Years ago in college, my dear friend Yamini told me that from her kitchen she could hear Didi practising her alaaps. Her kitchen faced Didi’s music room. Alas, I didn’t hear it even once. I’ve seen her perform at concerts, seen her from afar but we never met. Will always be my life’s greatest regret.
So who does Didi actually belong to? Is it due to Burmanda’s pristine compositions or his son Pancham’s eclectic repertoire? Is her voice the soul of Shankar-Jaikishan’s music or does it occupy a prime place in a savant-like Madan Mohan’s music room? Lata Mangeshkar was a diva of vocal nuance. She wrote and kept rewriting the rules. The heroines she sang for aged in front of her but her timbre rose and rose. If Bade Ghulam Ali Khan intoned Kambakth kabhi besuri nahi gaati, then Noorjahan made her sing to her across the border. What was it about Rula ke gaya sapna mera or Beqas pe karam kijiye or Yun hasraton ke daag or Aaja aaye bahaar? She unified our emotions. With her we could be young, we could be plaintive, we could be old, we could be weary. The cadences in her tones would heal us. Her emotions echoed the post Independence narrative and zeitgeist.
Lataji was the lover, she was the mother. She was the heartbreak and she was the balm. She unified the heroines with her voice and yet gave them distinct identities. If she hadn’t given the nod, sets would lie empty. Producers wouldn’t start the film till she signed on the dotted line. The dates of the busy heroes and heroines would be pencilled in, but time would wait only for Didi.
It was a voice with soul, it was a woman couched in a satin veil, it was the promise of a better life ahead. Didi ruled the airwaves from her 1949 chartbusters in Mahal or Andaz, she never looked back, barely out of her teens. It’s a story that shows us light and triumph long after we have called it a day. She didn’t show much of her feelings but she showed us she cares. That enduring memory of her voice will resonate in every recording room, in every discerning ear. In her music, lies the story of our nation, in her magic lies the story of our aspirations. And in her voice, we often find ourselves together. In my mind, you’ve just moved to another music room. Come back, please…