Lata Mangeshkar, the singer known as the ‘nightingale of India’ for her pure voice, died of complications following COVID-19 on 6 February in Mumbai. She was 92. The singer leaves behind a rich musical legacy of tens of thousands of songs, sung over a six-decade career, which are popular with South Asians around the globe. She was also instrumental in singers of a later generation getting paid their rightful copyright dues, something denied them for decades. 

Born on 28 September 1929 in Indore, British India, to musician and theatre actor Deenanath Mangeshkar and his wife Shevanti, she was initially named Hema Mangeshkar but was renamed Lata after a character in her father’s play Bhav Bandhan.

Mangeshkar’s first music guru was her father. When she was 13, Deenanath Mangeshkar died, leaving her as the sole breadwinner of the family. Master Vinayak, a family friend and owner of the Navyug Chitrapat film studio, took her under his wing and gave her a break as an actress and singer in the Marathi-language film Pahili Mangalagaur (1942). However, though she was comfortable in front of the camera, acting wasn’t her forte; she preferred music. Her first song in the Hindi language – in which she would go on to attain her fame – was in the film Gajaabhaau (1943). 

In 1945, Vinayak moved to Bombay (now Mumbai) and the Mangeshkars followed. In Bombay, Lata trained in Hindustani classical music under Ustad Aman Ali Khan and was mentored by the composer Ghulam Haider after Vinayak’s death in 1948. She overcame the obstacle of her accent being described as too regional by superstar actor Dilip Kumar and taught herself the nuances of Urdu-language diction. She also rose above her voice being described as “too thin” by producer Sashadhar Mukherjee.

Madhubala in Mahal (1949), the film that helped launch Mangeshkar’s singing career

Haider’s ‘Dil Mera Toda O Mujhe Kahin Ka Na Chhoda’ in Majboor (1948) and composer Khemchand Prakash’s ‘Aayega Aanewala’ from Mahal (1949) were Mangeshkar’s breakthrough hits, and she became a household name across India and, soon, across South Asia. While she had briefly experimented with the modulated singing style popularised by the revered Indo-Pakistani actress and singer Noor Jehan, Mangeshkar evolved a style that was entirely her own. The other popular style among female singers at the time was a nasal rendition of songs; Mangeshkar changed that with a combination of pure, mellifluous notes and clear diction. 

As the cliché goes, Mangeshkar’s rise was meteoric. The film singing practice then, and indeed now, with very few exceptions, is called ‘playback singing’ – meaning that a professional singer would sing songs that would be filmed, or ‘picturised’ as it is known in India, featuring a leading lady or man who lip sync to the pre-recorded songs. Mangeshkar thus became the on-screen singing voice of heroines across decades, from the 1950s to the 2000s, including Nargis, Madhubala, Meena Kumari, Hema Malini, Jaya Bhaduri and Kajol. 

While the exact number isn’t known, it’s estimated that Mangeshkar sang some 25,000 songs across 36 Indian languages. She was fortunate enough to work alongside some of the cream of male Indian singing talent, including Mohammed Rafi, Kishore Kumar, Mukesh, Manna Dey and Hemant Kumar, among others. And, she worked with all the major Indian composers, including Naushad, Shankar-Jaikishan, Sachin Dev Burman, Rahul Dev Burman, Madan Mohan, Ilaiyaraaja and A.R. Rahman. 

It was a disagreement with Rafi that led to Mangeshkar’s greatest gift to Indian singers beyond her music – royalties. The practice in India was that the playback singers would get one-off payments for songs and no royalties would be paid to them thereafter. Rafi was fine with this, but Mangeshkar was not. They disagreed and fell out over the issue, not singing duets together for a few years before eventually making up. In 2012, the Indian Copyright Act of 1957 was amended, and it became a legal requirement to pay royalties to singers, but getting the music companies to pay up was a daunting task. The Indian Singers’ Rights Association was formed in 2013, chaired by Mangeshkar, and, after a lengthy campaign, Indian singers began receiving royalties in 2018.

Mangeshkar was also known for her repertoire of devotional songs and left the raunchier numbers, known as ‘cabaret songs’ to her equally prolific sister Asha Bhosle. In the 1970s, the sisters were accused of creating a monopoly on female songs in Bollywood, a claim that Mangeshkar has dismissed out of hand, claiming it was the composers who used her alleged displeasure as an excuse not to hire new singers. 

Mangeshkar has won almost every major award India has to offer, including the Bharat Ratna, the country’s highest civilian honour, and she was also a recipient of Officer of the French Legion of Honour. While attempting to list Mangeshkar’s greatest hits would be foolhardy, it’s worth noting that her live rendition from the ramparts of Delhi’s Red Fort of poet Pradeep and composer C. Ramchandra’s ‘Ae Mere Watan Ke Logon’, a commemoration of Indian soldiers who died during the Sino-Indian War of 1962, brought tears to the eyes of then Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.