Ode to a Nightingale

lata mangeshkar
Image credits: Shutterstock

I woke up today to the sad news that Lata Mangeshkar, THE most famous Indian playback singer of all time, had passed away today in Mumbai from complications of COVID. She was 92.

Dubbed the nightingale of India, Mangeshkar had a voice unmatched for its versatility and control.

Growing up in India, I, like many aspiring young girls, trained hard to sing like her. Our dream was to be the next Lata Mangeshkar. We knew almost every song by heart and, with our ears glued to the radio, we listened in awe, later trying to imitate her clean, crystal clear voice that sought the higher ranges, while still holding the tune. We soon knew there could be no other Lata. She was inimitable, in a league of her own.

Movie after movie, Mangeshkar dominated the movie theaters and the airwaves, singing more than 30,000 songs in 36 languages in a career that spanned more than 70 years. Even today, her first big hit, from 1949, “Aayega Aane Wala,” from “Mahal,” haunts us with its extraordinary melody and that alluring voice.

In America, at karaoke parties in our Indian community gatherings, I often sing this song. No, I never would assume I would come anywhere close to that beautiful voice, but channeling Lata and the stunning actress Madhubala in this haunting black and white movie takes me back in time and reminds me of my father, who loved this song.

My other favorite Lata number song is “O Sajna,” another classic song from the movie “Parakh,” featuring actress Sadhana and with music by Salil Choudhury. It showcases Lata’s versatility in pitch and range. Then there is “Chand Phir Nikla, Magar Tum Na Aaye,” from the movie “Paying Guest,” again with music by Salil Choudhury and featuring actress Nutan. Then there is “Aaja Re Pardesi” from the movie “Madhumati,” featuring actress Vaijayanthi Mala. How could one forget the classical “Bole Re Papihara,” from “Guddi,” featuring Jaya Bhadhuri, and the classical “Baiyan Na Dharo…” featuring Rehana Sultan in “Dastak.”

Particularly unforgettable and haunting are Lata’s songs in “Pakeezah.” In this movie, Lata’s versatility is showcased in the mujra, “Inhee Logon Ne” featuring actress Meena Kumari, giving extraordinary voice to the lyrics of Majrooh Sultanpuri and the music composed by Ghulam Mohammad, and in the iconic “Chalte Chalte,” relying on Kaifi Azmi’s lyrics. We can keep going. Lata gave voice for countless beautiful actresses, songwriters and music composers.

At a recent karaoke gathering in honor of our friends Raj and Ooorja’s wedding, I once again went through my list of favorite Lata Mangeshkar solos and duets I could sing for the special occasion. Again, I was stumped by the sea of choices and the sheer breadth of her talent, including some fun and raunchy songs, such as those from the movies “Julie” and “Bobby.” I picked a song from the latter that day.

Ironically, the best odes to this nightingale are some of her own songs. Consider “Naam Goom Jayega, Chehra Yeh Badal Jayega, Meri Aawaj Hi Pehchan Hai” from “Kinara,” featuring Hema Malini, and “Tu Jahan Jahan Chalega, Mera Saaya Saath Hoga,” featuring Sadhana in “Mera Saaya.” Or “Tere Liye,” from “Veer-Zaara” in 2004, a song from her last full album.

Lata recorded her last song, “Saugandh Mujhe Is Mitti Ki,” composed by Mayuresh Pai, in March 2019, as a tribute to the Indian army and the nation. It reminds me of her other patriotic song in honor of India’s veterans that brought tears to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s eyes, “Ae Mere Watan Ke Logon, Zara Aankh Me Bhar Do Pani.”

Lata Mangeshkar’s Early Life

Unassuming and quiet, Lata Mangeshkar stayed out of the public eye, seemingly shy and less boisterous than her sister Asha Bhosle, another celebrated Bollywood singer, in both the types of songs she sang and her personality. She rarely appeared in movies, and although she had acted in a few Marathi and Hindi movies early in her career to earn a living, singing was her first love.

Born in Indore, India, in 1929, Mangeshkar grew up in a traditional Indian household, where classical Indian music was revered but “filmi gaane,” or movie songs, were frowned upon. Her father was a singer and an actor who produced Marathi musicals. She had four younger siblings, including Asha Bhosle.

When the Mangeshkar family fell upon difficult times and her father died, Lata Mangeshkar began working in the movie business, at first acting, a profession that she didn’t love, and finally finding a break as a playback singer.

Once discovered, there was no looking back. Lata’s songs featured in many famous films from the 1940s to the 2000s. These include those in the longest-running blockbuster, “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge,” in the 1990s, to those in “Veer-Zaara” in 2004.” In 2001, she received the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honor.

While she is best known for her playback singing, Lata also enjoyed western classical music. Her interests outside of singing included cricket and, of all things, playing the slot machines in Vegas!

Lata Mangeshwar has passed away but her voice is immortal.

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/37i9dQZF1DZ06evO3yp1q2?si=d6b002f1da5143cc