Lata Mangeshkar: The pure woman

Sanjay Srivastava | Updated on May 03, 2019

Indian idol: The ideology of a ‘pure’ and ‘respectable’ national culture found voice in Lata Mangeshkar’s singing style   -  The Hindu Photo Archives

The success behind her voice goes straight into the heart of gender politics in India. As she turns 90 this year, we look at why Lata Mangeshkar’s singing came to dominate popular imagination

Late last year, singer Asha Bhosle announced her global ‘farewell tour’. A singer whose performative style influenced notions of female autonomy and desire within Indian popular culture is about to abandon the publicness she imparted to the on-screen women she sang for. Till recently, the woman with a desire was, invariably, an ill-fated character in Indian cinema: The characters that the svelte dancer Helen played were either reformed or killed, reflecting a deep male anxiety about female autonomy.

The salve to anxious masculinity was Lata Mangeshkar’s voice. Strangely enough, Lata’s voice became so completely identified with Indian femininity that it was Asha’s timbre that became remarked upon as unusual. And yet, the processes through which Lata’s voice became the carrier of a stereotypic Indian female identity were not all natural or obvious.

As Lata turns 90 later this year, the time has come to look at why we think of her voice as the apogee of femininity. The answer goes to the heart of the gender politics of Indian modernity.

There is, to begin with, almost no precedence for Lata’s voice — and the kind of femininity it conjures — in the wider sphere of female singing styles in India, one marked by an extraordinary diversity of expressive traditions. Many of these styles are lost to us — overwritten by the dominance of the ‘innocent’ style pioneered by Lata, though there was the occasional Shamshad Begum and Jagjit Kaur. There was, of course, everyday singing at a variety of life-cycle events — but singing was more of a collective act and the focus was seldom on the quality of the voice.

Pitched battle: Asha Bhosle sang for the woman with desires — in sharp contrast to the characters that her older sibling sang for.   -  PTI


So, how did a voice like Lata’s come to dominate the popular imagination? What is the history of our fondness for it?

Cinema itself created the initial problem of gender politics by making women visible in public spaces. If there was to be a national cinema, this would mean showing spaces that were private as well as public. Within these — homes as well as hill-stations, sitting rooms as well as streets — heroines and heroes met, sang and fell in love. Women occupying public places, however, disrupted the well-established historical association between men and public-ness (and, in turn, women and domesticity). Women’s ‘natural’ space was the private one.

Lata’s stylistic innovation offered a solution to the problem of women’s presence in the cinematic public sphere. It helped deal with the potential threat to the idea of public space as men’s spaces. While women’s bodies became visible in public spaces via films, their presence was ‘thinned’ through the expressive timbre that they were granted.

The heroines for whom Lata provided the singing voice may well have been prancing around hillsides and on the street in the rain while performing a song sequence, but this gesture, which otherwise threatened male dominance of these spaces, was domesticated through the timbre, tonality and stylistic stricture that marked that presence.

Thank you for the music: (From left to right) Sadhana, Mala Sinha and Saira Bano. some of the heroines on whom Lata Mangeshkar’s songs were picturised   -  The Hindu Photo Archives


The potentially powerful image of the heroine enjoying the freedom of the public space in equal measure to the male hero was held in check through her oral presence as a little girl. The girl-child requires protection and the dominant female singing-voice of the 20th century was significant in consolidating the idea of the cinematic woman in these terms. In this way, the heroine who sang in Lata’s voice was, almost invariably, the ‘good woman’.

The cinematic good woman voiced by Lata was also part of another history. This history is particularly difficult to acknowledge because it undermines the romantic idea that sensory pleasures transform us into ethereal beings by distancing us from the petty politics of community and identity. This is the Hindu-Muslim context in the making of a ‘national’ music culture during the middle years of the 20th century.

The sentiments expressed by India’s longest-serving minister for information and broadcasting BV Keskar — he held the portfolio from 1952 to 1962 — are a good guide to the making of a new nationalist sensibility of musical enjoyment. Keskar was one of many influential public figures who held that Indian musical traditions had suffered a great decline through two historical events: Colonialism and ‘Muslim influence’. While the colonial masters disdained and neglected indigenous performative traditions, Muslims had particularly deformed these through distancing them from Hindu aesthetics and religious contexts. Influential figures such as Keskar launched upon the task of returning Indian culture to its putative original roots; the minister, for instance, instituted bureaucratic structure for recruiting musicians to All India Radio (AIR) as an alternative to the influence of the gharana system. But these moves also had wider resonances.

Early Indian cinema was, of course, an important site of imagining and representing national life but it was also a site of contest. Lata’s voice was one of the several arenas upon which this contest unfolded. While the classical music milieu was an explicit target for the ‘reform’ of Indian culture, the mass appeal of the film industry made it an important target of the reformers’ zeal. While classical music became an important marker of a national culture, it was film music that had a much wider appeal. In fact, Keskar was particularly critical of film songs, considering them unworthy of air-play on an important instrument of the nationalist imagination, AIR. The cultural future of the new nation-state was most often at risk from the retrograde traditions of mass tastes such as film music.

In a certain kind of nationalist understanding, the filmic milieu was seen as retrograde for a number of reasons. Its earliest personnel — actors, singers, technicians — were drawn from various other ‘disreputable’ professions that had begun to be either displaced or become less profitable. These included regional theatre traditions as well as those related to courtesan work. And of course, there was the large presence of Muslims (many of whom changed their names to find greater acceptability).

Film personnel struggled with the taint of disrepute. In one of his essays, Saadat Hasan Manto explains that his wife and her two sisters had formed a close friendship with the actress Nargis and would often visit her at the latter’s house in Bombay. “(But) for many days my wife kept these visits a complete secret. When she did tell me, I pretended to be annoyed, and mistaking my pretence for real anger she quickly asked for forgiveness. ‘Look, we made a mistake,’ she said, ‘but for god’s sake don’t ever mention this to anyone!’”

It is difficult to thoroughly convey the qualities of a voice — the social and emotional contexts it may conjure for the listener — in a written piece such as this. However, it is possible to say that through certain historical processes, of which the nationalist discourse was perhaps the most important, public singing by women, unless connected to religious and ritual purposes (such as weddings), came to carry the taint of disrepute; it became the preserve of the tawaif (the courtesan), the lower-caste woman, or the ‘tribal’ woman. And the tonalities of such public singing, which itself remained unfettered by the definitional constraints of a ‘good’ voice, became associated with ‘disreputable’ — undomesticated — conduct.

It was the ideology of a ‘pure’ and ‘respectable’ national culture that found voice in Lata’s singing style. The gradual development of Lata’s singing voice into what it became at the peak of her popularity — for her very early singing style carries strong resonance of the Pakistani singer Noorjehan’s nasality — was part of the process of purifying — Hinduising and gentrifying — the figure of the ‘ideal’ Indian woman of postcoloniality. This was to be the woman fit to carry the mantle of ‘bearer of our traditions’.

Through Lata’s artistry, the ‘disreputableness’ of ambiguous tonalities and the threat of uncertain femininity was brought into alignment with the discourses of the ‘pure’ and controllable Hindu womanhood. The most obvious counterpoint to Lata’s style was what could be referred to as the kotha (brothel/courtesan) style of singing, echoes of which can be discerned in, say, singer Shamshad Begum’s voice.

When the search for a ‘proper’ — controllable — femininity became part of the nationalist project of cultural reform, certain kinds of voices came to be marked as an unacceptable aspect of ‘proper’ Indian-ness. There now emerged an inventory of ‘impurities’ with respect to proper femininity: Included in this inventory was nasality and a ‘heavy’ (that is, masculine) voice. And, whilst it is true that quite a number of feminine identities came to be seen as not possessing a ‘proper’ voice, most commonly, however, it is the Muslim tawaif who became inextricably connected to that kind of voice. For it was she who posed the greatest threat to middle-class Hindu masculinity: For she was dexterous not merely in matters of physical allure, but could also, at least as far as popular mythology would have it, match wits with her male clientèle.

It is at this juncture — where a variety of modern processes of culture came together — that Lata’s skill as a forever-adolescent voice, singing out, but through the controllable timbre of a child-woman, is situated. She provided another resolution of the ‘woman question’ in the postcolonial context: How to have women in public, but also within the firm grip of a watchful, adult, masculinity. The on-screen public woman’s singing voice was forever demure and bashful. The process of ‘purifying’ Indian public culture took the form, then, of purging it of its connections with various realms of religious-, caste- and class-related disreputability. Lata Mangeshkar’s voice became the site for the unfolding of this project: A place at the crossroads of a public culture where the adolescent girl’s voice provided the opportunity of both expressing an appropriately modern and respectable femininity.

Sanjay Srivastava is a professor of sociology in Delhi

Published on May 03, 2019

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