Lata Mangeshkar, Bollywood playback singer, 1929-2022

The soaring, silvery voice of a Bollywood playback singer was the soundtrack to millions of lives, a thread that bound generations across the 75 years following India’s independence in 1947.

Lata Mangeshkar, who has died aged 92, was bigger than The Beatles and Beyoncé in her home country. Often referred to by the respectful term “Lata-ji”, her fame eclipsed that of Michael Jackson or Madonna. She wore her trademark white saris at most of her performances, holding audiences in thrall everywhere from Las Vegas to the Sydney Opera House. Crowds of homesick Indians flocked to pay tribute as she walked barefoot on the stage of London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1974.

By the time of her death, she had recorded a legendary number of songs – somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 – in at least 14, or some said 20, of India’s 22 official languages ​​and in several others from English and Dutch to Swahili. The numbers are debated. But they matter less than the place she occupied in the hearts of Indians. For decades they listened to her on shellac gramophone records, then vinyl, cassette tapes, Walkmans, CDs, until a new generation summoned her on Alexa.

Lata was born Hema Mangeshkar in 1929 in the city of Indore. Music was in the air she breathed. She was the eldest daughter of Pandit Deenanath Mangeshkar, a Marathi and Konkani theater actor and classical musician, and his wife, Shevanti. At nine, she asked her father if she could sing Raga Khambavati during one of his concerts. She wore a white frock, she recalled later, opened the performance, then fell asleep on her father’s lap as he sang late into the night. He died when she was just 13, and she took small roles in theater and films to support her family. She recorded her first film song in Marathi for the movie Kiti Hasaal in 1942. Her voice was both girlish and assured – as it would remain thereafter.

Lata Mangeshkar performs in Mumbai in 1997. On summer evenings, people would sit outside their homes listening on radios as her voice floated above the city's 'chawls'

Lata Mangeshkar performs in Mumbai in 1997. On summer evenings, people would sit outside their homes listening on radios as her voice floated above the city’s ‘chawls’ © Hemant Pithwa / The India Today Group / Getty

The family moved to Mumbai in 1945, when the partition of the country into India and Pakistan also split the world of Hindi film singers. Noorjehan, one of the greatest singing stars of the time, moved back to Lahore and, in 1948 and 1949, Lata had her first big hits in the movies Majboor and Mahal. A torch had been passed on. Years later, when Lata was traveling in the northern state of Punjab, she and Noorjehan would meet – poetically, in the unclaimed territory between the borders.

Her four siblings, Meena Khadikar, Asha Bhosle, Usha Mangeshkar and Hridaynath Mangeshkar, are all musicians. Lata and Asha, also a cherished playback singer, often denied Bollywood gossip about their relationship: “How can we be rivals? I can never sing what she can, ”Lata said.

The sisters dominated the songs of Hindi cinema. As another singer, Alka Yagnik, recalled in an interview in 1990: “In the beginning, music directors would say. . . ‘give us the same magic as Lata-ji, give us the same magic as Ashaji’. I tried. . . but that magic is only in them. ”

Lata brought the rigor of riyaz, the steady practice of classical musicians, and a strict professionalism to her recording sessions. “I always find faults with my singing,” she said once. “If I don’t like what I’ve sung, I put my fingers in my ears and run away.” Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, another great classical musician, proclaimed: “Kambakht, kabhi besura gaati hi nahi!”- loosely,“ that woman never sings out of tune! ”

As her biographer Harish Bhimani noted, she was “all steel beneath her lovely, rustling silks and half-smile”, negotiating the often ruthless world of Bollywood with iron professionalism. She remained both deeply religious and independent throughout her life, never marrying. When a journalist had the temerity to castigate her for playing the slot machines in Las Vegas, she retorted that she was gambling with her own money, not his father’s cash. She wore gold anklets, thought to be the prerogative of royal families, enjoyed collecting cars and state of the art cameras.

Her most loyal listeners were at home. Delhi and Mumbai were much smaller cities in the 1970s and 1980s. On summer evenings, people would sit outside their homes listening on tinny transistor radios as her perfectly pitched voice floated above the open windows of Mumbai’s chawlsor rose from a score of Delhi’s bungalow rooftops.

India changed. Those cities became giant metropolises and democracy would veer away from the post-partition dream of pragmatic pluralism. But throughout, you could travel anywhere and hear Lata’s latest Hindi movie hit, or one of her devotional bhajans, or a lilting romantic duet in the toddy shops of Kerala or the bus stands in Bihar. Her songs belonged to every Indian, wherever they were.

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