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Lata Mangeshkar (1929-2022): Exit, the Nightingale

The legend, who died of COVID-19 complications in Mumbai today, was a perfectionist whose quiet, convivial, girly demeanour concealed a steely determination.

Shriram Iyengar

Her journey preceded the rise of the Republic of India; her passing marks the loss of its voice. Lata Mangeshkar moves on into eternity. Nothing else, but silence, feels appropriate to follow these words. Her name will now be consigned to legend, left to the imagination of a generation whose daily supply of music is created and replicated by algorithms.

Born in Indore, now in Madhya Pradesh, on 28 September 1929, Lata Deenanath Mangeshkar was the eldest of five siblings. Her father, Pandit Deenanath Mangeshkar, was a famed singer and theatre actor from the village of Mangeshi in Goa. At birth, she was named Hema, but her father named her Lata, in memory of an earlier child he had lost. The name would forever be etched in Indian memory.

Starting her first lessons at the age of five, young Lata was born for, and of, music. It was to be the only school for the young girl whose prowess and talent would surpass everything the world had seen till then.

With the death of her father in 1942, Lata, all of 13, took up the responsibility of providing for her younger siblings. As her brother and composer Hridaynath Mangeshkar recalled in a 1981 interview, "Didi was burning the candle at both ends to keep the family going." 

In a 2000 interview with NDTV, Lata Mangeshkar admitted, “Family was the first thing to take care of. I had five people — four siblings and Mother — who depended on me.” Singing and acting were skills that simply came to use.

In his book, Lata Mangeshkar: A Biography, the late journalist and author Raju Bharatan wrote, “India was in the throes of Partition when Lata Mangeshkar happened. The nation was in a state of ferment.” It reflects the grit which lay beneath the demure, girly nature which never left her till the end.

A couple of months after her father’s passing, Lata Mangeshkar sang for Master Vinayak’s Pahili Mangalagaur (1942). It was also the year that Mahatma Gandhi told the British to Quit India.

Patriotism and nationalism seeped into Lata Mangeshkar’s legacy. Just as it would be impossible to separate Pandit Bhimsen Joshi from ‘Mile Sur Mera Tumhara’ in popular memory, Lata Mangeshkar will forever be the voice for ‘Aye Mere Watan Ke Logon’. C Ramchandra and Kavi Pradeep’s tribute to the soldiers who fell in India’s war with China in 1962 has become a constant reminder of the sacrifices needed to secure a nation. At a time when the country's spirit was broken, it was the voice that reminded them to never forget. Then-prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru wept when he heard the song, and the tune has remained iconic for its emotion.

In his biography: The Substance and the Shadow, the great actor Dilip Kumar said, "I can pinpoint the occasion and moment when Lata Mangeshkar rendered the shraddhanjali [homage] to the martyrs of the 1962 India-China war on Republic Day (26 January) 1963 at a function in Delhi. Prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who was present there, wept and so did all of us who had gathered at the venue.

"The night before, at the Ashoka Hotel, where Lata was staying, I had met her briefly and she was her shy, unassuming self. After I retired to my room in the hotel after a long day of meetings, I phoned Lata and asked her if she could sing one of my favourite devotional songs 'Allah Tero Naam' from Hum Dono (1962) for me and she gladly obliged. I went to sleep with her peerless voice soothing my tired mind. Little did I know that Lata would outshine herself the next day with her soulful rendering of 'Ae Mere Watan Ke Logon'." 

To outline the life of Lata Mangeshkar through her career requires more experience than this writer can muster. Suffice to say, for a generation that revered art, she was a goddess. She was beyond anything social media can construct or imagine.

Her journey with cinema started with Master Vinayak, who gave her small roles in Marathi cinema through his Prafulla Pictures. When he moved to bustling Bombay, as it was called then, Lata Mangeshkar met the city that would become her home for the rest of her life.

She started learning Hindustani classical music from Ustad Aman Ali Khan of the Bhendi Bazaar gharana. The training remained unfinished as the master left the city after Partition. Perhaps it was destiny that moved her towards playback singing rather than the classical stage.

Lata Mangeshkar's best songs 1940s-50s: Birthday series Part 1

Datta Davjekar's composition ‘Paa Lagoon Kar Jori’ for Vasantrao Jogalekar's Apki Sewame (1947) was the first playback song for Lata Mangeshkar in Hindi cinema. The film’s quick demise ended any chance of the song gaining popularity, but it intimated composers about the prodigious new talent in town.

It was the great Ghulam Haider who took her under his wing next. Recognizing her talent, the composer gave the teenager her first major hit with ‘Dil Mera Toda, Mujhe Kahin Ka Na Chhoda’ in Majboor (1948).

In Raju Bharatan’s biography, the singer recalled, “At the Bombay Talkies studio, they warned him not to take me on as a singer. They said I had a thin voice. But Master Ghulam Haider, who trusted his own judgement, disregarded them all.”

The dawn of India’s Independence marked the rise of Lata Mangeshkar as its voice. Her closest competitor was actress-singer Noorjehan. It is a frequent hobby among armchair theorists to fantasize about what would have happened if Noorjehan had decided to stay back in India. As it happened, the singing star’s departure to Pakistan set the stage for Mangeshkar’s coronation. Despite the conspiracy theorists, both singers remained close friends till Noorjehan’s death.

Behind her quiet demeanour, the great singer was also steely. Her discipline and effort were surpassed only by her ambition. For any singer to work round the clock for five decades requires more than just natural talent. This ambition was often held against her latterly. Many considered her power as the reason why younger sister Asha Bhosle struggled to make her mark. But both sisters dismissed such talk as rumours.

Filmmaker Basu Bhattacharya in a 1981 interview with the India Today magazine said, "The story of Lata Mangeshkar reads like a powerful feminist script." In an intensely competitive industry dominated by men, she was the one woman holding all the cards. Then again, she did not shy away from dealing ruthlessly. Till the end, her businesslike acumen was held both in awe and dislike by many in the industry."

The year 1949 finally saw Lata Mangeshkar deliver her first superhit number, a song that haunts the memory of Indian cinema still. Kamal Amrohi’s Mahal (1949) had Khemchand Prakash compose ‘Aayega Aanewala’ for the singer. As the ethereal Madhubala sat on a swing, a nation joined Ashok Kumar’s silence on the song.

As far as singing styles go, Lata Mangeshkar was the prototype of the perfect playback singer for Hindi cinema. Since her arrival, every succeeding female voice has been an imitation or a variation of hers. The stylings of Alka Yagnik, Suchitra Krishnamoorthy and Sunidhi Chauhan were slow evolutions of the balance between modern compositions and traditional vocals in Hindustani.

Lata Mangeshkar's voice was fine-tuned to precision over a long period of time. A key element of this process was the varying styles of many composers through the decades. From C Ramchandra, Khemchand Prakash, Salil Chowdhury and SD Burman through Shankar-Jaikishan, RD Burman, Laxmikant-Pyarelal down to Bappi Lahiri, Anu Malik and AR Rahman, Lata Mangeshkar had been a constant.

Yet, it was the ‘Melody Queen’ who added the stars to their compositions. Where would Naushad’s fabulous rhythm be without the singer cajoling ‘Tu Ganga Ki Mauj Main’ in Baiju Bawra (1952) or SD Burman’s playful ‘Piya Tose Naina Lage Re’ from Guide (1965)? Would Mughal-e-Azam (1960) be complete without the rebellious ‘Pyaar Kiya Toh Darna Kya’ or a romance find expression without the great vocalist singing ‘Jiya Jale’ in Dil Se... (1998)?

Lata Mangeshkar won three National Film Awards and four Filmfare trophies and three special awards. After a while, she stopped accepting the latter to give a chance to new talent. The Dadasaheb Phalke award was conferred upon her in 1989. A decade later, she was decorated as Padma Vibhushan. And in 2001 she was presented the Bharat Ratna.

A perfectionist, her interest in sport drew her to artistes with a similar zeal for perfection. An ardent admirer of cricket star Sachin Tendulkar, she followed his career closely. Another icon she watched closely was Swiss tennis great Roger Federer. It is no coincidence that all three share a steely determination to achieve the best while maintaining a calm, convivial demeanour in social circles.

In the NDTV interview, Mangeshkar recounted how composer Naushad once introduced her to a young Dilip Kumar on a train. To imagine that meeting is a thrill today. On hearing that the singer was Maharashtrian, the perfectionist in Dilip Kumar asked if she would be able to pronounce the Urdu lyrics predominant in Hindi cinema songs at the time. Cue the singer taking tuitions to get her Urdu diction right! Perhaps it was this determination that won her the great actor’s admiration and love.

In Raj Kapoor: The One and Only Showman, the filmmaker was quoted as saying, "Barsaat (1949) was the first time Lata was introduced in my films. It was as if I had been waiting for her to enter, to make Raj Kapoor and his music what it is today. People have told you of my interest in music, but they may not have spoken of my prerna [inspiration] which is Lata."

To list her awards, accomplishments or best songs even would be an endless and ultimately futile exercise. For a voice that became the consciousness of the Indian population, uniting a diverse group of film industries with different tastes, it would be an understatement. It was her greatest skill, but not the only one.

A little-known fact is that she composed music for no fewer than four films in the 1960s. Under the pseudonym Anandghan, she worked on the music of Mohityanchi Manjula (1963), the iconic Maratha Tituka Melvava (1964), Sadhi Manasa (1965) and Tambadi Mati (1969).

She would have kept it silent, but for an overenthusiastic host. In Nasreen Munni Kabir’s book Lata Mangeshkar: In Her Own Voice, she said, “No one knew I was composing film music, but then Sadhi Manasa went on to win eight Maharashtra state awards, including best director, best singer, best story and best music.” The singer had planned to stay pseudonymous, but the host spilt the beans. “I stayed firmly in my seat. The master of ceremonies explained that the music composer Anandghan was none other than Lata Mangeshkar. So I was forced to publicly accept the award.” 

Even well into her sixties, Mangeshkar remained at the peak of her powers. Her singing ‘Didi Tera Devar Deewana’ for Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! (1994) set the tone for a new generation. It earned her a special Filmfare award. She continued to sing into the new millennium.

Lata Mangeshkar's best songs 2000s: Birthday series Part 6

To a generation that refused to listen, she became the quiet motherly voice of 'Luka Chuppi' from Rang De Basanti (2006). She slowly aged, without anyone noticing.

As she advanced in years, her voice became a rarity in the public space. In a world crowded out by remixes and techno-infused vocals, Lata Mangeshkar would not deign to perform live. Her voice would, however, rise occasionally against the blatant laziness of remixed compositions. It was not to her taste.

A country is now mourning its voice. It was as iconic to India as Mahatma Gandhi’s spectacles. To paraphrase Einstein’s quote on the Father of the Nation, generations of auto-tuned singers would scarce believe that such a voice once resounded on this earth.