Naam gum jajyega, chehra yeh badal jayega. Meri aawaaz hi pehchaan hai, gar yaad rahe.
The song from the movie Kinara, penned by none other than Gulzar, has become eponymous with Lata Mangeshkar. Today, all of us are listening to the thousands of songs she recorded in multiple languages and trying to find her essence through her melodious notes. Lata Mangeshkar (born September 28, 1929), the nightingale of India merged with Devi Saraswati on February 6, 2022 — a day after the country celebrated Saraswati Puja.
She was 92 years, with a singing career that spanned almost eight decades. Lata didi (as she was fondly known) defined Indian playback singing, pursued music as an avid student, and ultimately mingled with the spirit of Indian consciousness. The unmatched quality and range of her voice and her command over notes meant she was often referred to as the manifestation of Saraswati, the Goddess of learning and music herself.
Lata’s paternal grandfather was the abhishekam priest at the Mangueshi Shiva temple in Goa. Her father Deenanath Mangeshkar had a company that performed Sangeet Natak (Musical Plays). Lata was the oldest of five siblings, brought up in a conservative Maharashtrian household. She absorbed music probably while she was still in the womb of her mother Shevanti Mangeshkar, and she sang, unknown to her father, perched on a utensil stand in the kitchen. She was only five when she corrected her father’s student, practicing an evening raga. Her father heard her and initiated her singing lessons the next morning itself.
Lata had a very clear, high-pitched soprano voice. At a young age, she was inspired by reigning stars of the time like Noor Jehan and Kundan Lal Saigal. Lata first sang on stage when she was only nine years old, and during the performance, while her father sang, fell asleep with her head in his lap. For her, the music soon became akin to breathing. Her first song was recorded when she was 13, for a Marathi movie called Kiti Hasaal, but the song was canned from the film’s final cut. With her father succumbing to heart disease, Lata became the sole breadwinner of her family. She took small acting roles in Master Vinayak’s films to earn money. She could no longer afford the luxury of pursuing classical music so playback singing was her medium of choice. One of her mentors, Ghulam Haider, introduced Lata to Mukherjee, the owner of Filmistan studio for a playback song, but Mukherjee dismissed Lata’s voice as “too thin”. Haider took this to heart and launched her career, giving Lata her first big breakthrough hit with the song Dil Mera Toda, Mujhe Kahin Ka Na Chhora. He is known to have predicted that directors would one day “fall at Lata’s feet” and “beg her” to sing. The words proved prophetic and Lata recorded more than 24,000 songs. Accolades followed — she was showered with the Dadasaheb Phalke award, Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award, Padma Vibhushan, Padma Bhushan, and finally the Bharat Ratna in 2001.
Lata’s voice may have been a “divine gift” but she honed her talent with hours of riyaz (practice), learning Urdu to master the pronunciation of poetic lyrics written by noted poets and set to music by composers ranging from Madan Mohan, SD Burman and Naushad to RD Burman and AR Rahman. As she sang, her pitch, range, and versatility waxed prolific. She sold tens of millions of records. But even as Lata enthralled her listeners, she made time to pray every time she entered the recording studio with her bare feet. She knew that it was important to abstain from eating pickles and spicy food to protect her mellifluous voice, but she could not resist. She compensated by singing for more hours to keep her larynx tuned. Lata did not listen to her own songs because she was such a perfectionist. She felt it was important for her to understand, feel and live her songs — no wonder, they are soul-stirring.
In the early years of struggle, Lata sat in the studio from morning to evening alone, not going to the canteen for even a cup of tea or a snack. After recording, she saved money to buy fresh vegetables for her family. She took fame in her stride, setting an example for her siblings who followed in her footsteps. Asha Bhosle and Usha Mangeshkar her sisters are amazing playback singers in their own right and her brother Hridayanath Mangeshkar is a music composer.
When I was five years old, her songs Lag ja gale and Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai, and Aayega aanewala, used to play on the radio on Binaca Geetmala. Later I practiced Mein to kab se khadi is paar. Sang the notes, and sang some more. Listening to her voice, pausing to focus on how and when she breathed. But I could never reach the zenith she scaled so effortlessly in her songs.
Like Indians everywhere, we all sang her songs at family get-togethers, karaoke nights, and wedding functions. My father wept like a baby at her ode to patriotism, Ae mere watan ke logon, and my mother smiled at my dad when we sang Kora kagaz tha. My eyes welled up with joy when decades later, my daughter sang a homage to Lata ji: Piya tose naina laage re, Aji rooth kar ab, and Luka chhupi bahut hui. Who can forget her fun duet Sawan ka Mahina, with Mukesh? Or Dil tadap, tadap ke kah raha hai, from the film Madhumati, set to music by Salil Choudhary, a song I heard my father hum to my mother. My friend’s favorite was Ajeeb Daastan hai yeh from Dil Apna aur Preet parayi”. Millennials can never forget Tujhe dekha to yeh jaana sanam, from DDLJ. I remember the days when I had to make a stop at the Rhythm House in Bombay to buy Lata’s gold CD discs and now we play her songs on Spotify. Lata Mangeshkar certainly inspired and will continue to inspire thousands of dedicated singers and Hindustani music lovers all over the globe.
The Melody Queen was a private person and never married. In her dedication to music, Lata kept all negative energies at bay. She once said in an interview that it is important to find happiness and fulfillment within yourself before getting married. While many will claim one or many of Lata didi’s songs as their favorite, check out this list where Lata herself shortlisted some of her favorites. I hope and pray that this legendary artist has quenched the thirst of her soul on its journey to moksha. I am listening to her haunting melody from the film Mahal and don’t know when another like her will be reborn. Lata Mangeshkar is immortal.
Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai, India, and works as a pathologist in Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home, and art. She has written two books: My Light Reflections and Flow through my Heart. You can hear her commentaries on Sundial Writers Corner WLRH 89.3FM.