Lata Mangeshkar: A voice that reshaped India’s popular culture

Updated on Feb 07, 2022 08:53 AM IST
  • Mangeshkar – already a movie playback singing sensation in many Indian languages – had composed music for three Marathi films. It was Pendharkar’s film Saadhi Maansa (Simple Folk) – her fourth – that would become a landmark.
Lata Mangeshkar at the launch of the Gautam Rajadhyaksha 's Book Chehre at JW Marriott at Juhu(Photo by Amlan Dutta/Hindustan Times)
Lata Mangeshkar at the launch of the Gautam Rajadhyaksha 's Book Chehre at JW Marriott at Juhu(Photo by Amlan Dutta/Hindustan Times)
By, Hindustan Times, New Delhi

In 1965, when Marathi film legend and later Dadasaheb Phalke award recipient Bhalji Pendharkar wanted to make a movie on the urban-rural conflict amid the rapid transformation of a tumultuous decade, he turned to Lata Mangeshkar to compose the background score. The job not only required musical genius but also a keen understanding of the scores of Marathi dialects spoken across Maharashtra.

By then, Mangeshkar – already a movie playback singing sensation in many Indian languages – had composed music for three Marathi films. It was Pendharkar’s film Saadhi Maansa (Simple Folk) – her fourth – that would become a landmark. Two of its songs – Airanichya deva tula and Malachya malyamandhi – became all-time classics in Maharashtrian households and won innumerable awards.

If you saw the movie, though, you will be forgiven for not knowing that Mangeshkar composed its music. After Ram Ram Pavhna, her first film as composer in 1960, Mangeshkar preferred the relative anonymity of a male pseudonym. So, it was Anand Ghan (literally, a cloud of joy) that gave music to Saadhi Maansa and won the state’s best music and best song awards for that year, not Lata Mangeshkar. Anand Ghan’s identity later became a popular question in school quizzes.

The Maharashtra state film awards for Saadhi Maansa are just two of the hundreds Mangeshkar won over a career spanning seven decades and more, in which she recorded close to 30,000 songs (a number that was disputed – most famously by her male contemporary singer Mohammed Rafi – but often accepted in the absence of accurate, credible data).

On the morning of February 6, 2022, when Mangeshkar died at Mumbai’s Breach Candy Hospital, India not only lost one of its most prolific singers, but also a musician who transformed the craft of film singing and became a benchmark for successive generations to emulate. She was admitted on January 8 due to pneumonia induced by a Covid-19 infection. She initially responded to treatment, doctors said, but her condition deteriorated in the first week of February, and she was put on ventilator support again.

“I am anguished beyond words,” Prime Minister Narendra 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 mesmerise people… I consider it my honour that I have always received immense affection from Lata Didi. My interactions with her will remain unforgettable. I grieve with my fellow Indians on the passing away of Lata Didi. Spoke to her family and expressed condolences. Om Shanti.”

The Prime Minister announced a two-day national mourning for the singing legend. Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray announced a state funeral.

Mangeshkar, or Lata Didi, as she was fondly called, came from a household that worshipped music. Her father Dinanath Mangeshkar was a towering personality in Marathi theatre. He acted, produced and sang songs in plays that would change the face of Marathi theatre. He was one of the foremost exponents of Natya Sangeet and an accomplished Hindustani classical singer. His mother Yesubai, an accomplished singer from the devadasi community, was one of Portuguese India’s (now Goa) most famous temple singers and dancers.

Born in September 1929, Lata was the first among her siblings – sisters Meena, Asha (Bhosle), and Usha, and brother Hridaynath – that ruled over Marathi and Hindi film music for decades. She was initially named Hema, but her father changed it to Lata after a character in one of his plays.

Their ancestral family name was Hardikar, but their paternal grandfather Ganesh Bhatt Hardikar was given the honour of performing the abhishek (ritual bathing of the deity) at Mangeshi temple in Goa, and they took on the family name Abhisheki. The late Hindustani classical maestro and scholar Jitendra Abhisheki is from the same family and a cousin of the Mangeshkar siblings.

Later, Dinanath would adopt his last name from the temple, and call himself Mangeshkar. The name stuck.

Though Lata had started singing in movies by the age of 13 in 1942, it was her breakthrough performance in Majboor in 1948 that catapulted her into mainstream Hindi films. Her mentor was music director Ghulam Haider, who, the story goes, was so angry when producer Sashadhar Mukherjee rejected Mangeshkar’s voice for being “too thin” thundered to him that he would one day fall at Lata’s feet and beg her to sing in his movies.

Mangeshkar confirmed this incident in film historian Raju Bhartan’s biography on her.

On several occasions, she credited Haider as her mentor. “He was the first music director who showed complete faith in my talent,” she said in 2013.

After Majboor’s success in 1948, she would achieve greater fame the next year when she sang the haunting “Aayega aanewala” in the runaway hit Mahal, whose music director Khemchand Prakash was later credited with mainstreaming another talent – Kishore Kumar. With Aayega aanewala, Mangeshkar had truly arrived, and was seen to have stepped out of the shadow of another film singing legend, Noor Jehan.

Noted music journalist Narendra Kusnur says it was her quest for perfection that set her apart from the rest of the contemporary greats. “Her passion and discipline were accompanied by a god-gifted voice, which not only sounded great on its own, but also suited the heroines she sang for, as she would tweak her voice and yet sound like herself. For these reasons she was an inspiration to future generations,” Kusnur said.

To be sure, between 1948 and well into the 2000s, Lata Mangeshkar lent her voice to scores of actors in not only Hindi and Marathi movies, but in languages as diverse as Bangla (in which she sang nearly 200 songs), Assamese, Gujarati, Tamil, Kannada, Maithili, Konkani, Telugu and Bhojpuri, among at least 25 others. Her career spanned from being Madhubala’s voice in the late 1940s to singing a devotional song picturised on Mugdha Godse in 2009, when Mangeshkar turned 80.

It is this legacy, Kusnur says, that makes her an all-time great. “The catalogue and variety she left behind, both in number and language... the name nightingale of India wouldn’t apply to any other. The fact that almost every single singer has studied her style to some degree is her legacy.”

In between, Mangeshkar won the Bharat Ratna, the Dadasaheb Phalke award, the French Legion of Honour, five Maharashtra state film awards, three national film awards, and countless other honours and citations, making her the most influential Indian film singer of all time, regardless of gender.

It is this influence that also got her into controversies, the most recent and the longest, lasting nearly two decades, being her opposition to a flyover the state government wanted to build over the arterial Peddar Road to ease traffic towards south Mumbai. The flyover would have passed right outside her apartment, and Mangeshkar and her sister Asha Bhosle threatened to leave the city in 2001 if the 4.1km bridge was constructed.

Successive chief ministers tried to convince her to agree to the flyover; none succeeded. In June 2016, an exasperated establishment cancelled the 380 crore project, and the 12,000 crore Mumbai coastal road plan took shape instead.

The other debate she got embroiled in was her support in 2013 for then Gujarat chief minister and current Prime Minister Narendra Modi. At the inauguration of the Deenanath Mangeshkar hospital in Pune that November, where Modi was present, Mangeshkar publicly announced, “I pray to god that we see Narendra bhai as Prime Minister.”

This prompted the regional office of the Congress party to demand that her Bharat Ratna be taken back. “Her Bharat Ratna should be taken away as she has endorsed Narendra Modi,” the then Mumbai Congress chief Janardan Chandurkar had said.

The BJP’s then state chief and future chief minister Devendra Fadnavis retorted, “If Chandurkar’s demand is genuine, then why is the Congress asking Sachin Tendulkar to campaign for their party. This shows the Congress’s double standards.”

Congress was equally miffed with her support for Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, also known as Veer Savarkar, a Hindutva ideologue and freedom fighter.

On May 28, 2019, Savarkar’s 136th birth anniversary, Mangeshkar tweeted something about Savarkar that sparked another Congress-BJP war of words. “Namaskar,” Mangeshkar wrote. “Today is the birth anniversary of Veer Savarkar ji. I bow to him and his patriotism. Nowadays, a few people have been criticising Savarkar ji. However, these people do not know the value of Savarkar’s patriotism and self-respect.”

To this, Congress leader and current Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel responded, “Savarkar had put forward the proposal of dividing the country into two parts on religious grounds and Jinnah had implemented it. This is a historical fact and no one can deny it.”

Former Chhattisgarh CM and BJP leader Raman Singh hit back, “Bhupesh Baghel is misleading people. He has little knowledge of Veer Savarkar. He is trying to distort historical facts. Veer Savarkar devoted his entire life in the freedom struggle and fought for the independence of our country.”

Mangeshkar’s influence, evidently, extended well beyond the film industry, but even there, opinions were divided about her rivalry with her contemporaries such as Geeta Dutt, Suman Kalyanpur and her sister Asha Bhosle.

Kusnur, who has written extensively about that period, said: “While a lot of rivalry was media-created, the fact was that many music directors (barring OP Nayyar) always gave first preference to Lata. Geeta was a strong competitor, but sadly had personal problems. Asha decided to slowly follow her own style, specialising in songs Lata did less of. RD Burman used both voices brilliantly, and both had huge hits with him.”

The one controversy that defined her in the 1960s, though, was her fight for royalty on behalf of singers. The norm then was that while composers got royalty, singers did not. Female singers were treated even worse. Her demand for royalty for singers brought her into direct conflict with Mohammed Rafi and her sister Asha Bhosle. The only singer who supported her was another superstar, Kishore Kumar.

Mangeshkar’s shadow on the film industry – especially Hindi and Marathi – was long, and just as she had millions (or even billions) of fans, she had detractors as well. Eventually, though, she rose above the controversies. The Peddar Road flyover is no longer a talking point in Mumbai, and the debate about Hindutva has gone beyond the headline fodder her quotes provided.

But even the detractors could not find fault with her notes. The late Hindustani classical legend Bade Ghulam Ali Khan was quoted in the Business Standard as once having said about her: "Kambakht kabhi besuri hoti hi nahin (Damn, she is never once off key)."

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