The soaring, silvery voice of a Bollywood playback singer has been the soundtrack to millions of lives, the thread that has held together generations for the 75 years since India’s independence in 1947.
Lata Mangeshkar, who passed away at the age of 92, is older than The Beatles and Beyoncé back home. Often referred to by the respectful term “Lata-ji”, her fame has surpassed that of Michael Jackson or Madonna. She wears her signature white saris at most of her performances, catching audiences everywhere from Las Vegas to the Sydney Opera House. Crowds of homesick Indians flocked to pay their respects when she walked barefoot onto the stage of the Royal Albert Hall in London in 1974.
Until her death, she wrote some legendary songs – between 25,000 and 30,000 – in at least 14, or some say 20, of India’s 22 official languages and several others from English, Dutch to Swahili. The numbers are up for debate. But they mattered less than the place she held in the hearts of the Indians. For decades, they heard her on shellac records, then vinyl, cassettes, Walkmans, CDs, until a new generation summoned her on Alexa.
Lata was born as Hema Mangeshkar in 1929 in the city of Indore. She breathes in the air with the music. She is the oldest daughter of Pandit Deenanath Mangeshkar, a Marathi and Konkani theater actor and classical musician, and his wife, Shevanti. At the age of nine, she asked her father if she could sing Raga Khambavati in one of his concerts. She wears a white dress, she recalled later, opening the show, then fell asleep in her father’s lap as he sang late into the night. He died when she was 13 years old, she took part in small roles in theater and movies to support the family. She recorded her first movie song in Marathi for the movie Kiti Hasaal in 1942. Her voice is both feminine and reassuring – as it will remain after that.
The family moved to Mumbai in 1945, when the division of the country into India and Pakistan also divided the world of Hindi film singers. Noorjehan, one of the greatest singing stars of the time, moved back to Lahore and in 1948 and 1949, Lata had his first big hits in movies. Majboor and Mahal. A torch was transmitted. Years later, when Lata is traveling in northern Punjab, she and Noorjehan will meet – poetically, in unclaimed territory between the borders.
Her four siblings, Meena Khadikar, Asha Bhosle, Usha Mangeshkar and Hridaynath Mangeshkar, are all musicians. Lata and Asha, also a beloved playback singer, often deny Bollywood rumors about their relationship: “How can we be rivals? I could never sing what she could,” Lata said.
Two sisters dominate the songs of Hindi cinema. As another singer, Alka Yagnik, recalled in an interview in 1990: “Initially, the music directors would speak. . . ‘give us magic like Lata-ji, give us magic like Asha-ji’. I tried. . . But that miracle is only in them”.
Lata brings the rigor of riyaz, the regular practice of classical musicians, and the rigorous professionalism of her recording sessions. She once said, “I always find fault in my singing. “If I don’t like what I sing, I put my finger in my ear and run away.” Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, another great classical musician, declare:”Kambakht, kabhi besura gaati hello nahi!”- loosely,“ that woman never sings out of tune! ”
As her biographer Harish Bhimani has noted, she is “all steel beneath rustling silk and a lovely half-smile”, negotiating the often ruthless world of Bollywood with stony professionalism. She remained deeply religious and independent throughout her life, never marrying. When a journalist stubbornly accused her of playing slot machines in Las Vegas, she responded that she was gambling with her own money, not his father’s. She wears a gold anklet, said to be the prerogative of royal families, and enjoys collecting cars and state-of-the-art cameras.
Her most loyal listeners are all at home. Delhi and Mumbai were much smaller cities in the 1970s and 1980s. On summer evenings, people would sit outside their homes listening on tiny transistor radios as the perfect high pitched voice of she hovers over the open window of Mumbai chalkor rise from the wooden rooftops of Delhi.
India has changed. Those cities have become megacities, and democracy will break free from the post-partition dream of pragmatic pluralism. But throughout, you can go anywhere and listen to Lata’s latest Hindi movie, or one of her heartwarming words. bhajans, or a passionate romantic duet in the small shops of Kerala or the bus station in Bihar. Her songs have belonged to every Indian, wherever they are.