Updated: February 7, 2022 2:15:54 am
Lata Mangeshkar, one of the country’s most towering cultural icons whose singing moved generations since Independence, was so impossibly prolific that she was able to do what artists rarely can.
From the hymn to the love song, an entire nation in prayer to an individual heart broken, she was the voice of their music that struck chords, both perfect and popular: an astounding blend unmatched in Hindi film music to this day.
“Kambakht galti se bhi besura nahi gaati (She doesn’t sing out of tune even by mistake),” Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan had famously said about her, in mock exasperation and genuine admiration. Lata Mangeshkar was a moniker for excellence, versatility and accessibility, one that will endure in the countless voices that are – and will continue to be — inspired by her.
Mangeshkar, besides her 25,000 songs – each a lesson in discipline, grit, and brilliance – also did many other things. She made India and Pakistan unanimously agree over one thing: the power of her music and melody. Be it the famed story of a letter that came to All India Radio from Lahore, which said that India could have Kashmir if they could give Lata Mangeshkar to Pakistan or stories of her legions of fans on the other side of the contested border, some of them senior classical musicians who spoke of her as Partition’s biggest loss for Pakistan, there was a special bond between the two countries when it came to agreeing on the magic of Mangeshkar’s voice.
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Noor Jehan, the iconic singer Mangeshkar admired and followed, once said of her: “People say that she admires me. Par Lata toh Lata hai. Meri nazar mein Lataji ki tarah koi aaj tak paida nahi hua.”
Mangeshkar was born in Indore in a Sikh neighbourhood and raised in Kolhapur in a musical family. Her father Master Dinanath Mangeshkar was a musician from the Gwalior gharana who ran a drama company. He was Lata’s first guru. She went to school only for a day. She was about five and took her sister, a young Asha (Bhosle) ,along with her. But the school wouldn’t allow such a young child to sit in the class with her. She decided to never go back.
At home, she would listen to her father teaching his students and imbibe the pieces. One day, her father spotted her correcting one of his students and was astounded at how deftly the child taught. He decided to teach her the ropes of classical music. But his untimely death led Lata, the eldest child of the family, to begin work at 13.
It was Master Vinayak, her family’s close friend and the owner of Navyug Chitrapat movie company, who took care of the family and helped Mangeshkar become an actor and singer.
Her first song was in Vasant Joglekar’s Marathi film Kiti Hasaal (1942), but it did not make the final cut. She sang a few more songs for Marathi cinema before moving to Mumbai in 1945. There, she began training under Ustad Aman Ali Khan of the Bhendibazaar gharana. Vinayak also introduced Mangeshkar to composer Vasant Desai. After his death in 1948, it was composer Ghulam Haider who took Mangeshkar under his wings and introduced her to filmmaker Sasadhar Mukherjee, who had just set up Filmistan studio.
But Mangeshkar was rejected by Mukherjee who thought her voice was too thin. Angry that his judgment had been doubted, Haider went on to proclaim, “Music composers will beg Lata to sing for them.”
Haider gave Mangeshkar her first significant break with the song Dil mera toda, mujhe kahin ka na chhoda (Majboor, 1948), a piece that echoes Noor Jehan’s slightly nasal style. In some years, Mangeshkar was singing differently, in that thin yet mature voice that was to fulfil Haider’s vision.
When she sang Aayega aanewala, the haunting Khemchand Prakash composition from Mahal (1949), it would take a newly born nation’s breath away and seal her supremacy in the Indian film industry for decades to come, with no rival in sight.
The song broke all records at Radio Ceylon and people flooded its office with letters to ask for the singer’s name (The gramophone company only carried the character’s name until then). Lata Mangeshkar had arrived.
From the timeless Mughal-e-Azam (1960) song Pyar kiya toh darna kya or the hymnal Sahir Ludhianvi piece Allah tero naam ishwar tero naam (Hum Dono, 1961) or the playful Piya tose naina laage (Guide, 1965), every time Mangeshkar sang, left her listeners enthralled. After Independence, against the backdrop of the India-China War of 1962, when she sang Kavi Pradeep’s Aye mere watan ke logon to C Ramachandra’s tune, she would move a nation, and its Prime Minister, to tears.
As Mangeshkar climbed the ladder of her art and success, one song at a time, stories about rivalries came to the fore, the most significant being with her sister and veteran singer Asha Bhosle. In a radio interview to Ameen Sayani in 1984, titled ‘Lata Se Darte Darte’, Mangeshkar had said: “Asha is my sister and we have very different styles. She gets her share of the songs and I get mine. There is no question of rivalry…”
Music composer OP Nayyar never asked Mangeshkar to sing for him. Another notable fallout was with Mohammad Rafi, with whom she had performed most of her legendary duets. This argument was over royalty issues. While Mangeshkar wanted royalty for her songs from the record company, Rafi believed that once the song had been sung and the singer paid for it, it wasn’t the singer’s property anymore. The two did not sing between 1963 and 1967.
Some of her most successful collaborations were with composers Naushad, Anil Biswas, S D Burman, Shankar Jaikishen, C Ramachandra, Salil Chowdhury, Hemant Kumar, Roshan, Madan Mohan, Khayyam, Jaidev and Ravi, among others. Mangeshkar sang for a gamut of actors – from Madhubala and Waheeda Rehman to Kajol and Madhuri Dixit. She sang through the ’90s and some part of the 21st century and songs such as Yaara seeli seeli (Lekin, 1990), Maaye ni maaye (Hum Aapke Hain Koun!, 1994), Jiya jale (Dil Se, 1998), and Mere khwabo mein jo aaye (Dilwale Dulahaniya Le Jayenge, 1994) were a testament to the power of her voice to transcend the age of the actor.
Her last popular outings included Veer Zaara (2004), where composer Madan Mohan’s old tunes were resurrected, and the poignant Lukka chhippi in Rang De Basanti (2006). She was awarded the Dada Sahab Phalke Award in 1989 and Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honour in 2001, besides a host of other accolades.
Lata Mangeshkar is survived by her three sisters, Meena Khadikar (90), Asha Bhosle (88), Usha Mangeshkar (86), and brother Hridaynath Mangeshkar (84). While all the siblings have had careers in film music, it was Bhosle, 88, who came closest to Lata Mangeshkar’s popularity. Hridaynath Mangeshkar is a noted composer in the Hindi and Marathi film industry. His daughter, Radha Mangeshkar, is also a playback singer.
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