Lata Mangeshkar: “The Voice” of India and “The 8th Wonder of the World”

Lata Mangeshkar: “The Voice” of India and “The 8th Wonder of the World”

She was widely regarded as “The Voice” of India, and by some as the “Eighth Wonder of the World”.

For decades, Lata Mangeshkar, the “nightingale of Bollywood” was India’s most in-demand voice, with every top actress in the film world’s most-prolific capital wanting her to sing their songs. Her records sold in the tens of thousands, and she boasted a back catalog of some 30,000 songs spanning numerous genres and a total of 36 languages.

A classically-trained star, she rose to fame during India’s movie industry boom as a “playback singer”, providing the singing voice to Bollywood’s lip-synching movie stars over the course of a career which spanned more than half a century.

Lata Mangeshkar performing in Mumbai, India, in 1997 (Hemant Pithwa/The India Today Group, via Getty Images)

She was known for her range — she could sing in four octaves — and her gift for singing in character, tailoring her voice and emotions to the actress she was voicing onscreen. She would become the singing voice for generations of actresses in the Hindi-language films of Bollywood, from Madhubala and Meena Kumari in the 1950s and 1960s to Kajol and Preity Zinta in the 1990s and 2000s. While Hindi was her primary language, she also worked on many films in other Indian languages, including Marathi, Bengali, Tamil, Kannada and Gujarati.

“If we play her songs one by one, we could hear her for a month and never hear the same song again,” Kajol said on Twitter. “Prolific and profound.”

Her endurance and immense popularity within India made her a cultural icon and national treasure. To some, she was something bigger that went beyond India.

The late Pandit Jasraj, himself one of India’s greatest voices and a music guru internationally celebrated from Europe to Canada and the United States, called Lata “the Eighth Wonder of the World” when launching her music label — LM Music — in 2013. “There is no one today who has contributed so much to music,” the pandit added.

Thousands of such tributes poured in on the morning of February 6, 2021, when it was announced that Lata had breathed her last, at the age 92, after a brief struggle from Covid-related complications.

Rajendra Bhatt, a Malaysian showbiz promoter who has worked with various Indian artists, put Lata’s legacy on a pedestal even higher than Queen Elizabeth’s.

“A career that spanned eight decades (from its very first day) and made her the reigning Queen of Melody for seven and the half decades,” Bhatt wrote after learning of Lata’s passing.  “Since time immemorial, no other profession, art, personality or even monarch has, can or will ever match the timeline. Even Queen Elizabeth ll, who took over as the Queen of England after her father, King George Vl, died has only remained in that throne for 69 years to date. She will need to reign for another 12 years to beat Lata’s record.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Lata’s death left a “void in our nation that cannot be filled” and that he was “anguished beyond words.”

“The coming generations will remember her as a stalwart of Indian culture, whose melodious voice had an unparalleled ability to mesmerize people,” Modi tweeted about Lata, who was awarded the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest honor, in 2001. The government in New Delhi announced a state funeral and two days of mourning, during which the national flag would be flown at half-mast throughout the country.

Born as Hema Mangeshkar in the central Indian city of Indore on 28 September 1929 — her father, a singer himself and theater veteran, changed her name to Lata to match one of the characters in his play — she was the eldest of five children who would lead her siblings into becoming India’s own musical family like the Osmonds and Jacksons of America.

In an interview, Lata recalled that her family was steeped in classical music, and film music wasn’t “hugely appreciated” at home.

She was never formally educated. A maid taught her the Marathi alphabet, and a local priest taught her Sanskrit, while relatives and tutors taught her other subjects at home.

Times became difficult when her father lost his money and was forced to shut down his film and his theater company. The family moved to the western city of Poona (now Pune) after the family home in Sangli in Maharashtra state was auctioned. After the death of her father, the family moved to Bombay (later renamed Mumbai).

She made her singing debut in the 1943 Marathi film Gajabhau. It was just “a few lines, a few words”, which apparently gave little hint of what was to come.

Since there wasn’t enough singing in films in the early 1940s, young Lata turned to acting to earn a living.

By 1947, she was making her living acting in films, but she wasn’t happy.

“I never liked it – the make-up, the lights. People ordering you about, say this dialogue, say that dialogue, I felt so uncomfortable,” she said in an interview.

She was shocked when a director asked her to get her eyebrows trimmed because they were “too broad”, but she acceded.

Then her fortunes took a turn for the better. Lata sang her first full song in the film Mahal in 1949 and was immediately noticed.

“The day I started working as a playback singer, I prayed to God: ‘No more acting in films,’” she once said.

Still, she said she spent the next few years working long hours under difficult conditions, recording after the day’s shoot had finished. Playback singers would make their recordings first, with the actors later lip-syncing to them on camera. Eventually, singers like Lata worked in studios, but in the early years they recorded on the film sets, which were usually dusty and hot. Fans couldn’t be turned on because of the noise they made.

“I recorded two songs in the morning, two in the afternoon, two in the evening and two at night,” she said. “I left home in the morning and got back at 3 a.m. the next day and that’s when I ate. After a few hours of sleep, I would wake up at six, get dressed, catch the train and travel from one recording studio to another.”

Lata never married. For years, she supported her mother as well as her siblings, until they began their own careers. The other nightingale of the Mangeshkar family was Asha,  who was four years younger to Lata and later became known as Asha Bhosle. At one time, the two sisters ruled the airwaves of India with their voices which became the gold standard for any aspiring female singer to Bollywood. Lata became not just Didi (or big sister) to Asha and her siblings. She became Didi to all of India. Co-incidentally, one of her songs, “Didi Tera Devar Deewana” ( Sister, your brother-in-law is crazy) became a national sensation in 1994, associating the Didi tag with Lata more than ever.

Bollywood in the 1950s was just entering its golden age, and Lata was in the right place at the right time. Over the next four decades, she sang memorable and popular songs in such films as Pakeezah, Majboor, Awaara, Mughal e Zam, Shree 420, Aradhana and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, a rom-com which ran for a record-breaking 20 years.

She was the first Indian to perform at the Royal Albert Hall When she sang Ye Mere Watan ke Logon (Ye, the people of my land), a haunting and soulful tribute to slain Indian soldiers in the disastrous war with China in 1962, at a public meeting, India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru teared up.

When Sir Richard Attenborough made the Gandhi epic in 1982 on India’s freedom fighter, there was no surprise as to who was lead the soulful rendition at the end of the film. The Vaishnava Janato song was Gandhi’s favorite, with “Bappu” (or father), as he was known, penning his own version of it.  Lata’s rendition — along with the sitar of Ravi Shankar and orchestral melding of British composer George Fenton — became a timeless classic in memory of Bappu.

From the 1940s to the 1990s, Lata worked alongside top male playback singers in India, including Mohammad Rafi and Kishore Kumar. She also worked with every leading Bollywood director, from Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt to Mani Ratnam and Karan Johar.

She also performed with her sister Asha  on occasion, avoiding any hint of sibling rivalry despite their parallel careers.

“We’re very close – we have never competed with each other,” Asha told the BBC in 2015. “There’s a lot of love between us and I thoroughly enjoy singing with her.”

Lata was feisty enough to challenge Rafi, who claimed to have notched more singing credits in numbers, and was the first female singer who demanded better pay and royalties.

“I am a self-made person. I have learned how to fight. I have never been scared of anyone. I am quite fearless. But I never imagined I would get as much as I have,” she once said.

Javed Akhtar, a leading lyricist and screenwriter, described her melodic voice and soulful singing as “pure and clear as the finest pearl of crystal”.

Asked about which songs were most popular in Bollywood, Lata once said: “Love songs are the most popular. The heroine is running, and the hero is running after her.”

But beyond her world of playback singing, Lata’s musical tastes were eclectic.

She enjoyed listening to Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Nat King Cole, the Beatles, Barbra Streisand and Harry Belafonte. She went to see Marlene Dietrich singing on stage, and loved Ingrid Bergman’s theatre.

She also loved going to the movies – her favorite Hollywood film was The King and I, which she said she saw at least 15 times, and Singing in the Rain. The James Bond films – or at least the ones featuring Sean Connery or Roger Moore – were also a favorite. But Bond wasn’t the only British hero to catch her attention: she also owned every single one of the Sherlock Holmes detective novels.

Cars were another passion. At various points in her life she owned a grey Hillman and blue Chevrolet, Chrysler and a Mercedes. At home, she owned nine dogs.

Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar gave Lata Mangeshkar a signed shirt in 2014 (AFP)

Lata was an ardent cricket fan, often taking breaks from recordings to watch Test matches, and proudly boasted of owning a signed photograph of Don Bradman. Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar gave Lata a signed shirt in 2014

She counted cooking and taking photographs, initially with a Rolleiflex camera, as her hobbies. On holidays in the US, she loved playing the slot machines in Las Vegas through the night.

“This may sound strange but when I used to visit America on holiday, I loved spending time in Las Vegas,” she admitted during one interview.

“It’s an exciting city. I really enjoyed playing the slot machines. I never played roulette or cards – but I used to spend the whole night at a slot machine. I was very lucky and won many times.”

Lata could also be found studio hopping at the sitar maestro Ravi Shankar’s studio, where she bumped into his friend George Harrison. In 1979, she was the first Indian to perform with the Wren Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall.

“I always think: happiness is for sharing with the world, and sorrow is for keeping to yourself,” Lata once said.

Her everlasting music certainly brought happiness to millions of Indians and, as author Nasreen Munni Kabir says, “became the soundtrack” to their lives.

Lata, on her part, said the soundtrack became her “life”.

“Music is my life and God,” she said in Kabir’s book entitled Lata Mangeshkar … In Her Own Voice. “My prayer is music — it is like a father and mother to me.”


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