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Mainstream, VOL LX No 8, New Delhi, February 12, 2022

The Legacy of Lata Mangeshkar in Polarised Times | Vijay Kumar

Saturday 12 February 2022, by Vijay Kumar

Lata Mangeshkar was, perhaps the last, albeit the most important link in galaxy of geniuses, whose collective endeavour established Hindi film industry at a time when the country was itself struggling to come to terms with the horror of partition that accompanied independence. Lata Mangeshkar, along with other singers like Mohammad Rafi, Mukesh, Kishore Kumar, Hemant Kumar and Talaq Mahmood from the playback singing, great lyrics like Shakeel Badayuni, Shailendra, Sahir Ludhianvi and Pradeep, colossal music composers such as Naushad, Shankar-Jaikishan, S.D. Berman, Madan Mohan, and Shalil Choudhary and trail-blazing roles of the famous trio of Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand, collectively without losing their distinct individual mark, contributed immensely in not only enriching the popular culture but also heeling the wound of partition by promoting fraternity and overcoming the religious division.
A lot has been written on Lata Mangeshkar singing prowess. She established herself at a time which was extremely challenging not only for her, but also for the country. The quota politics, introduced by the colonial government, sharpened cleavage between Hindus and Muslims since the decade of 1920s and culminated in the partition of the country, and immediately thereafter, the tragic assassination of Father of Nation by politics of hatred unleashed by right-wing Hindu groups. At the political level, Prime Minister Nehru led from the front, and at the popular cultural level, the Hindi film industry supplemented enormously in overcoming miasma of hostilities and animosities.

I have always argued that Hindi would have become more popular through the soft power of Hindi film industry. But the politicians of almost all hues--------- not only conservative and communal Jan Sangh, the predecessor of BJP, but also the socialist leaders of Hindi heartland and Purushottam Das Tandon, the first President of Congress after independence,----- were all Hindi fanatics who wanted to impose Hindi and that triggered a reaction from the south. All these Hindi chauvinists ignored the significance of the soft power of Hindi film industry. I have always believed that the Hindi film industry, through its soft power, contributed tremendously in popular acceptance of Hindi language. On the other hand, the Hindi zealots of all political stripes did incalculable damage to Hindi. On the significance of the soft power, i have been maintaining, with unwavering consistency, that the cold war was won by U.S., not because of its superior military strength over erstwhile U.S.S.R., but only because of its soft power reflected through Hollywood, its famous Ivy league institutions and most robust culture of the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed through first amendment to its Constitution.

I’ve also argued that Hindi film industry was (probably still is) the most vital component of the soft power of Indian democracy. In the most challenging time in the initial years of state formation, the Hindi film industry contributed greatly in the promotion of secularism and fraternity. The Hindi film industry was a shining example of inclusive and composite cultures that promoted cosmopolitanism

Lata Mangeshkar was familiar only with Marathi and Hindi. But she worked hard and mastered Urdu, and Dilip Kumar and Naushad helped her in learning . Lata Mangeshkar also sang in numerous other languages, including Bengali. Her most iconic song “ai mere watan ke logo” should not be appreciated from the crude and crass patriotism, but its immortality lies in its unifying power through a celebration of unity in diversity. The very rhythm of the song has unmatched unifying potency amongst the different regions and ethnic groups. The universal appeal of songs sung by Lata Mangeshkar is captured brilliantly by Pratap Bhanu Mehta, one of the most distinguished political scientists of the country in the following words which are extremely apposite:

“If Lata Mangeshkar became representative of India, it was because the lyrics she sang, the form in which she expressed them, contained all of India in them: All of its languages, cultural registers, even its conflicts. It was not benchmarking India to a single measure; it was rather connecting its superabundance. She could give voice to collective emotions and mark the turning points in its collective life. But what made her the ideal representative of new nation was not that she represented us collectively, but that she could represent each one of us in our singularity: In every role we can imagine.”
(Indian Express, 7th February)

The sublime aspect of music always has transcendent power. Great music and the creative oeuvre of a great artist cannot be cribbed, cabined, and confined within the narrow prism of exclusivist cultural confine. The music is always elevating and great music always has universal appeal and thus its beauty and appeal can never be captured by narrow and limiting categorisation in the name of language, culture and ethnic identity. Great music always goes beyond temporal and spatial limitation. It is supremely ironical that a party known for insular and sectarian politics is out to appropriate legacy of great singer whose singing was not only timeless but also transcending and all-encompassing.

(Author: Vijay Kumar, Sr. Advocate, Supreme Court of India)

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