Lata Mangeshkar, the “Nightingale of India”, passed away yesterday at the age of ninety-two. Very few persons outside India and its 30+million-diaspora (the largest and most widely dispersed in the world) may appreciate her impact. Perhaps the fact that she was given a full state funeral draped in India’s flag, flags across the country flown half-mast, her native state Maharashtra declaring a public holiday, PM Modi personally appearing and offering floral tributes, no official celebration for the next two days and millions flooding Shivaji Park where the cremation was done, offer a hint.
Music is a central element in the Indian psyche: one of its most ancient text, the Sam Veda, is simply mantras from the foundational Rig Veda, set to music. Lata Mangeshkar was not just a “singer” for Indians and People of Indian origin: she symbolized India itself and its ethos. This may seem strange to non-Indians, especially in the West but while she holds the Guinness World Record for performing the most songs – over 30,000 – her life story in a sense recapitulates modern India’s.
Late’s father, Dinanath Mangeshkar, was a noted stage personality and trained her – the eldest of five siblings – from age five. He passed away just after Lata recorded her first song at age 13 and she then struggled to help support her family and establish herself as a playback singer in the Mumbai film industry. Her first major hit came with the song ‘Aayega aanewala’ from the movie Mahal in 1949. From that point on she voiced the musical parts for every major leading lady, representing every generation of Hindi cinema. Music directors composed tunes specifically to exploit the potential of her wide-ranging soprano. She was the first Indian to perform at the Royal Albert Hall in England in 1974 and filled Madison Square Garden and stadiums across the globe. She performed at our National Park in 1980.
After the Indo-China war of 1962, she sang the patriotic song written by the poet Pradeep, “Ae mere watan ke logo,” (Oh people of my country) in tribute to the fallen Indian soldiers. The words of the poem and the voice of Lata moved Indian Prime Minister Nehru to tears. Since that time the song took on a life of its own and never fails to move Indians to patriotic fervor. This year, at the conclusion of the Indian Republic Day ceremonies, the Indian Army replaced the colonial era”Abide with me” with the song in their Beating Retreat performance.
Lata was a cricket “fanatic” and played a key role in the rise of the young fellow Maharastran Sachin Tendulkar’s early career. In turn, Sachin doted on her and attended many of her concerts. She sang at his retirement and he acknowledged his debt to her. After India won the 1983 World Cup, she performed in a massive concert the proceeds of which went to the Indian team. She was also recognised in the political realm and served in the Indian Parliament Upper House (Rajya Sabha) between 1999-2006.
Beneath her simple, shy demeanor, she was tough-minded about her singing career. She refused to sing “raunchy” songs and when one of them (Bangla ka peeche”) was remixed and became a massive hit across the world including Guyana, she protested vehemently. She also successfully insisted that singers be given royalties for their songs but was opposed by her male counterpart Rafi who felt the initial payment was sufficient. Today all Indian playback singers are grateful to Lata.
As India’s PM Modi said, “The kind and caring Lata Didi has left us. She leaves a void in our nation that cannot be filled. The coming generations will remember her as a stalwart of Indian culture, whose melodious voice had an unparalleled ability to mesmerize people.” Pakistan PM Imran Khan noted, “With the death of Lata Mangeshkar the subcontinent has lost one of the truly great singers the world has known. Listening to her songs has given so much pleasure to so many people all over the world.”
Om Sadgati. (May her soul be liberated and merge with the Supreme soul