‘The epitome of joy’: 10 of Lata Mangeshkar’s greatest songs

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‘The epitome of joy’: 10 of Lata Mangeshkar’s greatest songs
© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Sitting in the back of my parents’ Peugeot 504 as a child, we listened to songs by the likes of Mukesh, Mohammed Rafi and, of course, Lata Mangeshkar. We were too young to understand what they were about – love, loss, and romance – but we knew all the lyrics.

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Well, not quite all of them. During her 92 years, Mangeshkar recorded 50,000 songs in 18 languages, breaking records as the most recorded artist in human history. As a playback singer for Bollywood films, she was never seen on screen, but her voice, dubbed in place of the actors’, was unmistakable. She got her start in 1942, and for a woman to have a career this long and distinguished in India, Mangeshkar must have been steely beneath those silk saris – her voice, though, remained gentle, and she was known as “the nightingale”.

Choosing just 10 songs from Mangeshkar’s repertoire isn’t easy, and not just because there are so many of them. For me, her catalogue is intertwined with my personal memories.

Lag Jaa Gale

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Written by Madan Mohan in 1964 for the movie Woh Kaun Thi?, this song was picturised (portrayed on screen) by the actor Sadhana. She smoulders in a sleeveless sari and pearls as she sings to her lover; he’s in a tweed jacket, moving between branches of trees, as she tells him this may be the last time they embrace in this lifetime. The black-and-white images are full of longing looks and eyeliner that would make Cleopatra envious.

Throughout my life, I’ve heard it on vinyl, cassette, CD, and now I ask Alexa to stream it in my house. The best songs evolve as we do, and though the melody remains the same, the lyrics about embracing the one you love have taken on new meaning. It makes me think of my dad, my first love, my husband, and my sons. I play it to my children every night – so frequently that my eldest, who doesn’t understand Hindi or Urdu, looked up at me during a recent trip to buy parathas and said: “Mama, they’re playing our song!”

Chalo Dildar Chalo

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When I asked my Twitter followers to flood my timeline with Mangeshkar’s songs in the wake of her death, the film Pakeezah was mentioned many times. Made in 1972, it tells the story of star-crossed lovers, one a courtesan and the other a nawab (nobleman). He spots her bare feet as she sleeps on a train and he immediately falls in love. He leaves her a note and the story goes from there: through the twists and turns of fate they meet, separate, and meet again.

As playback singers Mangeshkar and Mohammed Rafi pass the lyrics back and forth, the twinkly Chalo Dildar Chalo is picturised by Meena Kumari and Raj Kumar, who gaze into each other’s eyes on a rowing boat. The idea of sailing past the moon with one’s lover takes me back to a time when I was less jaded from folding laundry, and the melody, set against Urdu poetry, captures that period of 70s Hindi cinema.

Tujhe Dekha To Yeh Jaana Sanam

You can’t talk about Mangeshkar without mentioning the film Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. Released in 1995, it became known by the acronym DDLJ and changed the face of Hindi cinema.

It starred Shah Rukh Khan, who would go on to be the king of Bollywood, and the queen of comedic timing, Kajol. The story followed their serendipitous meetings as they interrailed across Europe, fell in love and fought age-old patriarchal ways. Mangeshkar had been singing for more than 50 years by the time of DDLJ, but we still believed her as the innocent voice of twentysomething Simran whom Raj romanced in a field full of yellow mustard flowers, her hair billowing freely.

Ek Pyar Ka Nagma Hai

This takes me back to being 13 years old and visiting family in Karachi. The song was more than a decade old by then, but this was one of the songs on my aunt’s well-worn cassette as we drove along the beach in Clifton. It was recorded for the film Shor in 1972, and incidentally was picturised on a beach.

Tensions between Pakistan and India are well known, but with her proficiency in Urdu and Hindi, Mangeshkar was equally loved on both sides on the border. The love of her voice and songs was one of the things that united those of us who grew up in the diaspora together. And hearing her cite Pakistan’s Noor Jehan – who was known as “the queen of melody” – as one of her influences, and responsible for influencing her correct pronunciation of Urdu, cemented the connection.

Dil Mein Ab Dard Mohabbat Ke Siva Kuch Bhi Nahin

Though a devout Hindu, Mangeshkar’s music scope also spanned the Hindu-Muslim divide. While not devotional, this ghazal – a rhyming-couplet poem – is a conversation with God. I remember listening to this track endlessly in my late-20s as I nursed a broken heart.

Like many people of Pakistani heritage, I was raised with a love of poetry. But growing up in England meant that I couldn’t read Urdu. The catalogue of ghazals, recorded by Mangeshakar, and Jagjit Singh with whom she recorded the iconic album, Sajda, allowed me to access a huge part of my cultural heritage. I can recite hundreds of couplets from poets ranging from Ghalib, to Waris Shah, and Mir Taqi Mir, thanks in part to artists such as Mangeshkar. The songs made me feel less alone, that someone else had felt the way I did in that moment, and hearing the language of my parents was soothing.

O Paalanhaare

This is from the acclaimed film Lagaan (2001), starring Aamir Khan, with Mangeshkar singing for Gracy Singh. The film is set in 1893, and the story revolves around a small village in central India, whose inhabitants, burdened by high taxes and several years of drought, find themselves in an extraordinary situation as an arrogant British army officer challenges them to a game of cricket as a wager to avoid paying the taxes they owe.

Mangeshkar’s musical scope was as broad as the length of her career, and one must mention the bhajans she sang, like this one: a style of devotional, reverent Hindu song. Although I am Muslim, there is something about the tranquility of this track, alongside Mangeshkar’s and AR Rahman’s voices, that makes it spiritual to me.

Kuch Na Kaho

In 1994, a film called 1942: A Love Story, brought us the classic soundtrack that featured Kuch Na Kaho. Like all of the Bollywood films I adored as a teenager, it was all longing and smouldering eyes, but with a dash of patriotism. It starred the heart-throb Anil Kapoor, and Manisha Koirala in various chiffon outfits. I couldn’t tell you what the film was about, but I can sing every lyric to the songs from it.

There were “happy” and “sad” versions of Kuch Na Kaho – I loved the first, the idea of falling in love, but the sad version made a home in my heart. Lyrics by Javed Akhtar mean it holds the gravitas of a ghazal, but RD Burman’s musical arrangement means it never feels heavy. As Mangeshkar sings about loss, the passing of time, and losing of dreams, she pauses in all the right places, and gives the song a feeling of resignation.

Dikhai Diye Yun Ke Bekhud Kiya

The first time I heard this song I was so overcome I had to stop the car. The lyrics are taken from the work of 18th-century poet Mir Taqi Mir, who is remembered as Khuda-e-Sukhan or the God of Poetry, and the resulting song is in the film Bazaar, starring the talented Naseeruddin Shah, Farooq Shaikh, and Smita Patil: the kind of film that made Indian cinema great because it cleverly handled the untold stories of what was going on in the underbelly of society.

Aaj Phir Jeene Ki Tamana Hai

This appears in Guide, produced in 1965 by Dev Anand who also starred alongside Waheeda Rehman. She plays Rosie, the daughter of a courtesan who leaves a bad marriage with the help of Raju, and becomes a successful dancer. The two fall in love along the way.

This song was on the soundtrack to my late 20s after I too left a bad marriage, and found myself again. Rehman’s turquoise sari coupled with Mangeshkar’s voice are the epitome of joy to me; she sings about making the decision to live again, and on her terms, of all the things she’s overcome, and how that feels. The sound of the dholak makes me want to dance around the kitchen every single time. Plus the ghungroo in the background, the violins … it’s all so multilayered. Bring me my turquoise sari as I head to collect my kids from school!

Aye Dil e Nadan

If you listen to my heart, it’s as if it beats to this song from the film Razia Sultan. Made in 1983 and starring Hema Malini and Dharmendra, it tells the story of Razia Sultana, the first female Muslim ruler of the subcontinent, and the only female Muslim ruler of Delhi.

The song is full intellectual questions about life and longing. It talks of the desert of life, the endless thirst of life: big questions that people may not expect from a song that has remained popular for decades, but Mangeshkar breathes life into something that could have been too heavy for popular culture. At a time when south Asian women were searching for role models, she allowed us to access past inspirations through music, poetry, and the sound of her flawless voice. She, too, is now part of that history.

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