I can visualize her in the recording studio, barefoot in front of the microphone where she has stood so many thousands of times, singing songs that will emanate from the mouths of others. Her voice is a wavering trill, haunting and syllabling in a language I will never understand, and yet speaks to me in a tongue that touches my very soul. This seduction of emotion is the golden articulation of Lata Mangeshkar, the Queen of Indian vocalese.
To be honest, I know nothing of where these songs and the movies in which they starred emanate. I hardly can tell one from another, or highlight them from the vast discography of Mangeshkar, created over more than half a century, which is probably only exceeded in recorded output by her younger sister, Asha Bhosle. The composers, the directors who hired her to voice-over their Bollywood productions, the traditions and subtleties and inner world of these compositions – that’s a mystery to me, as well as it might be to you. Yet the lack of context and musical understanding allows me to concentrate on the purity of her singing, the literal sound of her voice, and the scales and modes it dances about like the scenes it was meant to enhance, dropped from heaven into the cinematic musicals that have become the hallmark of Indian film.
Amid percussion that clatters and strings that swoop, the songs are alternately coy and forthright, a mating dance enacted to provide innuendo and consummation within the chaste romantic interplays of Bollywood – to be suggestive without breaking the bounds of propriety. Instead of a kiss, love scenes rely on the penetrating glance, the intimate gesture, and Mangeshkar’s role is to provide the sutra of kama. “No heroine feels she has arrived until Lataji sings for her,” is an oft-repeated testimonial to her stature, as one listen to “Aap Kahen Aur Ham Na Aaye” will show you why.