Tribute: The queen of soul, Lata Mangeshkar leaves a legacy that is unforgettable

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Lata Mangeshkar was back on the ventilator on February 5 after her health deteriorated. She passed away on the morning of February 6. (File image)

It is impossible to write about Lata Mangeshkar with clinical objectivity if you love Indian music.

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Some of us who grew up before the 2000s have a Lata song for every occasion, every mood and every twist of fate. When you need a pick-me-up from the dull funk of pandemic oppression, search Aaj Phir Jeene ki Tamanna Hai (Guide, 1965) on your Spotify. Joy swells in-between its syllables.

When I think of my mother, I listen to Luka Chuppi (Rang De Basanti, 2006); the tears flow. Her voice had lost its limpidness by the 1990s, but with A.R. Rehman’s orchestration, it is a piercingly emotional song about mother-child longing.

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I remember my father by the Bengali song O Mor Moyna Go (1975, not from a film) because in his flat baritone he would sometimes sing it to cheer me up.

When my daughter was two or three, I introduced her to Eechak Dana Beechak Dana (Shree 420, 1955) and experienced ecstasy seeing her tiny body sway and wobble in joy.

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For my partner of 20 years, there’s Tere Mere Sapne Ab Ek Rang Hai (Guide, 1965), among several others.

It is impossible to encapsulate the oeuvre of this genius in a few hundred or thousand words. Numerous books have been written on her, numerous films have been made on her. Lata sang thousands of songs in several Indian languages including Hindi, Marathi Bengali, Assamese and Odiya.

When patriotism was an unsullied emotion far removed from political grandstanding, Lata’s rendition of Ae Mere Watan Ke Logo, an homage to soldiers who lost their lives in the Sino-Indian war of 1962 (written by Kavi Pradeep and composed by C Ramchandra), moved our first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru to tears.

Lata has been revered, vilified for her ambition, and resurrected several times over.  She has sung bhajans, drawn from our religious traditions as well as songs that celebrate our post-Independence secular zest in songs like Allah Tero Naam, Ishwar Tero Naam (Hum Dono, 1961).

Sometimes, cliches are more eloquent than original thoughts—Lata being eternally and casually called “The Voice of India” is one such example.

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(via Wikimedia Commons)

Lata Mangeshkar was born in 1929 in Indore, to Shevanti and Pandit Deenanath Mangeshkar, a Marathi-Konkani musician. The surname comes from their native town Mangeshi in Goa. She was the oldest of five siblings, Meena, Usha, Asha and Hridaynath, all accomplished singers and musicians.

When Lata was 13, her father died of a heart disease. She moved to Mumbai in 1945 with the help of Vinayak Damodar Karnataki, the owner of Navyug Chitrapat movie company and a close friend of the Mangeshkar family. He helped Lata get started in a career as a singer and actress.

In Mumbai, Lata started taking Hindustani classical music lessons from Ustad Aman Ali Khan of the Bhindibazaar Gharana. Music director Ghulam Haider mentored her into playback music and introduced her to producer Sashadhar Mukherjee who was working on the film Shaheed (1948), but Mukherjee had dismissed her voice as “too thin”. Haider gave her her first break for a song in the film Majboor (1948); Dil Mera Toda, Mujhe Kahin Ka Na Chhora.

Initially, Lata is said to have imitated the then playback virtuoso Noor Jehan, and later developed her own style. Her first breakthrough song, which is still one of the most adroit examples of the range of melodic weft that her voice was capable of, was Aayega Aanewala in Mahal (1949), composed by music director Khemchand Prakash and lip-synced on screen by Madhubala in the Bimal Roy film. In interviews, Lata has spoken about how this song was recorded: The microphone was kept in the middle of the room, and she had to start singing from one end of the room and come towards the mic.

By recording more than 30,000 songs in more than 2,000 films, Lata became the most prolific playback singer of the 20th century. By the 1960s, books written on her tell us, Lata wielded power in recording studios just by being herself—always bare feet while singing as a mark of devotion to her craft, always punctual, and always uncompromising in her desire to improve till she and her composers were equally happy.

She picked her battles for herself and on behalf of playback singers: When Rasik Balma (Chori Chori, 1956) won the Filmfare Award for best song, Lata declined singing it live to protest the fact that till then, there was no Female Playback Singer category in the awards. She stopped singing with Mohammed Rafi for several years in the mid-1960s over the issue of royalty payment to playback singers. All this made no appreciable difference to her career.

Every heroine in Hindi films, from Madhubala to Preity Zinta and Taboo has a Lata moment in their career. While accusations of her monopolizing the field grew over the decades, Lata worked less and less from the mid-1970s and concentrated on live shows abroad. Only a Raj Kapoor could convince her to sing for Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985) till she made two successful but uninspired comebacks in Yash Chopra’s Chandni and Sooraj Barjatiya’s Maine Pyar Kiya, both in 1989.

Little was known about Lata’s personal life except her spiritual leanings, her love of diamonds and white Kanjeevarams, enthusiasm for cricket and a much-speculated friendship with Raj Singh Dungarpur.

No other singer embodies the secular-spiritual-romantic connections that inform our country’s art forms. The queen of soul, she leaves a legacy that is unforgettable—she bridged barriers of language and community. In her singing, we become kindred, connected and alive.

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