Lata belonged to all

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The driver of the Uber that took me from my home to Shivaji Park in Mumbai, the place of Lata Mangeshkar’s cremation on Sunday, was playing her songs. One was from Bobby, the biggest hit of the 1970s. Then a mélange of other songs followed – devotional, patriotic, melancholic, joyful, each reviving emotions I have deeply felt since my childhood, as have millions in India and around the globe.
In our troubled times, when we have erected walls of bigotry and prejudice, her music will keep reminding us about our own civilisational pehchaan.
The taxi was stopped by the cops before the destination. An endless human stream was moving towards the park. With PM Modi’s convoy about to reach the place, all entry points had been blocked. I paid my respects to Lata Didi from a distance and walked towards Dadar beach. The late winter sun was about to set behind the Arabian Sea, and I asked myself, with a lump of sadness suddenly choking my throat, ‘What is the meaning of the words “Lata Mangeshkar amar rahe”?’
As I walked back, I found a part of the answer on the faces of thousands of common Mumbaikars standing patiently in a queue to pay their respects. It was a look of silent gratefulness. Her songs had touched them all – in their time of love and happiness, in their moments of pain and suffering, in their hour of prayer and patriotic pride, and in their experience of elation and wonder at all the beauty in the world and its mysterious impermanence. In their days of despair, her songs had also comforted them like a mother comforts her weeping child. To have thus impacted countless lives of people belonging to different religions, castes, classes and languages in lands near and far, is an achievement reserved only for the rarest of rare personalities. And most of them represent that highest calling of life – art. Politicians, businessmen, intellectuals, even the greatest among them, do not receive such love and gratitude, in life or in death.
When 76-year-old Umm Kulthum, the nightingale of Egypt and the entire Arab world, died in 1976, the New York Times wrote that ‘she may well have been the most famous woman of Egypt since Cleopatra’ and ‘Today, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians and visitors from other Arab countries moved like a river through Cairo in a funeral procession.’
When 79-year-old Amalia Rodrigues, the Queen of Fado (the Portuguese music of sorrow, loss and fate), passed away in 1999, Lisbon witnessed a funeral procession, the biggest ever in the country’s history. PM Antonio Guterres (now the UN Secretary-General) spoke for many when he said: ‘Amalia was the voice of the Portuguese soul.’
The funeral of Lata Mangeshkar, who was the voice of the soul of the Indian subcontinent, was not on that scale, mainly because Mumbai has not fully come out of Covid restrictions. Yet, the moment was equally historic. All of India bid an emotional farewell to her most beloved singer who had begun singing eight decades ago.
In death, Lata created history in another unique way. From Pakistan’s Imran Khan to Bangladesh’s Sheikh Hasina to Sri Lanka’s Mahinda Rajapaksa to Nepal’s Bidya Devi Bhandari… all conveyed the feelings of their people in their message of condolences. Saberi Ibrahimi, a fan from Afghanistan, said on Twitter, ‘During the 1990s uncivil war in #Afghanistan, with little food & entertainment, the love songs of #LataMangeshkar & Mohammad Rafi kept my family going. They even had religious songs together. As a kid, I couldn’t tell which one was Hindu & which one was Muslim.’
Most heart-warming were the Twitter tributes from cricketers, musicians, politicians and the common people of Pakistan. Not surprising since she sang as mellifluously in Urdu as in Hindi and Marathi, her mother tongue. This reminded me of what a young friend of mine in Islamabad had told me a few years ago, ‘If Lata Mangeshkar were to come to give a concert in our country, the biggest of stadiums would not be able to accommodate fans wanting to listen to her live. That’s how popular she is.’
I also remembered an interesting episode from the early 1980s. Pakistan was under the military dictatorship of Gen Zia-ul-Haq, and Islamisation of its society was in full swing. Lata was on a visit to a Gulf country, and the Pakistani embassy there invited her to give a concert, which she accepted. The embassy later received a show-cause notice from the authorities in Islamabad, demanding an explanation for inviting ‘a singer from an enemy country’. This received a strong rebuke from a popular columnist called ‘Lahori’ in Dawn, Pakistan’s biggest newspaper. ‘Can music be confined within national boundaries?’ he asked. ‘Do Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammed Rafi belong only to India? Does Mehdi Hassan belong only to Pakistan?’
Mehdi Hassan, the shahenshah of ghazals, had once said, ‘I belong as much to India as to Pakistan. The love I have received from Indians is no less than what I have received from my own people.’ When he was on a tour of India in the late 1970s, Vajpayee, the then external affairs minister, had hosted the maestro’s mehfil at his official residence. When Hassan was ill, Vajpayee as PM had sent him a heartfelt ‘get-well-soon’ letter, which was hugely appreciated in Pakistan.
I think it will take a long time, and a lot of reflection and soul-searching, for many of us in India and the rest of the subcontinent, to know what Lata meant to us. In our troubled times, when we have erected so many ‘narrow domestic walls’ of bigotry and prejudice separating us from ourselves, her music will keep reminding us that we all belong to one united subcontinental family. Her body has been consigned to the flames. But her deathless voice, which sang ‘Meri awaaz hi meri pehchaan hai’, will keep telling us about our own civilisational pehchaan.-Courtesy: Tribune India