Lata Mangeshkar, popularly known as the “Nightingale of India,” at times could move leaders to tears with her mellifluous and soulful singing.
Her seemingly ageless voice was behind generations of Bollywood divas – but she was more than a so-called “playback” singer, recognized from roadside vendors to soldiers on remote frontiers or elites at luxury hotels.
The multibillion-dollar Bollywood film industry has spawned an immensely popular music industry and Lata Mangeshkar was its indisputable queen.
She was a portly Marathi woman, camera-shy and a somewhat lonesome figure in the gregarious world of glamour. But she wielded enormous power in the industry by dint of her mesmerizing talent.
Mangeshkar was born in the central Indian city of Indore on September 28, 1929 to noted Marathi stage personality and classical singer Deenanath Mangeshkar and his wife Shevanti.
Growing up with four younger siblings – Meena, Asha, Usha and Hridaynath, all of whom would become famous singers, music composers and directors in their own right – Lata Mangeshkar received her initial music lessons from her father.
In 1942, she suffered a big blow at the age of 13 when her father passed away. Taking up a career in music to fend for the family, she juggled singing with acting in Marathi films.
Mangeshkar recorded her first song for Marathi film “Kiti Hasaal” that year, though it was dropped from the final version of the movie.
Mangeshkar soon moved to Mumbai, formerly Bombay, where besides establishing her career, she also trained in Hindustani classical music.
In 1949, Mangeshkar had her first major hit song, “Aayega Aanewala” (The one meant to return, will return) in the Hindi film “Mahal,” after which her voice and career would soar to the greatest of heights in the Indian cinema.
Music critics said her unusually high-pitched singing rendered the old trend of heavily nasal voices totally obsolete and changed the face of Bollywood playback singing forever.
Through the 1960s and 1970s, Mangeshkar stamped her dominance in the playback-singing industry even as she faced accusations of monopoly.
The Nightingale of India’s renditions of patriotic songs were particularly popular.
In the late 1940s, as the British rulers intensified censorship, she sang the song “Vande Mataram” (I Bow to You Motherland), raising the spirits of a colonized nation fighting for its freedom.
Years later, in 1963, in a memorable moment of her career, she sang “Aye Mere Watan Ke Logon” (Ye, the people of my land), commemorating Indian soldiers who died in the 1962 war with China, in the presence of then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru on India’s Republic Day in New Delhi.
A moved Nehru wept in public as Mangeshkar sang, according to reports from that time.
The song, an appeal to countrymen to overcome their grief and remember the sacrifice of the soldiers, touched a chord with an entire nation traumatized by the war.
Mangeshkar’s superlative success continued through the 1970s and the 1980s, when she also sang in several of India’s regional languages. She started doing concerts and performed around the world.
Mangeshkar began taking up fewer projects through the 1990s and early 2000s, even though she sang in some of Hindi cinema’s biggest hits during this time, including “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge” (1995), “Dil to Pagal Hai” (1997) and “Veer Zaara” (2004).
Through the 1990s, no new voice could challenge or unseat the doyenne from her position as the best female singer in Bollywood.
“When you are talking about Michael Angelo, Beethoven or Shakespeare, the name says it all. Lata Mangeshkar’s greatness is her name itself,” noted lyricist and screenwriter Javed Akhtar said in a 2021 interview with The Hindu newspaper.
Mangeshkar also composed music and produced a handful of films. As a singer, she enjoyed clout that top producers, directors and actors could not even dream of.
Over the decades, she received India’s top civilian awards, the Padma Vibhushan and Padma Bhushan, and in 2001, the country’s highest honour, Bharat Ratna, the Jewel of India.
She was bestowed India’s top award in cinema, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, and France’s highest civilian award, Officer of the Legion of Honour in 2007, besides numerous national and international awards.
Despite her fame and fortune, Mangeshkar led a quiet, simple life. She never married and was close to her family and siblings. She loved cooking, cricket, photography and reading.
In recent years, she stopped performing for films but recorded a few devotional and patriotic songs. In a 2018 interview, the veteran singer said she would never stop singing.
“I will continue to sing till my last breath. Music is the essence of my existence,” she said.