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The ‘Eternal’ Girlhood Of Lata Mangeshkar (1929-2022): Some Postcolonial Reflections – OpEd

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For two reasons the atheists are likely to be wrong: a face as beautiful as that of the Hindi actress of yesteryears Madhubala (1933–1969) couldn’t have evolved through time and space. It had to be created by a well-meaning God. So it is with the voice of Lata Mangeshkar. If God did not exist, we would neither have the face of Madhubala nor the voice of Lata Mangeshkar. The entire subcontinent shares a special affinity with the songs of Lata Mangeshkar. Generations have passed their youth and reached old age listening to her. 

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Personal feelings apart, we are creatures of history which includes society and culture, and music is a part and parcel of the human past enabling people to survive and thrive in the face of the vagaries of nature. We need to examine the social history that gave a legendary status to the voice of Lata Mangeshkar. Like other male playback singers such as Mohammed Rafi (1924 – 1980) and Kishore Kumar (1929–1987), Lata emerged as a mainstream female voice in a nation-state born out of nearly two hundred years of colonial oppression. If the anti-colonial resistance created the idea of India as a nation by the end of the 19th century, it is in post-colonial India that we witness the adolescent romanticism of a social and political order struggling to prove that its core sense of self is untainted by colonialism. Nothing however is further from the truth. The very denial of history is a denial of the truth. 

Black Skins, White Masks is the title of one of Fanon’s early works. As the colonized of the earth we are black from outside but dying to be white from inside. We hold on to that white mask because we have no intention of facing the truth of the black skin underneath. That is why I find the racism of South Asians particularly amusing especially when they use the word “white” to mean aesthetically superior to black. They also have this embarrassingly mediocre system of color gradation as to degrees of “whiteness.” White is seen as an autonomous category to which we must aspire as South Asians because of the possibility that we might be “black” from without. It is that metaphorical blackness we find unbearable. 

I don’t believe that there is a “real” or literal black or white except in the head. It is simply what we have internalized as the colonized. The political results of these white obsessions can be seen in the way we practice religion, in our politics, cultural tastes and in our day-to-day life. Fanon puts it brilliantly: “I am overdetermined from without. I am the slave not of the “idea” that others have of me but of my own appearance. I move slowly in the world, accustomed now to seek no longer for upheaval. I progress by crawling. And already I am being dissected under white eyes, the only real eyes. I am fixed.”

As a nation-state Indians are yet to come out of that overdetermination from without. The colonialism from within is bound to stay with us for a much longer time than we would like to admit to ourselves. The dishonesty and duplicity which is normal in this part of the world is because we are slaves to our own appearance. I am fixed by the white eyes of the colonizer operating through the brown bodies of my fellow Indians.

That is the context to the voice of the “eternal” girl in Lata. It is the voice of the most treacherous of ideals inflicted on women and vulnerable groups: the obsessive need to be pure at all costs. It is an adolescent longing to find what is perfect in human existence. As a longing I’ve no problems with it as long it is limited to adolescence. My problem is when the longing becomes the basis of who we are as individuals. Girls or boys are fine, but girlhood is a much of a false ideal as boyhood. They mean nothing beyond a point except a thin disguise for violence and deceit; violence when you have power and deceit when you don’t.

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The prolonged adolescence of the Indian nation-state whose manifestation can be seen in popular culture especially films where characters are constantly challenging authority whether parental or institutional, is clear indication of a resistance to authoritarian mechanisms set up by the colonizer to ensure that there is a continuity to the empire. But of course popular Indian films are by definition reactionary. What they essentially do is to show that adolescent longings can be translated into reality. Boy looks at the girl. Girl looks at the boy. They like each other and after a lot of friction with family and the elimination of the proverbial bad guys they get married. In the meantime, the girl is this untouched paragon of virtue who remains unspoiled by historical and social changes. This is where we need to locate the “sweetness” of Lata’s voice. It’s the voice of a girl that forever wishes to remain a girl. It’s the voice of a society that wants women to remain adolescents and never grow up enough to challenge male authority. It’s a voice that conforms to colonial patriarchal strictures even while it professes to go against them.

The repression that comes in the face of anxiety produced by change; the fear of letting go and moving on; the fear of facing the bitter truth that nobody can remain unaffected by history; the refusal to acknowledge that adulthood is about choices made keeping oneself in mind; those countless sweet songs of Lata in which we’ve grown up offer a brief respite from the heat of a failure to come to terms with the fact that purity as a virginal condition is an illusion. 

Virginity, whether mental or physical, is an adolescent fantasy. Pre-marital sex is as real as adultery and both of them are possible in any man woman relationship; all this beside the fact that sexual orientation is never as fixed and immutable as it appears to be so. But as a nation we don’t want to know the truth. The perennial adolescent likes to believe that there is no time except the present. However, it is only through growing up do you realize that there is also a past and a future that one needs to think about. To become independent in body and mind is the essence of real freedom. 

Lata’s voice is that of a repressed soul that wants to make the best of the inevitable suffering. It’s not the voice of a nation that seeks to come out of repression. We’ve been repressed for so long that we don’t know that the only thing sweeter than the voice of Lata and the face of Madhubala is freedom. 

The “eternal” girlhood in the voice of Lata is the “eternal “obsession with purity and perfection of India as a nation. We need to give up trying to be pure and perfect and accept our humanity, the way we are. We need to come out of that colonization from inside. We cannot be afraid of the dark or the blackness of who we really are. My freedom can only come through self-acceptance. It means that I come to terms with my past. India’s colonial past has destroyed a whole functioning pre-colonial world and created a new world with institutions and ways of life that we are yet to completely understand and accept. Technically speaking, we are a young nation. But, we cannot be young forever except in the head. Growing up is reality. We have to come out of those imitation complexes that VS Naipaul brilliantly perceived among the so-called post-colonized, “the mimic men” as he called them in a novel titled as such. 

Aesthetics must reflect my social and political condition. Aesthetics is not an escape from reality. We can still be children at heart while we turn into adults. Nothing wrong in that. What we cannot be is children in the mind. The mind has to know the difference between what is real and what is not. 

As much as I believe that the romanticism of early youth is only a phase and nothing more than that, as much as I despise the Bollywood Indian false aesthetics that disguises social and political inequalities, as much as I look with contempt at those changes in fashion as petty attempts to imitate the west, as much as I find unbearable the one-upmanship of my country folks who will continue to be sending WhatsApp messages while there is an asteroid heading towards the earth to make the species extinct as happened with the dinosaurs, it doesn’t mean that I’m unmoved by that hauntingly sweet face of Madhubala or the equally sweet voice of Lata. It also does not mean that I don’t recognize that my freedom is about coming out of the repression which has made them beautiful to me. 

If I have to ignore everything that I’ve written so far and call it rubbish I’ll be happy to do so. This won’t take away the fact of how much of my sense of beauty is Indian to the very core. I am in love with all those beautiful things that the repression made possible. The repression is what I refuse to accept as my reality. 

I sincerely believe that atheism cannot have a genuine claim to our imagination as long as there is a face like that of Madhubala and a voice as sweet as that of Lata. There has to be a benign deity to have created both of them. 

Prakash Kona

Prakash Kona is a writer, teacher and researcher who lives in Hyderabad, India. He is Professor at the Department of English Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad.

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