By Dr. Vishnu Bisram
India’s legendary iconic singer Lata Mangeshkar passed away on Sunday. Her remains were cremated hours later as is the norm in India. She was accorded a state funeral and two days of mourning.
Lata had an indelible influence and impact on Indo-Caribbean musical entertainment. No one had as much impact on Bollywood singing as Lata. Almost every Indian Caribbean person as well as so many non-Indians grew up being entertained by Lata’s countless songs. Her contribution to Indian culture in Guyana, Trinidad, Suriname, etc. cannot be understated in song, music, film entertainment, and religious functions. The legendary singer had given her voice to a plethora of movies, feelings, and occasions. Although she has passed on, she will continue to influence generations with her numerous songs of several genres. She holds the Guinness record for most songs recorded – over 30K. Her illustrious career spanned over seven decades. She was Bollywood’s most popular singer through her unique vocal range. We will miss that voice. She also directed and produced a few films. She acted in movies but told directors she preferred to be a singer. She received countless accolades and honors throughout her career for her singing talent.
I was not fortunate to see Lata in Guyana and experience the excitement of her 1980 visit when the country was ripped with Lata-fever with a public holiday declared for her visit and performance. But I was blessed to see her live in performance several times in New York and also watched her in concert when I visited India during countless trips. Thousands of Guyanese and other West Indians showed up at each of her concerts in America and did the same in Toronto and London. A few years back, she did say it was going to be her last performance in America attracting jam packed audiences. The beautiful unique melodious voice, whether in Guyana or in America or elsewhere, resonated and is remembered by Guyanese as well as Indians all over the diaspora. Her song and her visit to Guyana helped to strengthen ties with Mother India.
Lata had a kind of magnetic, charismatic attraction. She was irresistible to listen to and to watch in concert or an interview; it was like fans had to go and see her perform. She had sold out performances in America and Guyanese were in the thick of the crowds. She had a most enchanting, mesmerizing voice. Lata had become not only the melodious nightingale of India but of the Indian diaspora and of so many other people who love Indian music and Bollywood filmi industry. She had so many fans in the former Soviet Union, China, and the Eastern bloc as I discovered in my trips to those countries.
For decades, Lata dominated the film industry with her renditions. There was no Bollywood film without Lata-ji. She was the most sought after playback singer in films. She would have entertained no less than 1.5 billion people, including tens of millions of non-Indians all over Africa and Asia and Europe. And in Guyana, non-Indians also listened to Indian songs. During my college days, my African and St. Vincentian friends told me they used to watch Indian films and listened to Lata’s songs. It is not surprising therefore that media around the globe carried news of her passing and her state funeral that drew mammoth crowd in Mumbai.
In speaking with Indo-Caribbeans in New York, almost everyone said they watched the live coverage related to her passing, the movement of her body, and the cremation. Even teenagers are familiar with the name Lata Mangeshkar. Everyone had only positive things to say about Lata-ji. There was grief and sadness everywhere but also a celebration as her popular songs were belted out on Indian radio stations (Guyanese and South Asian) and as TV coverage played her songs during the moving funeral ceremonies.
Growing up in Guyana, as a 1960s child (and the experience would have been the same for those born earlier and the 1970s and 1980s, we were fed a staples of songs of Lata, her sisters Asha and Usha, Mohamed Rafi, Kishore, Mukesh, Manna Dey, among other artistes. Lata was everyone’s favorite. The form of entertainment was music and movies (aside from sports). And there was no TV till the late 1980s to provide at home entertainment. So everyone turned to radio which was the mass form of entertainment. Guyana’s radio stations provided limited time for Indian music. So we tuned in to Radio Radhika, and Radio Paramaribo for Indian music. There was so much of Lata’s songs on the air that we got to know them by heart. During the 1960s and after, there were music devices (juke box, tape recorder, stereo, etc). to play songs on record and tape. Lata’s song were very popular at Indian weddings (Hindu, Muslim, and Christian). Her rendition of the Indian national anthem was also well received and the youths in my village memorized it.
Bollywood music united Indians not only in Guyana but Indians all over the diaspora. It served as a bond and Lata was at the center – connecting the diaspora. Lata inundated the world with different types of songs. And Guyanese as well as Trini artistes have done remix renditions of some of her songs or their tunes that are extremely popular. As Guyanese Ashook Ramsaran, President of Indian Diaspora Council said in New York, Lata’s singing spanned the spectrum of emotions (sad, happy, patriotic, nationalistic) and she connected the diaspora with Mother India”. Lata visited several diaspora country in Africa, Fiji, Caribbean, North America, Mauritius, and more. And who forgot that 1980 reception from Timehri to Georgetown and elsewhere. Lata-ji said she had never seen such huge crowds outside of India.
On a Guyana connection, some twenty five years, the late Ramesh Kalicharran informed me he contracted Lata-Didi to record a song on Indian indentureship. It was supposed to be the background song of a film on indentureship the script of which was written but the film was not done. Kali reminded me of that unfinished project just weeks before his fatal heart attack.
It is amazing that grandchildren and great grands born of Guyanese parents are familiar with the name Lata and fond of her songs. She will remain in our thoughts whenever her songs are played or sung.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the position or policy of the THE WEST INDIAN.