood completely hostage.

Lata retired some years ago when her voice gave out. In the sunset of her life, her politics moved from Nehruvian tricolour inclusiveness to Modi’s saffron sectarianism. But it was the tricolour that swathed her body during the state funeral Modi ordered. 

Her indulgences were private: high quality diamonds and Las Vegas’ casinos. There, incognito, her hair in two signature pigtails, she would spend hours (often the whole night), feeding the slot machines known as ‘one-arm bandits’.

Queen Elizabeth – three years older than Lata – has lived to celebrate her Platinum Jubilee. Despite her age and obvious infirmity, she will be called upon to make innumerable public appearances at demonstrations of national rejoicing. 

She is tidying up her succession, declaring her wish that ‘when the time comes’, her daughter-in-law Camilla be crowned Queen Consort with King Charles III. The stigma of divorce that forced her uncle Edward VIII to abdicate, her sister Margaret to forgo a love marriage, and her heir Charles to marry the unsullied Lady Diana have been forgotten.

Lata could separate herself from her music; the Queen cannot divorce the Crown.



[10 FEB. 2022] 

10 February 2022
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