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Time out Mumbai
Wednesday, May 25, 2011 AT 01:39 PM (IST)
Mandar Bichu’s reverential book on Lata Mangeshkar lacks an analytic edge but could be good for historians, says Amarendra Dhaneshwar.

In the early 1950s, Lata Mangeshkar recorded a sentimental Marathi song called “Kalpavruksh Kanyesaathi”. It told of a daughter’s sense of gratitude to her dead father. Though the seeds the father planted years ago had sprouted into a tree that was yielding abundant fruit, he wasn’t around to witness the harvest. The song was a chart buster and many believe that the lyrics were written with Lata Mangeshkar’s father, Dinanath, in mind. It’s among the anecdotes contained in Lata: The Voice of the Golden Era, a song-by-song biography by Mandar Bichu, a paediatrician and connoisseur of old film music.

From the outset, it’s clear that Bichu is an unabashed admirer of the musician. He never stops lauding her talents. In this book, he has woven together an interesting narrative that is part information, part nostalgia, but mainly a panegyric.

Lata classifies Mangeshkar’s songs according to the output of each of the music composers she’s worked with. From the 1950s till almost 2000, Mangeshkar and her sister Asha Bhosale dominated the playback singing industry, towering over their competitors. Mangeshkar’s collaborations with virtuosos like Anil Biswas, Naushad, C Ramchandra, SD Burman, Madan Mohan, Roshan, Shankar-Jaikishan, Vasant Desai and Salil Choudhury were instrumental in defining the period as the Golden Era of film music.

Just as ethnomusicologist Ashok Ranade did in his authoritative book The Hindi Film Song, Bichu also tries to analyse the music of each composer. Though Bichu lacks Ranade’s sharp analytical insight, his book has a lot of material which could prove to be useful for a serious historian of Hindi film music.

The author identifies the role each composer played in shaping Mangeshkar’s career and also in shaping the template of film music. For instance, he credits C Ramchandra with playing a major role in helping Mangeshkar grow out of being a Noorjahan clone and finding her voice as “a magical, original singer”. In just over two years from the point Mangeshkar started her ascent late in 1948, Shamshad Begum, the leading singer of the time, found herself mellifluously marginalised. Shortly after, so did Zohrabai, Amirbai, Parul Ghosh, Rajkumari, Surinder Kaur, Mohantara Talpade, Sulochana Kadam, Binapani Mukherjee, Lalita Dewoolkar and Meena Kapoor. Only Geeta Roy-Dutt survived the matchless Mangeshkar challenge, retaining her spot as the number two vocalist through the 1950s.

Bichu describes in detail the stories that attempted to explain why music composers favoured Mangeshkar over others for so many decades. Bichu also touches upon questions like why she avoided performing classical music and why she continued to sing inconsequential songs towards the end of her career. His answers, though, merely seem like weak attempts to rationalise bad decisions. What emerges clearly from the book is that Mangeshkar’s songs became immortal not only because of a composer’s creative flights of fancy and orchestration skills but also because of the musician’s ability to sing the tunes flawlessly.

As a bonus, the book is full of rare black-and-white photographs, such as one in which Mangeshkar and OP Nayyar pose together. Another picture has the legendary singers Bal Gandharva, Anjanibai Malpekar and Begum Akhtar with her. These make the book a real collector’s item.

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