NEW DELHI: India’s widely loved playback singer Lata Mangeshkar passed away at a Mumbai hospital on Sunday, falling victim to Covid-19. She was 92.

Ms Mangeshkar was admitted to the Breach Candy Hospital in January after testing positive for the deadly virus.

Her songs were popular across South Asia and beyond, and it was not unusual for strangers from varied cultures to hum her melodies doing their daily chores. A Senegalese cabbie in Chicago, for example, left his Indian passengers dumbstruck by breaking into a less heard but essentially a beautiful Lata Mangeshkar song from the 1960s. The movie was Ganga Jamuna and the rarely heard song was O re o re jhanan ghunghar baaje — filmed on Vyjyantimala.

Then there was this fan in Islamabad, his tracksuit drenched in sweat as he plied an overworked treadmill in a hotel gym. Alone in the large darkened room, he was pedalling away to her numbers from the 1950s, sighing periodically before shaking his head in disbelief at the magical lyrics.

Ms Mangeshkar herself gave credit to Pakistan’s singing legend Noor Jahan for nudging her towards a voice modulation that suited her voice for the screen. At one stage, in 1960, she suspended singing altogether over fears that the high notes she used were damaging her vocal cords.

Ustad Amir Khan of Indore, the late classical vocalist, advised her to observe a period of silence, which she benefited from by staying aloof for a year. Perhaps the most critical intervention in grooming her as a playback singer came from the towering actor Dilip Kumar. The late thespian had doubts initially about her ability to deliver Urdu verses with the clear diction associated with Kamla Jharia and K.L. Saigal.

It was music composer Anil Biswas who introduced Lata Mangeshkar to the reigning star in a local train. When told that the Marathi-speaker would sing in their next film, Dilip Kumar was worried about words that phonetically did not exist in Marathi.

“Isme to daal bhaat ki mahak ho gi,” he said. (Lata’s diction would have the flavour of the daal and rice dish). Miffed but also alerted in time, Ms Mangeshkar promptly hired a maulvi to teach her Urdu. Few have sung Iqbal and Ghalib with the clarity of diction and inflection she acquired, a talent not associated with Mohammed Rafi from Lahore.

Her male duet partner for many years, Rafi’s notable struggle between ‘kaaf’ and ‘qaaf’ appeared more pronounced against Lata’s meticulous delivery.

Born to a Konkani theatre musician Deenanath Mangeshkar and his wife Shevanti on Sept 28, 1929 in Indore, Lata evolved into a cultural mosaic with memorable songs in several Indian languages. But her forte was immaculate delivery of Hindi/Urdu lyrics penned by the most gifted poets and lyricists of the time.

LATA Mangeshkar, who called Dilip Kumar her elder brother, ties Rakhi on his wrist. (Right) Lata and 
Kishore Kumar singing at a concert.—files
LATA Mangeshkar, who called Dilip Kumar her elder brother, ties Rakhi on his wrist. (Right) Lata and Kishore Kumar singing at a concert.—files

She was at ease with Shakeel Badayuni’s naat with Muslim motifs in Mughal-i-AzamBekas pe karam kijiye Sarkaar-i-Madina, or Sahir Ludhianvi’s secular plea for humanity in an anti-war movie, Hum DonoAllah tero naam, Ishwar tero naam. Qawwalis, bhajans, ghazals, even thumris, she excelled in.

She was five years old when she became an actress in her father’s Marathi musical plays. In 1943, she sang her first Hindi song in Marathi film GajaabhaauMata ek sapoot ki duniya badal de tu.

Three years later, Ms Mangeshkar sang Paa lagoon kar jori, her first song in a Hindi-language movie by Vasant Joglekar — Aap ki seva mein.

Ms Mangeshkar’s last song was for a film, Dunno Y2Jeena hai kya (2015). It was her lilting song Ayega aanewala in Kamal Amrohi’s Mahal (1950) that put her on an unassailable path to fame and fortune.

Indian cinema played a hand in uniting the nation amid the trauma of partition. The two singers, Lata and Rafi, symbolised in essential ways Nehru’s India for years, their Hindu and Muslim names creating the aura for a mingling of cultures that had suffered a severe rupture in 1947.

It was considered a bold move when Mere Mehboob, promoted as a “Muslim social”, was released in 1963 just 16 years after partition. Songs by Lata and Rafi in lyrical Urdu, including at least one duet — Yaad mein teri jaag jaag ke hum — shored up a generation.

Where her music tended to unite estranged hearts, Ms Mangeshkar’s politics moved in harmony with India’s rightward lurch. When BJP leader L.K. Advani was starting his chariot march in 1990 to construct a Hindu temple on what would be the rubble of Babri masjid in Ayodhya, she recorded Ram Dhun and presented it to him. The bhajan was played throughout the violent journey.

In November 2013, she invited then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi to inaugurate a hospital in Pune built in memory of her father. During the event, she said: “I pray to God that we see Narendra Bhai as PM.”

This was weeks after Mr Modi was made the prime ministerial candidate for the BJP for the 2014 elections.

Politicians as well as movie stars condoled with her family on Sunday. The US embassy in India also paid tribute to the legend. “History will mark her contribution to India’s music in golden words,” it said on Twitter.

Ms Mangeshkar was given a state funeral and authorities ordered lowering of the national flag in her memory.

Imran grieved

Like many other Pakistanis, Prime Minister Imran expressed grief over the passing of the great singer.

In a tweet, he said: “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.”

Published in Dawn, February 7th, 2022

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