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Lata Mangeshkar, a Dalit from Devdasi family, 'refused to sing a song' about Ambedkar

By Pramod Ranjan* 

An artist is known and respected for her art. But she is equally, or even more so known and respected for her social concerns. An artist's social concerns or in other words, her worldview, give a direction and purpose to her art. History remembers only such artists whose social concerns are deep, reasoned and of durable importance.
Lata Mangeshkar (28 September 1929 – 6 February 2022) was a celebrated playback singer of the Hindi film industry. She was the uncrowned queen of Indian music for over seven decades. Her popularity was unmatched. Her songs were heard and admired not only in India but also in Pakistan, Bangladesh and many other South Asian countries.
In this article, we will focus on her social concerns. Lata lived for 92 long years. Music ran in her blood. Her father also belonged to the world of music. Her two sisters, Asha Bhonsle and Usha Mangeshkar, are well-known singers. Lata might have been born in Indore but the blood of a famous Devdasi family of Goa courses in her veins. Her grandmother was a Devdasi.
According to Sujata Parmita, a notable Hindi and Marathi Dalit writer, Lata Mangeshkar was a Dalit from a Devdasi family. Parmita claims that Lata's father was also the son of a Devdasi. Others say that Lata came from a Bhatt Brahmin family. Be that as it may, her voice had a natural attraction, which few, if any, could resist.
Looking back, we can say that two factors combined to keep Lata at the pinnacle of playback singing in India for over seven decades. The biggest factor, of course, was her voice, which was unique. It was nature's amazing gift. As famous Hindustani classical vocalist Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan once affectionately remarked, "Kambakht kabhi besuri hi nahin hoti, wah, kya Allah ki den hai" (She is never out of tune. Good heavens, what a gift from god)
But a political force also helped her scale the summit and stay there. She was the favourite singer of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Dictators like Hitler and Mussolini are among the sources of inspiration of the RSS – an organization which is said to believe in Nazi ideology.
This, indeed, was a strange contradiction. She sung innumerable romantic and love songs but stood with the RSS, which has been charged with backing those who slit the throats of young men and women marrying out of their caste or religion.
Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, whose inspiration was behind the founding of the RSS, was Lata's idol. She didn't let go of any opportunity of praising Savarkar. She used to tweet regularly on Savarkar's birth anniversaries, describing him like her father and a true son of Bharat Mata. Like Savarkar, at the personal level, Lata did not believe in women's lib. Neither did she have any love for Indian secularism.
Harvard University professor Ashraf Aziz in his article, "The female voice of Hindustani film songs" makes glowing references to Lata's contribution. But it is also his construct that "Lata Mangeshkar's voice helped domesticate Indian women and make them obedient." She was elated by the demolition of the Babri Masjid, an incident that was the biggest blow to Indian secularism.
On 5 August 2020, amid the raging Covid-19 pandemic, when the country's present Prime Minister laid the foundation stone for the construction of a Ram Temple at the place where the Babri Masjid once stood, Lata tweeted, "The dream of many kings, of many generations and of the devotees of Ram all over the world has come to fruition today."
She did not approve of popular resistance to the oppressive policies of the state. In 2021, when the famed international pop singer Rihanna tweeted in support of the farmers' movement, Lata posted a tweet admonishing her. At the time, besides Lata, some other celebrities, including Sachin Tendulkar, Akshay Kumar and Sunil Shetty, had also lashed out at Rihanna.
Interestingly, later it came to light that not only the thrust but even many words were common in their tweets. It was also reported in media that the tweets by Lata Mangeshkar and others were based on content provided by the IT cell of the BJP.
In 2001, the government of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political wing of the RSS, conferred India's highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, on her. Again, it was the BJP government which nominated her to Rajya Sabha. But she rarely attended the House. And lest anyone points fingers at her, she did not accept her salary as an MP.
Sometime after she was decorated with the Bharat Ratna, the government started constructing a flyover near her residence in Mumbai. Lata threatened that if the construction was not stopped, she would quit the country. The government had no option but to acquiesce. The flyover was never constructed.
This was an example of her extreme selfishness, demonstrating that when it came to serving her personal interests, she had no hesitation in emotionally blackmailing her admirers and even the Government of India by threatening to 'quit the country'.
The BJP and the RSS didn't show great respect for her without reason. When BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani began a Rathyatra demanding the construction of a Ram Temple at the place in Ayodhya where the Babri Masjid stood, Lata especially recorded a devotional song for the Rathyatra. This fact came to light for the first time when after the death of Lata, paying tributes to her Lal Krishna Advani recalled this incident.
He said: "I remember that when I was to embark upon my Ram Rath Yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya, she (Lata Mangeshkar) had recorded a beautiful devotional song hailing Shri Ram. That memorable song goes like this, 'Ram naam mein jadu aisa, Ram naam man bhaye, man ki ayodhya tab tak sunee, jab tak Ram na aa jayein' (The name of Ram has a magic, my heart yearns for Ram; the Ayodhya in my heart will remain gloomy till Ram arrives there)... That song became the signature tune of my Yatra".
This infamous political odyssey was a well-planned exercise to whip up communal frenzy against the Indian minority communities. At the time, besides the opposition parties, leading writers, poets and cultural activists were expressing their deep concerns over what it would lead to.
Ultimately, this Rath Yatra brought about the demolition of the Babri Masjid and triggered Hindu-Muslim riots in the entire country in which more than two thousand persons lost their life. It was this Yatra which catapulted a small political outfit like the BJP into a powerful political force in India. In the general election that followed the Yatra, the BJP emerged as the main opposition party.
How the RSS and the BJP exploited the popularity of Lata Mangeshkar for furthering their interests is evident from an episode of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's 'Mann Ki Baat' radio programme. In this episode, which was broadcast in 2019, the Prime Minister played the recording of his 'personal' telephonic conversation with Lata Mangeshkar.
According to the Prime Minister, the recording was of a 'surprise' call he had made to Lata Mangeshkar to wish her on her 90th birthday. At the beginning of the programme, Modi says that his conversation with Lata was "like that of an affectionate brother talking to her elder sister." He says, "I normally don't talk about such personal conversations but today I want you to hear what Lata Didi says."
In the recording, Modi says, "Lata Didi, Pranam. I am Narendra Modi. I have called you because I will be travelling on your birthday. I thought that before leaving I should wish you...wish you in advance on your birthday...I am telephoning to greet you before I leave for America."
Modi tries to pose that this is a spontaneous conversation between two persons – a conversation in which Lata sings paeans to the achievements of his government. But it is clear from the recording itself that it was a pre-planned conversation, which was stage-managed by the publicity team of the Prime Minister to exploit the popularity of Lata. In the recording, Lata says, "When I was told that you will be telephoning me…."
In 2021, when pop singer Rihanna tweeted in support of the farmers' movement, Lata posted a tweet admonishing her
Lata's spontaneous comment lets the cat out of the bag. It is clear that the conversation was orchestrated. But all media institutions presented it exactly as the Prime Minister's publicity team would have wanted them to. They described how the Prime Minister greeted Lata Mangeshkar on her birthday and how the nightingale of India believes that the country was fortunate to have Modi as the Prime Minister."
Narendra Modi is 31 years younger to Lata Mangeshkar. But in this recording, Lata seeks 'blessings' from Modi. "If you will bless me on my birthday I will consider myself very fortunate," she says. The Prime Minister interrupts her to say that it is he who needs her blessings. Against the backdrop of the ongoing media management and censorship to benefit the BJP, the stage-managed Lata-Modi dialogue evokes no surprise. But when an incident involves a top artist and her dignity and decorum, it can't be ignored. Such incidents, even small ones, have serious implications.
After Lata's passing away, I questioned her social concerns in a post on my Facebook wall. Immediately, a trads gang issued a call to abuse me. More than 700 persons responded to the call of this group, hurled invectives at me and issued life threats to me. Even my friends, including famous Gandhian activist Himanshu Kumar, who had shared my post, were not spared.
But can this trad army brush under the carpet some very pertinent questions that are being raised for some years now by popular Dalit Marathi singer Sambhaji Bhagat? Sambhaji had revealed how Lata Mangeshkar had refused to sing a song about Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, a valiant fighter for social justice and the biggest icon of the Indian Dalits.
What Sambhaji had said about this incident at a concert organised by Ulgulan, an organisation of young Adivasi and Dalit lawyers at Ranchi in 2015, is worth quoting verbatim. That will help us comprehend his deep pain.
Addressing the programme, Sambhaji Bhagat said, "Lata bai, Asha bai, Usha bai – they all sing. Ganapati is ahead of them. And Ganapati is behind them. But where are we in this scene? Lata bai's voice is excellent... Once our people had approached Lata bai. They said, why don't you sing a song about our Baba Saheb Ambedkar? But Lata bai refused. I say what is rejected is very important.
"Why did Lata bai refuse? Because Ambedkar was an untouchable? She has sung songs about everyone. We told her that if money is the problem, we will give money... She has a beautiful voice. But if such a beautiful voice becomes impure by uttering the name of our Baba Saheb, then that voice is dirt for us. We don't need it.
"They have ruined thousands of Lata bais and Asha bais in villages. Those who have massacred thousands, she describes them as her brother. An artist has to choose on which side she is. If the mass killers are his brothers, she cannot be our sister."
If one wants to know what kind of songs she happily sung, one should see the video in which she is singing Savarkar's song "He Hindu shakti sambhoot deeptam teja". She seems to be deeply immersed in the song. The lines of this song, which communalises Shivaji, are as under:
"Hey Hindu shakti sambhoot deeptam teja,
Hey Hindu tapasya poot ishwari oja
Hey Hindu shri saubhagya bhutichya saja
Hey Hindu nrisangha prabho Shivajiraja
Kari Hindu rashtra hein tootein"

This Marathi song was set to music by her brother Hridaynath Mangeshkar.
Lata and her family also find mention in 'Vikas Ke Path', a recently-published collection of the speeches of RSS Pracharak and former BJP chief Nitin Gadkari. Gadkari writes, "Lata Didi is a hardcore nationalist". She holds the fountainhead of rabid Hindutva in the country..."freedom fighter Veer Savarkar in great reverence".
Gadkari writes, "During the groundbreaking function for the Worli-Bandra bridge in Mumbai, I told Lata Did and her brother Hridaynath Mangeshkar that it was my ardent wish that the songs written by Savarkar should be sung either by her or any of her family members... Hridaynath Mangeshkar came to the programme and in keeping with the great respect this family has for Veer Savarkar, he beautifully presented four songs written by Savarkar."
Be that as it may, as has been said in this article earlier, many people will talk about Lata's songs, about how her voice mesmerised crores of people. All her admirers know that her voice had a natural magic. She was a born singer. It was a gift which had nothing to do with her. But what Lata did in her life is more important – her social and political values and her conduct.
A natural gift needs to be respected, no matter who its recipient it. But it is also important to identify the forces whose interests are served, whether consciously or consciously, by the natural gift and how these forces used it in socio-political terms.
The above-mentioned incidents clearly show that secular values had no place in her ideology. There is no evidence of her commitment to women's lib. As I had written on FB, Lata's ideological leanings were retrograde and reactionary. I can't say whether she had consciously opted for retrograde social concerns, just as the upper-caste persons associated with the RSS do.
But it seems that either she did not have any thoughts about how the world should be; which powers are inimical to the wellbeing of the world and which powers are struggling to better it. Or if she had any thoughts on these issues, they were extremely reactionary and retrograde.
The issue is not why Lata Mangeshkar didn't sing songs about Ambedkar. Such symbols are prone to all kinds of misuse. Someone may quote her formal utterances about Ambedkar. Others may showcase her pictures with Nehru or with a Communist or a Bahujan leader.
But the basic question is whether she upheld religious fanaticism or whether she was in favour of spreading scientific temper. What were her views on the women's freedom to love, on the struggle of the Dalits-OBCs for socio-political equality? And how will history remember her for what was her own? Which side she was on? These issues should be discussed and debated openly.
---
*Interested in the study and analysis of the process of creation of knowledge and the working of the mass media, has edited many Hindi and English journals; his notable works include "Sahityatihas Ka Bahujan Paksha" (Ed) and "Shimla Diary". Distributed by JanVikalp, this article has also appeared in News Writers and Justice News

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