remains one of India’s most written about persons — she is the subject of several books and appears regularly in newspaper features and magazine articles. But most, barring a few like Raju Bharatan’s biography, have ended up as hagiography instead of being an objective analysis of the singer and her craft. The latest dissertation on Lata, who turned 81 last September, attempts to do just that.
Lata: Voice of the Golden Era, by Mandar V. Bichu, studies and discusses the art of Lata Mangeshkar through the decades, covering almost the entire gamut of her work. Bichu, a leading paediatrician based in the United Arab Emirates, has been a passionate follower of film music in general and Lata in particular, although he refuses to call himself a scholar and prefers to describe himself as “an appreciative analyst with an open mind”. He has written books previously, including one on Lata in Marathi, which, by his own admission, ended up being a tome penned by a “fanatical admirer”.
In his current work, he has tried to overcome that and instead analyse her “gigantic artistic career” more objectively. Bichu traces the singer’s musical journey from Khemchand Prakash, who composed the haunting Aayega Aanewala, penned by Nakshab Jarchavi (and not Kamal Amrohi as some ignorant internet sites mention), to A.R. Rahman, practically covering every major music director in the process. What we get is a chronological documentation and evaluation of her work, interspersed with nice-to-know trivia, both about the composers and about the legend.
Bichu acknowledges his Bombay/Marathi roots, and does a fascinating evaluation of Lata vis-à-vis composers hailing from Maharashtra and Gujarat — C. Ramachandra, Sudhir Phadke, Kalyanji- Anandji, Vasant Desai, Hridaynath Mangeshkar etc. This is not to undermine his analysis of the work by other composers. The mystique of Madan Mohan, who gave Lata some of her most well-known classics like Naina Barse, Lag Ja Gale and Zara Si Aahat, is nicely documented; the perfect tuning between Lata and the luckless Nairobi-born composer, Jaidev Verma (Allah Tero Naam, Raat Bhi Hai Kuch Bheegi Bheegi, Tu Chanda Main Chandni), is given its due place under the sun; and her matchless collaborations with Shankar Jaikishan, arguably the most successful composer through the 1950s and 1960s, are well sketched.
Bichu is equally at ease when handling the body of work by composers from the Bengal school — musical giants such as Anil Biswas, Salil Chowdhury, Hemanta Mukherjee, S.D. Burman and his genius son, Rahul Dev Burman (Pancham). These chapters are crisply crafted, and the aura of the artistic Bengali composers, which made them special in the fiercely commercial bazaar of Bombay, is finely documented. For example, the Salil Chowdhury chapter begins with two incidents from the composer’s life that illustrate the brilliance of the man — one of them tells us that a popular Bengali song by Lata had its genesis in the menu card of a restaurant.
The chapter on Hemanta (who was known as Hemant Kumar in Bombay) is also comprehensive, and the author has to be applauded for that, as he did not grow up listening to the Bengal school of music. S.D. Burman’s pragmatic approach to composing and his minimalist approach to orchestration, never mind his often mercurial relationship with Lata, is given special attention. Pancham’s creativity, ranging from soulful melodies like Aaja Piya Tohe Pyar Doon and Din Ja Rahe Hain to the mischievous and rhythmic Bangle Ke Peeche and Maine Dekha Ek Sapna, the fascinating Lata-Kishore Kumar duet, is nicely expounded.
Bichu has also taken care to ensure that the book doesn’t end up idolizing anyone. While describing Lata protégés, Laxmikant-Pyarelal, as versatile, the author is critical about their mundane and often predictive rhythm patterns. He also analyses quite a few controversies in Lata’s musical career, but doesn’t take sides while discussing the subject.
One criticism aimed at Lata is that she continued to sing in spite of advancing age taking a toll on her voice. Bichu tries to address that in a separate chapter titled “Why did Lata continue singing beyond her prime?”, and this analyses in depth why she should have quit before — when in her prime. The author feels that Lata should have ideally stopped singing post-1980, as her voice was a pale shadow of what it had been in her prime, and her insipid singing at times provided her detractors enough fodder to undermine her considerable achievements.
Also of note are the photographs — some of them rare ones not previously published — which will be a delight for connoisseurs of Hindi film music. One shortcoming is the lack of an index — either of names or of the songs and the films, making it almost impossible to cross-reference. This should have been included in a book of this nature, which also carries such a hefty price tag. But this is a minor quibble in what is otherwise an important work tracking the career of one of India’s most recognized voices.