Lata Mangeshkar, the Queen of Bollywood Playback, died yesterday in India of complications from COVID-19. She was 92.
In many ways, Lata provided the soundtrack of my childhood, as was probably true of anyone with a cultural connection to South Asia. She was a fixture not just among Indians but among Pakistanis: when my parents came to this country from Pakistan in the late 1960s, they searched high and low for some English-language equivalent to Lata, but while they discovered some real gems (Karen Carpenter, Peggy Lee, Dionne Warwick, Liza Minelli, Cher…), none quite measured up to Lata. She had, as my friend Shikha Dalmia suggests, a kind of ubiquity that’s hard to convey to those outside of South Asian culture–an effortless capacity to span the musical divides between classical, neo-classical, and soundtrack pop, and bridge the social divides of an otherwise class-fractured society.
I’m inclined to think that her only rivals in this respect (again, not of talent, but of cultural ubiquity) were specifically Asian female singers of the same era–Um Kulthum in Egypt,* Noor Jehan in Pakistan. Maybe Maria Callas comes close, but somehow, the comparison doesn’t quite ring true. For whatever reason, the Lata phenomenon seems distinctive to Asian culture. We either haven’t invented the person who could do the trick, or don’t inhabit a culture in which the trick can come off.
I first saw the Bollywood film “Mughal-e-Azam,” as a seven- or eight-year-old, at the fabled Stanley Theater in Jersey City sometime in the mid 70s. Lata more or less was the film’s soundtrack. “Mughal-e-Azam” wasn’t literally my introduction to Lata–that came much earlier–but was the riveting encounter that made her so hard to forget. Here’s the climactic scene of the film, sung by Lata, and danced by Madhubala, playing the doomed courtesan Anarkali.
I don’t know how accessible or intelligible any of it is to “outsiders”–like Broadway, the Bollywood esthetic comes across as shlocky or schmaltzy to the uninitiated–but it hasn’t, in almost fifty years, lost any of its mesmeric (and melancholy) power over me. If anything, the intervening years have given both the film and the soundtrack a kind of irony and emotional resonance I couldn’t, at age seven, have possibly imagined. “What is there to fear in the face of love?” asks a woman who’s about to be executed for it. A lot, I’d say. More than most of us might bargain for.
Here’s Lata herself, in a semi-recent interview on Pakistani TV, describing her encounter with Noor Jehan, her Pakistani predecessor and counterpart. The subtitles are a little hard to make out, but I think you’ll get the point: it’s an affectionate remembrance across ethno-national and religious divides.
Could an encounter like that take place in the India or Pakistan of Narendra Modi or Imran Khan? I wonder.
It’s a cliche but still true: Lata’s passing marks the end of an era. I’m grateful to have lived through part of it.
*It anti-climactically occurred to me after posting this that Umm Kulthum wasn’t Asian: strictly speaking, she was African. What I meant was that Umm Kulthum’s cultural appeal was more Asian than African: she appealed primarily to the Arab world east of Cairo.
It occurs to me on reflection that my attempt to describe Um Kulthum as “Asian” was unsuccessful. We don’t really have a term in ordinary English for Afro-Arabic culture, where what’s being referred to is a cultural phenomenon that operates predominantly within Arab culture including North Africa but excluding sub-Saharan Africa, and is focused on the Arabian peninsula but has some residual influence on Asian culture east of there. Um Kulthum was central to an Arabic cultural unit that takes Egypt as its focal point. But since that unit spans continents, and is of little relevance to most English speakers, it’s hard to refer to in English. .