The Song of Life

Mangeshkar Sisters - Image Credit - The Hindu

The song has the longest life.

– Russian Proverb

It is said that there is not a single moment in the 24 hours of the day, when a song by Lata Mangeshkar is not being played in some corner of the world. For more than 75 years now, the Mangeshkar sisters, Lata and Asha have ruled the air waves. 

For the Mangeshkar sisters, life was not always easy. Although they were the inheritors of the rich musical legacy of their father Master Deenanath Mangeshkar, his untimely death in 1942 only intensified the Mangeshkar family’s pecuniary difficulties. The mantle of responsibility of the family was thrust upon the tiny shoulders of the thirteen-year-old Lata, the eldest among five siblings. 

Lata Mangeshkar sang her first song in the Marathi movie, Pahili Mangalagaur at the age of 13 while Asha Bhosle debuted as a singer in the Marathi movie, Mazha Bal in 1943 at the age of 10. From then on, the musical journey of the Mangeshkar sisters has not only liberated them from the early struggles but has catapulted them to the throne of the hearts of music lovers across the world. 

Although both these singers debuted in movies, what fascinates me as a music composer is the legacy that they created in non-film music, especially Marathi. It is of great cultural significance that the artists kept exploring their roots despite soaring high in their career in Hindi film music. It is a well-known fact that Hindi film music is a more lucrative option than singing for regional music and singing for films has traditionally been more lucrative than singing for non-film projects. Both, Lata and Asha, sang in almost all languages of India, but their contribution to Marathi non-film music has been seminal and in the next few paragraphs I shall attempt to shed some light on the importance of this contribution. 

To understand the inspiration for coming back to the roots and contributing to Marathi non-film music, there are two things that need to be understood. The first is understanding the legacy that Master Deenanath Mangeshkar left for his children and the second is the legacy of the Marathi non-film music. 

Deenanath Mangeshkar was an actor singer, who like the legendary Marathi singer, Balgandharva, started his career in music and theatre in the Kirloskar Natak Mandali at the tender age of 11. He was the disciple of Pt. Ramkrishnabuva Vaze, a luminary of the Gwalior gharana. Later, Deenanath started his own theatre company called the Balwant Natak Mandali. He had the blessings of the renowned Marathi poet and playwright, Ram Ganesh Gadkari, whose plays Punyaprabhav and Bhavbandhan had been performed by Deenanath. He was a prolific singer and in style was a great contrast to Balgandharva and other contemporaries. The plays that Deenanath performed as a part of the repertoire of the Balwant Natak Mandali can be seen to have two salient features – progressive values and intense nationalism. In addition to these, the plays were written by best literary minds of the day such as Veer Vamanrao Joshi (Ranadundubhi), Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (Sanyasta Khadga), and Ram Ganesh Gadkari (Punyaprabhav). 

Natyasangeet, as a musical genre, derives its roots from the Keertan parampara of Maharashtra and Hindustani classical vocal music. Music was the mainstay of the Marathi theatrical tradition and the rich Hindustani classical music percolated down to the masses through the funnel of the sangeet nataks.

Lata Mangeshkar was very young when Deenanath expired, and Asha Bhosle even younger, but Deenanath’s music lived on. And it is here, I think, that we find the inspiration for the two sisters to explore these roots. I have heard Lata Mangeshkar say in many interviews that it is “classical music that is the base of film music and it is essential for even a light musician to know it.” Asha Bhosle on her part, has sung a lot of Natyasangeet in the early days of her career and the record of Manaapman (musical play by K. P. Khadilkar) is a testimony to that. Asha Bhosale has recreated her father’s magic by singing Natyapadas like ‘Yuvati Manaa Daarun Rana’ or ‘Chandrika Hi Janu’. Most of the music lovers of my generation heard Asha Bhosale’s renditions of these songs before we came to know of the genius of Master Deenanath. I still remember Asha Bhosale’s performance in a winter evening on the grounds of the Raja Shivaji Vidyalaya in Dadar where she sang ‘Paravashata Paash Daive’ by Veer Wamanrao Joshi with almost no accompaniment. The song, written in the pre-independence era, spoke about how we were slaves in our own land. It ignited a spark of nationalist fervour even on that wintry night in a generation born after independence – only due to Asha Bhosle’s impassionate performance. 

The fact that Mangeshkar siblings together sang Veer Savarkar’s phenomenal poem, ‘Sagara Pran Talmalala is the result of the family’s devotion to Savarkar’s nationalism. Savarkar wrote this poem on the shores of Brighton when he felt homesick and was pained by the separation from his motherland. 

The album Shivakalyan Raja was devoted to Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj – another deity in every Marathi household. To the Mangeshkars it was not enough to pay lip service to hero worship; the literary standard and quality had to be pristine. So, Shivakalyan Raja had songs penned by great poets like Sant Ramdas, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Kusumagraj and Shankar Vaidya.

It is my observation that Lata Mangeshkar looked at Hindi film music as a profession but most of her Marathi non-film music has been more about who she is. The kind of music she has chosen to create in Marathi outside the domain of film music tells you a lot more about the living legend than any biographical article about her. 

Almost parallel to the Marathi film music which started with V. Shantaram’s ‘Ayodhyecha Raja’, the tradition of singing Marathi poetry also started with musicians like G. N. Joshi and Gajananrao Watve. In 1932, G. N. Joshi composed and sang N. G. Deshpande’s poem ‘Raanaa Raanaat Geli Bai Sheel’ for HMV and seeds of Marathi non-film music were sown. Gajananrao Watve sang the poetry of Manmohan, Anil, Kavi Yashwant to full houses. This tradition of composing poetry and metamorphosing them into songs continued with composers like Vasant Prabhu, Shrinivas Khale and later Hridaynath Mangeshkar whose compositions were sung by Lata Mangeshkar and also Asha Bhosle. It is to Hridaynath Mangeshkar’s credit that he not only composed lyrical poetry but also poetry that was not meant to be sung such as that of Arti Prabhu, Grace, B. R. Tambe, Kavi B. 

This introduced some of the finest poetry to Maharashtra and even people who would otherwise be apathetic to literature started humming poetry by these stalwart poets just because it was beautifully sung by Lata and Asha. It did not matter if the poetry was complex and abstruse. Even if the compositions were complex, people hummed them. I always feel that Mangeshkar sisters increased the literary quotient of Maharashtrians. 

When Asha Bhosle sings Suresh Bhat’s lines – 

Urale Uraat Kahi Awaaz Chandanyache

– roughly translated to ‘the voices of the stars were left in my bosom’ (the translation doesn’t do justice to the aesthetic of the poem) – I always get the feeling that if stars had a voice, it would be Asha Bhosle’s!

Another seminal contribution, especially of Lata Mangeshkar, is her rendition of the Sant Sahitya – the literature of saint poets of Maharashtra. ‘Abhang Tukayache’ the poetry of Saint Tukaram composed by Shrinivas Khale took Maharashtra by storm. ‘Bheti Laagi Jeeva’, ‘Anandache Dohi’, ‘Vrukshavalli Aamha Soyare’, ‘Sundar Te Dhyaan’ were some of the songs from this album that were sung in every concert, every programme, every orchestra for nearly three decades and are sung even now. 

Pt. Hridaynath Mangeshkar brought alive the poetry of Sant Dnyaneshwar from his works, Dnyaneshwari and Amrutanubhav. To this day, when you hear ‘Mogara Phulala’ or ‘Ghanu Vaaje Ghunaghuna’ – something stirs within you and even atheists and agnostics are not left untouched by the divine spiritualism of Lata Mangeshkar’s voice. The purity and perfection of Lata Mangeshkar’s singing gave the aura of divinity to the words of these mystics and brought them closer to the masses. When you listen to the Pasaayadaan – the prayer by Sant Dnyaneshwar, in which he asks for the fulfilment of wishes for every living organism – in the voice of Lata Mangeshkar, you know exactly what the ‘Shaant Rasa’ is.

आता विश्वात्मके देवे। येणे वाग्यज्ञे तोषावे। तोषोनि मज द्यावे। पसायदान हे।

H. W. Longfellow said that music is the universal language of mankind. There is no better example for this than Lata Mangeshkar singing this universal prayer. 

Among Lata and Asha, they have sung multiple genres of music in Marathi – right from bhavageet to Koligeet to Abhang to Ghazal and they have established the highest standard of rendition and choice of literature that their music contained. Recently, ‘Shravanaat Ghana Nilaa’ a bhavageet composed by Shrinivas Khale and written by Mangesh Padgaonkar completed 50 years. This was celebrated not just by articles about the song in the newspapers, but also by the fact that the song is still a favourite among even the young singers of Maharashtra and is still sung in concerts. 

The one thing that captivates me about Lata and Asha’s singing is the fact that they lend a visual to even non-film songs which have not been picturised in any way. Their singing stirs up your imagination. So, when Lata Mangeshkar sings the poetry of Grace – “Bhaya Ithale Sampat Nahi” (this song was sung quite late in her career. The voice can be seen to aged and yet she has used the voice to create a feeling of vulnerability. This comes out of sheer experience!) or the Koligeet – “Raaja Saarangaa, Maajhya Saaranga” you are not only listening to the song; you actually experience it. When Asha Bhosle sings the lines by Shanta Shelke – “Jeevalaga Raahile Re Door Ghar Maazhe”, you actually go through the long journey, the tiredness and the wish to put an end to misery. 

In the 1980s, when television eclipsed radio and we saw a dearth in good non-film music in Marathi, it was Asha Bhosle’s album ‘Rutu Hirva’ with poetry by the likes of Shanta Shelke and B. B. Borkar and composed by Shreedhar Phadke, that singlehandedly provided a lifeline to the flailing non-film music scene in Marathi.

If even today, children in Marathi reality shows sing the poetry of Borkar, Grace, Arti Prabhu and Suresh Bhat, as against deracinated lyrics about alcohol and partying, it is a testimony to the Mangeshkars’ role in keeping the flame burning and passing the torch to the next generation.

© Kaushal S Inamdar, 2022

This article first appeared in THE HINDU on 11th February 2022


  1. Yogesh Tadwalkar says:

    This is by far the best eulogy to Lata that I have read. By going deeper into Lata’s Marathi roots and how her eternal voice, leading the well-meaning artistic endeavors of the Mangeshkar siblings, honed the Maharashtrain sensibilities, Kaushal has shone light on who Lata really was at her core. Thanks.

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