A golden era in music ends with the passing of the legendary Indian singer, Lata Mangeshkar. Her songs dominated and shaped the psyche and musical imagination of a billion Indians, as well as people across the world. However, after a long and very fruitful life, the ‘Swara Kokila’ bid us adieu on 6th February, 2022.
The length and breadth of her career is astonishingly vast in terms of time and experience. Lataji sang for seven decades, in more than thirty-six languages and received many awards and accolades, including from foreign countries. The French conferred on her their highest civilian honour, ‘Officer of the National Order of the Legion of Honour’ and India, of course, awarded her with its highest civilian honour, the ‘Bharat Ratna.’ Indeed, she was a rare gem who dominated the Indian music landscape with her talent and hard work.
Lata Mangeshkar was born Hema Mangeshkar on 28th September, 1929, in Maharashtra, to a family which was involved in music. Her father, Deenanath Mangeshkar, was a classical singer and a theatre artist. He was also her first guru and at the age of five, she started her singing training under him. Deenanath Mangeshkar would include Lata as an actor in his musical plays. In fact, her name was changed from ‘Hema’ to ‘Lata’ after a character named ‘Latika’ in one of those plays. Unfortunately, her father passed away when she was just thirteen and little Lata’s singing and acting career began in earnest as an economic necessity.
Lata Mangeshkar had some important mentors along the way. She was given a foothold in the industry as a singer and actor by Master Vinayak, the owner of Navyug Chitrapat Company. She was later guided by Ghulam Haider who truly recognized her gift and ability as a singer. If one listens to contemporary female singers of the 1930s and 1940s, like Zohrabai Ambalewali or Amirbai Karnataki, they were much sought after for their lovely deep, dark, low voices. Initially, Lata’s voice was considered too thin and high-pitched. But Ghulam Haider persisted with his belief in her and gave her that first big break she was looking for in the form of the song ‘Dil Mera Toda’ from the movie Majboor (1948). Her first major hit was the evergreen melody ‘Aayega Aanewala’, in the movie Mahal (1949). The song resonated in the hearts of billions of people and the rest, as they say, is history.
Along the way, Lata Mangeshkar worked with many talented and famous personalities of the Indian film industry. She sang for S. D Burman, and also for his son R.D.Burman, and much later, for A.R.Rehman. She sang with Md. Rafi and Udit Narayan. She sang for Madhubala as well as Madhuri Dixit. Her life, in so many ways, holds a mirror to the history of films in India. Her songs are a part of the history and imagination of post-independence India. Her voice has conveyed a variety of emotions: joy, sorrow, anger, pain, patriotism, and so on, voicing the fears and desires of generations of Indians.
Who can fail to be moved to tears by her 1963 rendition of “Aye Mere Watan Ke Logon” sung during the Sino-Indian war? It is said that even Jawaharlal Nehru grew emotional upon hearing Lata’s invocation of gratitude to the brave martyrs.
With such a mountain of work to stand upon, one can only marvel at Lataji’s energy, passion and dedication. For instance, director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehta spoke at a press conference about how, for his movie Rang De Basanti (2006)’s song ‘Luka Chuppi’, she came regularly for four days to rehearse the song with just a chair and a bottle of water beside her. Despite her seniority and age, she exhibited her devotion and willingness to work hard to perfect her art.
Even in her younger days, Lataji was a keen learner, always looking to improve herself, to give the best to the art. In Dilip Kumar’s autobiography The Substance and the Shadow (2014), Lata Mangeshkar recalled how the legendary actor critiqued her Urdu diction. She said that Dilip Kumar told her that incorrect pronunciation can spoil the listening pleasure for those who enjoy the lyrics along with the melody. She consulted a learned maulana who gave her Urdu lessons so that she could sing in perfect Urdu. This ability to humbly accept critique and constantly hone one’s craft so as to improve oneself is an admirable quality that Lata Mangeshkar possessed.
However, there is a feeling shared by many, that such was Lata Mangeshkar’s monopoly over the hearts of her listeners that other singers did not or could not get the chance they deserved. This meant that the diversity of female voices was severely limited in Indian film music. Music directors and film producers wanted voices that mimicked Lataji’s. There was little room for unique and original voices to grow. Lataji was like a banyan tree whose roots spread so vast and whose shade grew so large and thick that the other little saplings around never got their moment in the sun. Nevertheless, although the flame that burned so bright once has been extinguished, it has lit the way for others. We are left with a treasure trove of magnificent songs to stir us for a long time to come. We express our gratitude that the Nightingale of India sang for as long as she did, and as much as she did.