Review: Lata Mangeshkar: A Life in Music by Yatindra Mishra

BySudhirendar Sharma
May 12, 2023 08:22 PM IST

An unusual biography of Lata Mangeshkar that provides a nuanced understanding of the creation of many classic Hindi film songs

It’s been over a year since Lata Mangeshkar soared into the musical realms beyond. However, through her innumerable songs in multiple languages, she continues to move millions, infusing a sense of oneness in a diverse audience. Hers is a voice that has brought succour and joy to individuals of every caste, class, creed and gender. In a distinguished career that spanned over half a century, she sang everything from lullabies and bhajans to patriotic songs and romantic ballads, leaving behind a rich repository of over 2,000 songs. Indeed, her ouvre includes pieces that reflect every human emotion. Perhaps that’s why her songs have garnered a devoted multicultural following.

Lata Mangeshkar singing at Shivaji Park in 1960 during the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement. (HT Archive)
Lata Mangeshkar singing at Shivaji Park in 1960 during the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement. (HT Archive)

345pp, Rs799; Penguin
345pp, Rs799; Penguin

As a precocious child, she was trained in music by her father Deenanath Mangeshkar, a classical musician and theatre performer. His sudden and premature death pushed young Lata into the world of playback singing in 1949, but it was her enormous talent that made her the nightingale of the nation, the beloved voice of India right until her death on February 6, 2022. Her devotion to her craft was unstinting, and her extraordinary range and effortless rendering on any pitch earned the admiration not just of ordinary listeners but also of the doyen of classic music, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, who once remarked: “Kambakht besuri hee nahee hoti.” (”Damn, this girl never goes off-key”)

Yatindra Mishra’s Lata Mangeshkar: A Life in Music mines the author’s conversations with the legend conducted over a decade. Originally written in Hindi, the English version, translated by Ira Pande, is arranged in two parts: the first half presents the singer’s long journey while the second provides her responses to a range of questions about her life and work. An unusual book, this biography sits at the confluence of cinema, music and literature and succeeds by appealing to the multilingual gene that flourishes in most subcontinentals. While those who are proficient only in a single language or are unfamiliar with the popular musical traditions of India might be discomfited by the author’s presentation of the mukhdas of songs in Hindi, for the vast majority of Lata Mangeshkar’s admiring listeners, it acts as a prompt; a prompt for them not only to burst into song themselves but also to seek out and listen enraptured to those timeless songs once more.

Actor Rekha with Lata Mangeshkar at a function on 25 February 2007. (Vijayanand Gupta/HT Photo)
Actor Rekha with Lata Mangeshkar at a function on 25 February 2007. (Vijayanand Gupta/HT Photo)

Known for her shy nature and modest demeanour, Mangeshkar was like the gandharva of Hindu myth, a celestial being sent to earth to dazzle ordinary mortals with their art. Her mastery of her craft and her superhuman breath control meant that listeners could never tell when she paused to draw a fresh breath. A great mimic, an essential quality in a successful playback singer, she was always perfectly in tune with the emotions and mood of the scene to which her song was set. Devoted to the purity of her craft, she clung to authenticity and avoided singing mawkish songs or even patriotic ones that were inserted for a mere dramatic flourish. While there were whispers that she edged out other talented singers, the truth is that the enormity of her genius made audiences crave her voice.

In his encyclopaedic endeavour, poet and music scholar Mishra, whose body of work includes Akhtari; The Life and Music of Begum Akhtar, has included conversations with eminent personalities, who have offered rare insights into the singer’s character and her relationship with her peers. Lyricist-director Gulzar, who knew Mangeshkar disapproved of swear words, recounts being nervous about including the word badmash in the song “Aapki badmashiyon ke yeh naye andaz hein” from Ghar(1978). Unfazed, Mangeshkar observed that the word gave the song a tang and laughed while rendering it, giving it an entirely delightful air.

Author Yatindra Mishra (Courtesy JLF)
Author Yatindra Mishra (Courtesy JLF)

With inputs from filmmakers, composers and lyricists, who worked extensively with the iconic singer, Lata Mangeshkar: A Life in Music is stuffed with anecdotes and provides a nuanced understanding of how the music engaged with the singer, and how the singer treated the lyrics on offer. Those who follow music closely and are eager to understand how many classic Hindi film songs came into being will find this a truly rewarding read.

Sudhirendar Sharma is an independent writer, researcher and academic.

Story Saved
Live Score
Saved Articles
My Reads
My Offers
Sign out
New Delhi 0C
Thursday, June 01, 2023
Start 14 Days Free Trial Subscribe Now
Register Free and get Exciting Deals