Lata Mangeshkar’s art was shaped by the fervour which accompanied independence when music, indeed culture, was freeing itself from feudal patronage, opening up spaces for democratization and a wider participation.

Sarod maestro Ustad Amjad Ali Khan’s father, Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan, never allowed his performances to be recorded because he did not want his music to be “played at paan shops.”

When All India Radio brought music to the “paan shops”, Hafiz Ali Khan was confined to courtly enclaves. Radio predated cinema which is where Lata’s genius flowered and proceeded to overwhelm radio too.

Partition was painful; a new optimism had to be rediscovered. This was when a young Kaifi Azmi was writing:
“Naye Hindostan mein hum nayi jannat banayenge”
(We shall create a new paradise in this new India of ours)
“Hum abki zarre zarre ki jabeen par taj rakh denge”
(“zarre” means particles) In Kaifi’s new India “the common man shall wear a crown.”

This poetic exaggeration disguises an aspiration for human dignity, equality, egalitarianism. Kaifi did not write as many songs for Lata as, say, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Sahir Ludhianwi and others. An unnoticed fact is that all these lyricists were Urdu poets from one ideological school – Communist Party of India. The new lyrics demanded clear pronunciation. Lata took lessons in Urdu.

The man who brought this pool of talent into the cultural mainstream, was the Secretary General of the CPI, P.C. Joshi. The Progressive Writers Association and The Indian Peoples Theatre Association or IPTA, circled around the commune established by Joshi in Bombay. Party “whole timers' ', short of cash, found an outlet with the biggest mass entertainment industry – cinema was opening up. The commune, in other words, was the source from where lyricists came out to write songs which Lata sang.

Cinema required actors, story writers, directors, lyricists and, ofcourse, singers, influencing each other in the workplace. The primary vision conditioning this collective was that of a secular, socialist, democratic republic quite markedly left inclined.

Chetan Anand was no raving Marxist but his path breaking Neecha Nagar was structured on intense class struggle, carried over by Bimal Roy into Do Bigha Zameen. Lata sang for both. Balraj Sahni had come out of the IPTA stable when he played the first angry young man in Hum Log and a dispossessed small farmer in Do Bigha Zameen. Lata was associated with both.

Progressive writers like Islmat Chugtai were writing stories for films like Ziddi and Arzoo of which Lata’s songs were a premier part. Chanda re ja re, ja re” (go away o’ moon) was among Lata’s earliest hits.

Influences on Lata came from a myriad other sources and traditions. After all her own father Pandit Dinanath Mangeshkar was an actor, director and singer for what was famous as Marathi Natya Sangeet. He even acted in a play written by Veer Savarkar. But the region extending from North Goa, Hubli, Dharwar and Pune had come under the spell of another eclectic influence in music.

The migration of Hindustani music gharanas or schools of music from UP and Rajasthan to these regions rich with classical sangeet, is a fascinating phase of cultural cross fertilization. Wealthy patrons of music invited ustads like Alladiya Khan of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana, Abdul Karim Khan of Kirana gharana (also named Kairana currently in the eye of a communal storm) for two prime purposes: to train musical talent for Marathi Natya Sangeet and to groom singers for the “mehfils” of the patrons.

Kesarbai Kerkar, Mallikarjun Mansur, Mogubai Kurdikar, and scores of others, were gifts bestowed on Hindustani classical sangeet by Alladiya Khan. Abdul Karim Kahn’s Kirana Gharana was adorned by Hirabai Barodekar, Gangubai Hangal, Bhimsen Joshi. The entire lot came from the same area where Lata was put through her first paces in singing by her father.

Unlike Kesarbai, who left behind no protégé, Mogubai trained her daughter, Kishori Amonkar into one of the foremost classical singers. Lata, by her own admission, was an admirer of Kishori. When Mogubai and her daughter placed flowers annually on Guru Alladiya Khan’s grave in Mumbai on March 16, his death anniversary, the syncretism of the ritual was not lost on Lata.

Hindus and Muslims were no factors. The music director who spotted the genius in Lata was music director, Ghulam Haider. Later, Naushad placed her on a pedestal where she remained to the very end.

Heavier voice, in a lower octave, was in fashion those days. Lata was initially resisted but the silken serenity of her voice set her on a path which was irreversible. There were no leaping flames in her singing. Poet Momin compares the “taan” or the melodic line to a lamp:
“Shola sa lapak jaaye hai awaz to dekho”
“The leaping flame” of Momin’s songstress was no description of Lata’s singing. More apt would be Josh Malihabadi word picture:
“narmi se nadi guzar rahi hai goya”
Serenity of a gentle flowing stream, would be a close translation.

Majrooh, who wrote numerous lyrics which she sang was moved to write a poem on Lata filled with the sincerity and affection for which he was known.
“Mere lafzon ko jo chhu leti hai awaz teri,
Sarhadein tod ke ur jaatey hain ashaar mere”
(The mere touch of your voice gives wings to my words which fly, breaking all boundaries of mind and space)

Patriotism, unlike the one being simulated today, was spontaneously a part of the post-independence fervour. “Watan ki raah mein watan ke naujawan shaheed ho”, was the hit song from Shaheed, one of Dilip Kumar’s earlier films. Music was by Ghulam Haider who, as mentioned earlier, first saw Lata’s talent. Chronologically this was the period when Lata met Dilip Kumar, two aspirants setting out at the same time for different careers in the film industry. Dilip remembered days of meagre earnings: “we could just have tea in the studio canteen.”

A rakhi for Dilip Kumar was mandatory every Rakshabandhan until he was afflicted by Alzheimer.

Lata Mangeshkar will be part of lives of generations. Sadly, the milieu which shaped her is gone.