Lata Mangeshkar’s role in Hindu cultural nationalism and history is not entirely innocuous nor is it benevolent, argues DR GAIROONISA PALEKER, and writes that ‘she was a much more complex person than her carefully cultivated public persona implied’.
LATA Mangeshkar’s death on 6 February 2022 at the age of 92, has generated global media attention, attesting to her stature and significance as a performer for Indians at home and the global Indian diaspora. Invariably, this attention has been an adulatory outpouring and appreciation of her role, contribution and ultimately her legacy to the Indian culture industries, encompassing both the Bollywood film and associated music industries. In life and death, she is known as the ‘Nightingale of India’, signalling her towering presence, or as some contend, her dominance of the Indian popular music industry spawned by the Bollywood film industry.
The obituaries and written memorials dispense with biographical details in a few sentences while her role as playback singer has received significant column inches. She was born on 28 September, 1929 in Indore. She was the daughter of a musician father, with at least two younger sisters who also achieved some fame in their own right, Asha Bhosle more so than Usha Mangeshkar. Her father died when she was 13 years old, leaving the family in dire circumstances. Lata Mangeshkar, as the talented elder daughter, stepped in to begin earning a family income at a very young age. This in turn laid the first cornerstone of the public persona and the ‘Didi’ (elder sister) discourse, Lata Mangeshkar as self-sacrificing and devoted to family.
She was the recipient of four prestigious Indian awards; she was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1969, the Dadasaheb Phalke award in 1989, the Padma Vibhushan in 1999 and India’s highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna in 2001. According to Associate Professor of Literature Pavitra Sundar (2008), these four awards signalled Lata Mangeshkar as India’s ‘premier citizen’, a contention supported by the state funeral and a day of national mourning conferred on her by the BJP government. She was also the recipient of the French National Order of the Legion of Honour in 2007.
Mangeshkar’s breakthrough in Bollywood came with the song Aayega Aanewala from the film Mahal in 1949. Lata Mangeshkar went on to dominate female playback singing for the next four decades plus, establishing what the scholar of cinema studies, sound studies, postcolonial literature and cultural studies, Sundar argues, was a ‘vocal monopoly’. Even with a form of semi-retirement from the 1990s onwards into more contemporary times, her voice retained an indirect ‘vocal monopoly’ by becoming the standard by which other female singers were judged. She is reported to have recorded more songs than any other performer, globally as well as in India. She was indisputably talented, with a voice and vocal range that has been described at times as high-pitched, ethereal, sublime. For sociologist, Professor Sanjay Srivastava (2004), Mangeshkar’s voice is that of a girl-woman, eternally infantalised as an essential part of the postcolonial Hindu nationalist project which needed to restrain a burgeoning female presence in the public domain, most notably via the film industry.
The renowned poet and music director Naushad is quoted, in Harish Bhimani’s 2008 biography of Mangeshkar, as saying that ‘the very heart of India throbs in [her] voice’. Both Sundar (2008) and Srivastava (2004) have argued that Lata Mangeshkar represented more than a melodious voice. Placing Mangeshkar in the historical context of postcolonial India, both argue that her voice become a site of Hindu nationalist aspirations and a representation of the ideal Indian woman. By locating Mangeshkar in her historical context one can clearly see the convergence of the postcolonial nationalist project, the attempt to purge the film and music industry of Muslim influences (in the wake of Partition) and at the same time define and locate the ideal Indian woman who could inhabit postcolonial modernity without breaking the strictures of patriarchy.
Mangeshkar’s voice signified the virginal, pure, girl-woman, the nation’s sister, to be idealised and adored. Srivastava argues that Mangeshkar’s voice became an ‘aesthetic marker of modern Indian female identity’, achieved through the images of Indian women she conjured through her voice. The sweetness of Mangeshkar’s voice came to signify the sweetness of the idealised Indian woman. This sweetness contrasted with and diverged from the husky, sensual voices of singers such as Begum Akhtar, Shamshad Begum and Zohra Bai, among others who became the symbolic other first by virtue of their religion and second by virtue of their sensual voices. Even her sister Asha Bhosle, whose voice has a more sensual, teasing timber became othered through the process of singing for vamps such as the actress Helen who was always cast as the cabaret dancer and singer.
Mangeshkar cultivated a public persona that was without blemish. She was simplicity itself, always in a white or off-white sari (never any vibrant colours), shy, charming and demure. She was the Indian nation’s ‘Didi’ or elder sister, to be revered, respected and admired, never sexualised. In this she represented one form of idealised Indian femininity. This simplicity reportedly belied a steely core with claims of manipulative behaviour which contributed to the marginalisation of performers such as Shrada and Suman Kalayanpur. It was also this steely core which successfully lobbied for royalties from record sales – the reported point of discord between Mangeshkar and Mohammed Rafi – and the establishment in 1959 of a separate awards category for music as part of the national film awards. By all accounts Lata Mangeshkar was able to fight her corner quite successfully without breaking the ‘beloved sister’ mould or denting the abashed-simplicity public image.
Mangeshkar was a beneficiary of the political division of India in 1947. One consequence of Partition was the departure to Pakistan of renowned performer Noor Jehan, who had been the singing diva of pre-Partition Bollywood. Her absence created a necessary vacuum into which Lata Mangeshkar was able to step into with ease. Mangeshkar’s emergence as playback performer in the wake of Partition coincided with the postcolonial project to ‘Hinduise’ the culture industries, especially film and music. This project of ‘Hinduisation’ of course meant the purging of Muslim influences which were framed as having distorted and corrupted ancient Indian music and performance traditions. Corrupting Muslim cultural influences were especially linked to the gharana system – a lineage based system of musical teaching and learning which emerged as a result of declining Mughal court patronage – as well as the mujras of courtesan singers who were frequently among the earliest female film actors. An important cog in this process of cultural redemption was the national broadcaster, All India Radio (AIR) which under the leadership of A.V. Keskar, minister of information and broadcasting from 1950-1962, sought to change conditions of employment for performers. The condition that performers needed a certificate from recognised music academies is viewed by many scholars as an attempt to sideline musicians emerging from the gharana system. AIR was an important employer and vehicle for performers, including Mangeshkar.
These are just two elements of the historical context that point to Mangeshkar’s centrality in, firstly, the redemption of a pre-Muslim Indian culture as part of the postcolonial Hindu nationalist project, and secondly, as part of that emerging national identity, the attempt to locate and ossify an idealised Indian femininity. The postcolonial Hindu nationalist project remains incomplete as so-called Muslim influences continue to shade the Indian culture industries. The project to locate and fix the ideal Indian woman has, however, been much more successful and both Mangeshkar’s public persona and her voice have been crucial to this success.
Much has been written about Mangeshkar’s Hindu right-wing connections; her friendship with V D Savarkar, the early 20th century proponent of an exclusively Hindu India and the ideological inspiration for the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), a nationalist paramilitary group founded in 1925 is one such connection. Her singing for L K Advani’s rath yatra (Hindu rally/pilgrimage) to the Babri Masjid in 1990 is another connection as is her 2020 tweet congratulating Modi on the occasion of laying the foundation for a Hindu temple at the site of the demolished Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. She also served in the Rajya Sabha (the upper house of the Indian parliament) from 1999-2005 but was not a very active member of parliament.
To contradict these claims of right-wing sympathies, many of her admirers point most frequently to her inclusive singing; she sang na’ats along with bhajans, she was fond of Muslim actors such as Shah Rukh Khan and she received her classical training from a Muslim ustad. These examples are gossamer threads to the more solid quilt of Mangeshkar’s cultural nationalism which is deeply rooted in an exclusive and exclusionary Hindu nationalist identity.
This is not to say that Mangeshkar was necessarily rabidly anti-Muslim, nor is to claim that the historical happenstance of converging Hindu cultural nationalism and her rise to popularity and success were engineered and manipulated by her. I do, however, argue that Mangeshkar’s role in Hindu cultural nationalism and history is not entirely innocuous nor benevolent. She was a beneficiary of these historical convergences. She was a much more complex person than her carefully cultivated public persona implied.
There are those admirers who would argue that one has to separate art from politics and appreciate art for the sake of art, including the vocal art and virtuosity of Lata Mangeshkar. One cannot deny the evidence of Mangeshkar’s artistic talent but art is never apolitical. Art is never neutral. It is embedded in a larger context of meaning-making which draws from the artist’s internal and external lives, influences and motivations. Lata Mangeshkar would be the first person to acknowledge this given her rift and discord with Mohammed Rafi who eschewed royalties from recordings because this seeming money-grubbing would have comprised him as an artist.
- Dr Gairoonisa Paleker is Senior Lecturer at University of Pretoria in the Department of Historical and Heritage Studies.