When asked about his inspiration for making music, famed composer S.D. Burman is said to have said, “Give me a harmonium, give me Lata (Mangeshkar), and I will make music.”” Lata Mangeshkar, muse to some of India’s best composers, recipient of the country’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, and the epitome of Indian femininity on the silver screen for over 50 years, died on Sunday after a long illness that included covid problems.
Mangeshkar was born in Indore in 1929 to Pandit Deenanath Mangeshkar, a Marathi classical singer and theatre actor, and his Gujarati wife Shevanti. Her voice has been described as ‘virginally pure,’ and her playback for an actress symbolic of the latter having made it in Bollywood, particularly during the 1960s and 1970s when the singer was at her peak. Mangeshkar began her career at the age of 13 after her father died, singing for a Marathi film called Kiti Hasal.
She has three sisters, Meena, Asha, and Usha, and a brother, Hridaynath, who are all outstanding singers and musicians (1942). Her migration to Mumbai in 1945 was followed by modest roles in a few films till Aayega Aanewala, based on Madhubala in Mahal, gave her the major break (1949).
Mangeshkar has the unique distinction of singing for around seven generations of female actors, having worked with composers as diverse as Anil Biswas, Shankar Jaikishan, Naushad Ali, S.D. Burman, C. Ramchandra, Hemant Kumar, Salil Chowdhury, Khayyam, Ravi, Sajjad Hussain, Roshan, Kalyanji-Anandji, Madan Mohan, and Usha Khanna over the (Madhubala and Nimmi in the 1940s, Meena Kumari , Nargis and Nutan in the 50s, Waheeda Rehman, Asha Parekh and Sharmila Tagore in the 60s, Mumtaz, Hema Malini , Jaya Bhaduri and Zeenat Aman in the 70s, Sridevi and Rekha in the 80s, Juhi Chawla, Karisma Kapoor and Manisha Koirala in the 90s and Preity Zinta and Kareena Kapoor in the 2000s).
Mangeshkar was well-known for her stranglehold over the film music industry during those years, along with sister Asha, who was recognised for more sensual songs than the older sister’s plain chastity. Despite doctors’ warnings that she would not be able to sing again, composers such as Hemant Kumar and Madan Mohan waited for the vocalist to recuperate from her sickness and sing for their films Bees Saal Baad (1962) and WohKaun Thi (1964). Mangeshkerian milestones include Kahin Deep Jale Kahin Dil in Bees Saal Baad and Naina Barse in WohKaun Thi, which follow the ‘never-again’ prophecy. Indeed, during those years, Mangeshkar provided a unique stature and notoriety to singers and musicians who had not before been acknowledged as stars in India, boosted by the rise and popularity of radio.
Mangeshkar, who has recorded songs in over a thousand Hindi films across thirty-six regional Indian languages and foreign languages, primarily in Marathi, Hindi, and Bengali, is widely respected in the Indian film industry and affectionately called ‘Didi’ (elder sister) by all. Her signature white sari-clad figure and her songs notching up views and streams endlessly across streaming platforms for newer generations to discover her remain an enduring memory thanks to her signature white sari She’s also produced four films, including Gulzar’s Lekin, and provided music for a few of Marathi films (1991).
Her extensive charity effort includes the establishment of a hospital in Pune named after her father, Deenanath Mangeshkar Hospital and Research Centre.
Mangeshkar, who remained unmarried, is survived by a huge family, including her brothers and their children, as well as a legion of followers around the world who would today swear by the words written for her by poet and music director Naushad, “The very heart of India throbs in your voice.”