In English we have two words which refer to talented, charismatic lady singers who can mesmerize people as much with their singing prowess as their enigmatic charm. The words are “diva” and “prima donna”. I know that the meanings of these words are culture-specific as they have close links with genres like opera-music. But I can hardly think of any other term as I sit down to write about a group of ladies who, in various stages of my life, have simply bowled me over with their immaculate singing; an act which, to me it seems, is always combined with a great degree of élan and poise.
In the beginning, let me take a stroll down memory lane and look back at my adolescent years. Like many other middle-class Bengali homes in Kolkata of 1980’s we too were exposed to Rabindra Sangit in a big way. Often during evening-time my elder sisters took out their harmoniums and practised Tagore’s songs. I sat as an avid listener. Noticing my sisters’ passion for music my father one day brought home a tape-recorder and a few pre-recorded audio cassettes. Our joy knew no bounds! We played and played those cassettes over and over again. I, for one, came completely under the spell of a female voice. It was of Kanika Bandopadhyay. Each time I listened to her rendition of “Danriye achho tumi amar gaaner opaarey” it gave me goose-pimples. To my adolescent impressionable mind it seemed like the zenith of romantic sensibility. This was a recording that the artist did in 1979. She was in her prime then. The inscrutable charm of the song, the classy gayaki – everything made such a long-lasting impact on my mind.
In Kolkata, during the 80’s, we were brought up in a kind of catholic spirit which permeated the air; and, it was more evident in the matter of acquiring musical tastes than in any other sphere of Bangali culture. There was no clear-cut division between the “elite” and the “popular”. Bollywood-music was not a taboo. And there were such wonderfully talented artists and composers who worked within the Bollywood system. Radio-stations playing Bollywood stuff were immensely popular and these stations, to a great extent, were instrumental in shaping the musical taste of the Bengali bhadralok class. From the world of film-music, Geeta Dutt – the temperamental genius, the brooding tragic figure of Bollywood playback singing – was one diva who mesmerised me with her lethal combination of melancholia and eroticism. Listen to this song; you will know what I mean. (“Jaaney kya tuney kahin”). Geeta Dutt was the only female singer who could take on the Mangeskar sisters in their prime; such was the magic of her voice. Sadly this rare talent faded away from the scene all too soon due to tragedies in her personal life.
Geeta Dutt’s singing style made me aware that one could add sensual edge to one’s singing without sacrificing musicality or even remotely sounding vulgar. It was her voice that encouraged me to search for female voices that would have that something “extra”, something that somebody like Lata Mangeskar found it so hard to add to her repertoire, no matter how perfect her singing was. Divas must possess that something “extra”, that bit of enigmatic charm which is so hard to define, and which is aimed directly at your solar plexus. I shall give you a few examples. Listen to these golden voices. At first, listen to Farida Khanum – a voice which is quite like silk. (“Aaj jaaney ki zid naa karo”) If you are talking of female voices and if you are discussing ghazals the obvious name has to the greatest of them all, Begum Akhtar. Listen to this absolute classic. (“Mere humnafas”) In the world of North Indian classical music very few could match Siddheswari Devi in exuding feminine charm without sacrificing purity a bit. If you listen to her rendition of “Raske bhare tore naina” you will understand what I mean; such an ethereal combination of pathos and sensuousness. The other name that comes to my mind is that of Surashree Kesarbai Kerkar: and her immortal song in Maru Behag, “rasiya hoon naa”. What mellifluous singing!
Let us move outside the world of Indian music and travel to America, a land that has produced legendary divas down the ages. In the world of jazz you have names like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Listen to Billie’s delightful interpretation of the Cole Porter classic, “Let’s do it” and Ella’s mind-blowing rendition of the song made famous by Peggy Lee, “Fever”, back to back. In the world of western mainstream rock music, in matters of exuding diva-like charm nobody can even go near to the veteran in the field, Tina Turner. You will have to listen to her to believe what this lady is capable of. Listen to Tina’s gut-wrenching “Private Dancer.” The pain, the angst of feminine subjectivity is expressed with such profundity by this diva. From the world of folk, it is Joan Baez whose charm is so cerebral. Her voice is so sonorous and her singing is so flawless. Her poetry is too so chiselled that it adds to her diva-like charm. Take a listen to her composition that she wrote after her break-up with Bob Dylan, a track which has become a Joan Baez classic, “Diamonds and Rust.” Crossing the Atlantic let us now go to Ireland and listen to the voice of another diva whose singing style can best be described as ‘haunting’. Listen to Sinead O’Conner and her this haunting, haunting track. This song was written for her by Prince. It is called “Nothing compares to you.”
Things are getting a bit too serious with songs that deal with emotions of pain, separation and loss. Let’s pep things up a bit and listen to a darling of a voice of a diva who had remained India’s sweetheart for many years. Listen to Asha Bhosle, singing in a style that is well and truly inimitable. Listen to this Panchamda classic from the film Caravan, “Piya tu aab to aajaa.” Contemporary Bollywood can hardly boast of such diva-like voices which can sweep you off your feet, or, for that matter, composers who can bring the diva-self out from the singer. In my opinion, among the present lot of female-playbacks we can put our bet only on Rekha Bharadwaj to make the grade in future. Her voice has that rare combination of smouldering sensuality and melancholic otherworldliness. Listen to this track from the film Ishqiya, “Badi dheerey jali”
One thing has been made clear by now I suppose. Divas possess elements of mystery and pathos in their voices and these elements come to the surface no matter what the mood of the song they sing. But, it goes without saying that they excel in sad, introspective songs. Listeners find their voice in such songs unfathomable. That is what creates their aura – the aura of the diva. I shall play a couple of such songs for you now. The songs are by Mousumi Bhowmik, Amy Winehouse and Parvati Baul. The tracks are, “Daya karo”, “Love is a losing game” and “Ami opaar hoye bosey achhi”
We began with Rabindra Sangit; we want to end with one. One singer who is peerless in giving shape to the romantic agony of Tagore’s songs is Nilima Sen. She could make it palpable for the listeners, to transport them to another world from the claustrophobic world of “still, sad music of humanity” – a land where they can find ineffable beauty in sorrow. I end this episode with one of her legendary renditions, “O chnaad chokher joler”. Ciao for now: happy listening!