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Requiem for the Melody Queen

Ratnottama Sengupta sings her own paean in which a chorus of voices across the world join her to pay a tribute to a legend called Lata

She was a “pint-sized bundel of musical genius,” wrote the TIME Magazine. The melody queen of India was, they said, “a singer with moonlight in her throat.”

Dr Javed Iqbal was the former Principal and HOD (Surgery) in Qaid-e-Azam Medical College, Bahawalpur, the 11th biggest city of Pakistan. Until a week ago I knew its name only because of Bahawalpur House, the mansion of the former monarch in Delhi, which is now the National School of Drama in the Capital’s Mandi House area. But on February 6, 2022, I gained acquaintance with this surgeon courtesy Whatsap. I heard in wonder as he paid a personal tribute to the just demised Nightingale of India. And I bowed my head twice in deference to the legendary singer and then, to the doctor who, by his own admission, was no scholar of music, yet provided a unique significance of Lata Mangeshkar.

Let me translate what I heard him say in Urdu. “As you know, I’m a surgeon. And when I came to Bahawalpur, I introduced a number of new procedures which contributed to my popularity as Principal and professor. So, students came to interview me for the college magazine. They asked me, ‘Sir where did you learn such good surgery?’ I don’t know why but instantly I answered, ‘From Lata Mangeshkar.’

“The students were surprised, ‘How can that be? She’s not a surgeon! How can you master surgery from her?’ ‘Have you heard her sing?’ I asked them. ‘The way she clears the dues of each harf, every letter of the alphabet; the way she conveys the nuances of every word without erring on even a fraction of the note or messing with a beat – this is the artistry that should permeate the work of every artist. Just the way a single stroke of a painter’s brush can make the painting a masterpiece or can mar it, in the same way a single movement of the finger holding the surgeon’s scalpel, a single cut, a single stitch, a single dissection through a cautery can transform the entire operation into an exemplary art or spoil it for life.’

“Many years ago, it struck me that the way Lata Mangeshkar does justice to every inflection of her songs, should be the yardstick to measure any art. Every breath should transform your performance into the best of your ability. If you listen to any song by Lata Mangeshkar, you will realise that, if the word is written with a chhoti-ii (pronounced: ‘e’) then you will hear a short vowel; and if it is a badi-ii (pronounced: ee) you will hear a long vowel. If you hear ain you can tell that it is written with ain/ euyin and if it is the Arabic letter qaaf then you will hear the guttural sound. But at the same time not a single demand of the melody will be ignored. I’m not an expert nor a scholar of music – and in the past few years I have not been hearing her often – but I can say that this is one quality that makes her mumtaz – the Best.

“Today when she has passed away, I feel like sharing this: The reason why humans are distinct from other living creatures is that physicality is the dominant need of other animals whereas humans are driven by the combined needs of physicality, intellect, emotion and spirituality. The creature whose life revolves around physicality alone will end when Death comes. But the more a person’s intellect, emotion and spirituality contributes to his/her actions, the greater will be his/her claim on immortality. Death is inevitable, Death is mighty, but Death is only so powerful as to make the 5-feet-something Lata Mangeshkar disappear from the face of the earth. Death is not so powerful as to end her art and erase her voice and make her songs disappear. Because the Lata Mangeshkar who was a khatun, a 5-feet-something lady has passed away. But the Lata Mangeshkar who made her ‘The Lata Mangeshkar’ will never die…”

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Kumar Gandharva (1924-1992), the late Classical vocalist whose signature style refused to be bound by gharana traditions, once said that “Often people ask about Lata Mangeshkar’s place in the pantheon of Classical music. In my opinion, this question is redundant, because there can be no comparison between classical music and film songs. While serious development of notes is the constant concern of one, fast beat and fickleness or agility is the main trait of the other.”

At the other end is Nitish Bharadwaj who is still revered for his much-loved evocation of Lord Krishna in the phenomenal serial Mahabharat. The actor has been like a brother to me since he debuted on the Hindi screen with Trishagni directed by my father Nabendu Ghosh. In his homage to the legend, he said, “Since her childhood Lata Didi has lived her life in pursuit of her art, as upasana, contemplation. Her career has not been to amass wealth, it has been as upasak, a worshipper or sadhak, devotee. Which is why she has succeeded in leaving behind thousands of songs for us…”

It is a fact that Lata Mangeshkar has more recordings to her name than any singer in the world. But it is not merely the number, it is the impact of the songs that astounds the world. I will quote an unidentified fan with whom my generation can easily identify. For she writes, “As a child you woke me up with Jago Mohan pyare (Rise my child, Krishna) and lulled me to sleep with Aa ja re aa nindiya tu aaa (Come, Sleep to rest in my baby’s eyes). You made me feel good as you sang Bacche man ke sacche (Children are born pure, with heart of gold). When you sing Humko man ki shakti dena, (Give us the strength to win over our mind) you take me back to my classroom. Solah baras ki bali umar (Sixteen going on seventeen), I experienced in your voice the blossoming of my first crush. Ajeeb dastaan hai ye (What a strange story, this!) stirred the deepest chord of my heart. Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai you gave voice to the abandonment of a spirit freed from bonding. And the countless times I heard Aye mere watan ke logon (Cry, O people of my land) tears flowed down my cheeks…”

Three days after Lata Mangeshkar bid adieu to sunlight, Rabindra Sarobar – close to my house in Lake Gardens – offered a unique proof of her abiding life. Let me share it in the words of Mudar Patherya, my secularist friend who initiated a revival of the lake by hosting morning concerts and inculcated pride in one’s neighbourhood by painting icons on otherwise defaced walls.

“DEAR LATA AUNTY,” he wrote on his FB wall, “this morning, for a change, we sang for you. Beginning with Allah tero naam, Ishwar  (God are your names too) – we feel you are that too. Then, we went on to Naa jeyo naa (Do not go away), Lag jaa gale (Come, hold me in your arms), Rahein na rahein hum (If I’m there or I’m gone), Piya tose (My eyes have met yours, beloved) and others. We ended with Ai mere watan ke logo

“We were a few. We took kalam, printouts of the lyrics. We read the words. Emphasised the huroof, letters of the alphabet. Sang from deep within.  

“‘Singing for you,’ we said.  

“Nobody said Wah wah, Well done. Nor kya gaaya, encore.  

“But…  

“One Sarobar walker stopped and joined us.  

“Another doing his press-ups did not rise, easing into restfulness after the fourth. 

“Rowers – members of the Rowing Club next door – came close to where we were sitting, lifted their oars and glided lazily for seconds. 

“The lady walking purposefully said ‘Wait a sec’ to her husband and stayed till the end.  

“A yogi, engaged in the specific type of controlled breathing called anulom-vilom,, dropped his fingers halfway and meditated.  

“A lady, who was a part of our audience, closed her eyes and rocked gently. 

“The surgeon who played the harmonium for us shook his head in a gentle parabola as if he’d just comprehended something new. 

“The lady with a DSLR to shoot birds capped her lens and sat down.  

“The stranger who chanced by perched himself on the durrie and asked ‘Gaaitay paari? Can I join in?’  

“Schedules were interrupted, agendas disturbed, focus distracted. 

“At the end, someone suggested something radical.  

“‘Can we have this for the whole day?’ “

*

Don’t worry dear, I would say in reply. We will — for the rest of our lives.

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Glossary

Khatun: A woman of rank

Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai: I want to live again today.

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Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. 

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

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