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The story of the song

The Hindu
Tuesday, May 24, 2011 AT 04:54 PM (IST)
How does one tell the tale of Lata Mangeshkar who speaks only through her songs? In his exhaustive work, Mandar V. Bichu tells DEEPA GANESH he chose to look at her through her songs.

To say that Lata Mangeshkar captured the imagination of every musically inclined Indian is to say the least. She came into the Hindi film industry when she was 13, was closely associated with Marathi theatre, learnt music from Ustad Amanat Ali, worked with some of the finest composers-lyricists and singers of this country, she lent her ‘golden' voice to actors who went on to become stars and has sung over 55,000 songs in her seven-decade career. It is a life of epic proportions. There are several Indias, so many cultural histories in her story but most of all it is a story of grit and determination and great passion. However, like every other story, there is another side to this one as well — of human frailty.

Writing a biography of Lata Mangeshkar is like swimming in a bottomless ocean. It has all the elements of a rich, sociological document.However, the reticent musician is hardly given to sharing the rough and tumble of her life with anyone. Dr. Mandar V. Bichu's recent book on the singer, “Lata: Voice of the Golden Era”, faces a similar predicament. The writer hence seeks to ‘discover' this musician through her music.

“Biography is about a person with insights into her personal idiosyncrasies, relationships and incidents outside her professional realm. My book doesn't attempt to do such a thing,” says Bichu, who has grown from a “fanatical admirer” to a listener of matured understanding, since his first book in Marathi in 1996, “Gaaye Lata, Gaaye Lata”. “This book can be considered as the first serious attempt to encapsulate Lata's career and discuss the influences that shaped it. It also tries to judge the impact her art and persona had on Indian cinema, popular music and pop culture,” explains this writer from UAE.

When you step into the role of a biographer, it's impossible to gloss over the dichotomy between the individual and his art. Was it then a conscious decision to choose a narrative mode that can comfortably gloss over the individual? “In my early years as a journalist, I experienced this chasm. Lata is no exception. My understanding of human behaviour (as a doctor) definitely helped me deal with this dichotomy more sensitively. I don't try to equate the artiste and the individual and that's precisely why I have stayed away from turning this book into a biography.” It's a comprehensive career analysis, a reference book for music lovers, is how he labels it. “It is documentation of such a gigantic career and I am happy that I have at least initiated the process.”

Whatever be your narrative mode, you need a lens to look through: Bichu quite appropriately looks at Lata through the composers who she's worked with. He says it is impossible to understand Lata's music by isolating her from the huge band of musicians and all those composers who made stunningly memorable songs. If one has to recapture the ethos of those times, it can be done only by understanding all the processes that moved in one single direction — towards those timeless numbers. “The composer-centric approach of this book is essential to analyse Lata's unique place as the industry's top singer,” and so you have long chapters dedicated to Naushad, Shankar-Jaikishan, Anil Biswas, C. Ramachandra, Salil Choudhry, Vasant Desai and several others who breathed life into immortal lyrics of love and pain. “I have been constantly fascinated by the give and take relationship between all these people.” How at each stage, the song gained depth and colour and how Lata eventually became its face is Bichu's abiding interest.

The book is full of interesting anecdotes that brings to you not only a bygone era but an entire value system that we can only read about now. It has stunning pictures of all those wildly passionate musicians who spent hours in the studio chasing the right tune over endless cups of chai, and singers who sat with them till they arrived at the perfect, chiselled note. Lata, with her unbending determination, was the biggest beneficiary of such a heady amalgam of musical outpourings.

Even as we recognise Lata's undisputed position in the Indian film industry, why did we, as a nation, fail to celebrate equally talented singers of those times? Is Lata's story also the chronicling of the many suppressed female voices? Bichu agrees, but “it was because of Lata's superlative artistic and commercial credentials. Unless you back up your fame/reputation with continued success, you won't survive for decades in such a cut-throat industry. Her voice created a prototype of a heroine's sound in the film industry and such was the impact of her vocal artistry that other types of voices were not tried enough by the composers.” But what was her mode of survival, is a question that Bichu doesn't wish to address.

If you are looking for a sparkling narrative, superlative prose, you may not find it here. But as a work of painstaking research and documentation, the book holds enormous value. Lata may be the protagonist of Bichu's work, but it's impossible to overlook all those regional geniuses who created the grand world of Hindi music; it includes Lata as well.

The story of the song
The story of the song