Women playback singers get a voice of their own

What is common to Meena Kumari, Nargis, Nutan, Sharmila Tagore, Rekha, Sridevi, Kajol, Tabu, Preity Zinta, Aishwarya and Kareena Kapoor?Irrespective of how they sound or look, when they break into song in a film, they necessarily have to do so in a high-pitched voice. The men can sing in different styles but the stereotype of leading ladies singing in either C, C half sharp or C sharp seems to have been cast in stone, just like their chastity, a virtue that not many film makers would dare to play with.

Many, like classical vocalist Arati Ankalikar,say it is a matter of conditioning. “From the morning wake-up bhajan, to ditties that entertain you during the day, to the lullaby that puts you to sleep, for six decades people heard nothing but Lata and Asha,” she points out. “How then can you expect listeners to accept other voices?”

But weren’t there different kinds of voices around before the Mangeshkar sisters minted their six-decade monopoly? From the 1930s till the 1950s, female playback singing enjoyed a diverse range of voices, with the likes of Amirbai Karnataki, Noor Jehan, Shamshad Begum, Zohrabai Ambalewali, Begum Akhtar, Juthika Ray and Rajkumari dominating the scene. “We had signature styles and no one thought of copying the other. No wonder even an ‘afsana likh rahi hoon’, from the 1947 film Dard still sounds so fresh,” recalls the 93-year-old singer Shamshad Begum.
The thin little voice

In fact, Bollywood music historian Mohan Joshi recounts how Lata Mangeshkar got her first rejection early on in her life for the very same sharp and thin voice. “In 1948, legendary composer Ghulam Haider took Lata to Sasadhar Mukherjee, who was making Shaheed.But Mukherjee said her voice was too thin,” remembers Joshi, laughing, “So Surinder Kaur sang Badnam na ho jaaye for a petite, soft-voiced Kamini Kaushal.”

Not one to take kindly to a rejection of his protégé, Haider challenged Mukherjee, saying, “This little, thin voice will challenge all others in the years to come.” According to Joshi, “The words were prophetic. After Haider gave Lata a break in Majboor (1948), the competition indeed turned history. Her dominance across so many decades ensured that any woman who wanted to make a career as a playback singer had no choice but to sound like her.”
Plus there were rigid views on what a heroine’s singing voice should sound like. The stalwart composer Naushad once famously said in a radio interview, “Lata’s voice gives the impression of a homely innocent young girl as opposed to the pukhta gayaki of kothewalis (the full-throated singing of courtesans).” Says Dr Laxmi Lingam from the Women’s Studies Centre at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, “Society keeps trying to enforce standards on how a woman should look, walk, dress and even sound. What we see happening with female playback singers in Bollywood is an extension of this mind set.”
Slaves to a stereotype

Shubha Mudgal laughs as she remembers how she wanted to sound like Lata when young. “Until my training helped me discover my own style, voice and range, I too wanted to sound like Lataji,” she recounts. Mudgal blames the film makers and composers for this mind-set. “Even a husky-voiced Rani Mukherjee is made to sing in a voice which is nothing like hers,” she points out. “Directors use the world ‘classical’ like a slur almost. You are told, ‘Aapki aawaz classical type hai’. And when you do have different sounding voices singing, the songs are picturised on beggars, street performers, or courtesans, which only reinforces the stereotype.”

Ankalikar, who has herself sung timeless sound tracks, like those of Sardari Begum (1996), feels that the technical reasons given by some directors don’t always ring true. “When you use instruments like the sitar, you want a voice which will rise above it, and singers like me are often told to sing in higher octaves, saying it will make the song sound better. This does not do justice to the range of voices like mine and I have often refused such offers. Such insistence, even in the era of digitalisation, smacks of slavery to a stereotype.”

Filmmaker Shyam Benegal, whose projects have showcased such ‘different’ voices as Preeti Sagar, Krishna Kalle, Shubha Joshi and Arati Ankalikar, calls this “the mechanical approach of lazy film makers.” According to him, “Once the script is finalised, research into the character automatically brings to mind the kind of voices one wants for the songs. Ultimately, the song has to blend in and help the story-telling process.”

Neha Bhasin, whose song, Dhunki, in Mere Brother Ki Dulhan stood out for her different voice, feels she’s had to struggle for work because composers pressurised her to sing in higher octaves. “Your base scale is your unique signature, which you are born with. There is a limit to how much you can stretch your vocal cords. No song is worth damaging them,” she says, recounting how she has taken to refusing assignments which require her to sing in a scale higher than G sharp. “I know singers like Sunidhi (Chauhan) change their scales. Good for them. I refuse to do this. Why should I, when internationally acclaimed artistes like Madonna and Lady Gaga sing in the scale I do?” she asks.
Bhasin’s contemporary, Shilpa Rao, who has delivered hits like Tose naina laage (Anwar), Ek lau is tarah (Aamir) and Khuda jaane (Bachna Ae Haseeno) strikes a different note. “Today when one sings with composers like Vishal-Shekhar, they find your comfortable scale and compose accordingly. This is why so many different kinds of voices are finding space.” She concedes, however, that “it is a slow and gradual process since we are dealing with age-old mindsets.”

Actor Vidya Balan agrees, adding that the arrival of voices like Rekha Bharadwaj is refreshing. “I have had Shreya Ghoshal singing for my characters and her voice is the expected ‘heroine’ voice. Today, when women don’t mind wearing their sexuality on their sleeve and society kind of lives with it, voices like Rekha’s have come to be accepted as the heroine’s voice, too. The raw emotions, rusticity, and sensuality have an immediate connect.”
In a way, winds of change are blowing. But if you’re expecting the heroine in a diaphanous chiffon sari in the Swiss Alps to sing in Usha Uthup’s voice, the patriarchs of the formulaic Hindi film industry will tell you that you’ve got another think coming.

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