Black and white picture of the author and the late singer

With Lata Mangeshkar, May 1979. Photo by Peter John, The Guardian.

On 6th February 2022, I landed in South Africa, my first flight since February 2020, and I heard the news that Lata Mangeshkar had passed away. My first instinct was to listen to her songs, and I searched for “Aye Mere Watan Ke Logon” and sat in the Arrivals Hall listening to her mesmerising voice. Time passed; memories came flooding back of hearing this song play in my childhood in the Punjab in the early 1960’s. 

When at the age of 10 I left India for England, it was through songs of Lata Mangeshkar that I maintained my connection with India as I embraced my new home, England. Her songs allowed me to hold onto my memories of my childhood in India, songs of love, separation, suffering, and happiness. Over the next six decades of my life in the UK, Lata Mangeshkar’s voice has filled our home, embedded in our life, heart and soul. 

It was in 1979 that I had the opportunity to meet Lata Mangeshkar when she performed for the second time at the Royal Albert Hall with The Wren Orchestra. Going through my archive boxes, I found this black and white picture of me, with Lata Mangeshkar looking quizzically at the 23-year-old. The picture is dated May 1979. The late Naseem Khan, with who I was working at Minority Arts Advisory Service (MAAS), was writing an article about the legend that was Lata for The Guardian. I begged Naseem to let me accompany her when she went to interview Lata ahead of her concert. My memory of meeting her is that she was gentle, calm, and spoke with a voice of an innocent child. She was professional, arrived on time for the interview, guarded, she set the boundaries for the interview. I do not recall seeing an entourage of minders we now associate with celebrities. At the end of the interview, I marshalled enough courage to ask if I could take a picture with her. She obliged and The Guardian photographer Peter John took this picture and sent me a copy. The picture has been buried deep in my archive box of that period of my life. I recall when I first saw the picture, I didn’t like it. I felt that I was not reverential enough. When I showed it to my daughter, her immediate reaction was, “what a lovely picture, you should frame it!”.

With Naseem, I remember going to the concert – she had press tickets, so we were seated in the front and had a full view of Lata as she performed all of my favourite songs with The Wren Orchestra. She was introduced by Sunil Dutt, my childhood hero of Bollywood movies, including the classic Mother India, a 1957 Indian epic drama, directed by Mehboob Khan, starring Nargis and Sunil Dutt. It was my first Indian music concert, my first time entering The Royal Albert Hall with it full of South Asians from all over the country. I immediately bought the album, which was released in 1979, and played it constantly, reliving the memories of that evening and with it, an increased longing for India. I am grateful to the universe for the opportunity to meet this extraordinary human being, India’s towering cultural icon. 

Her songs will endure, resonate with generations to come and she will forever remain our guiding light. Lata Mangeshkar (28 September 1929 – 6 February 2022) was one of India’s greatest singers, and worked for over 70 years in the industry as a playback singer, providing the musical voice for actresses in some of Bollywood’s most iconic films. She recorded thousands of songs in more than 40 languages, and recorded soundtracks for more than a thousand films in her long and successful career. Her voice was a distinctive soprano, with a range that spanned more than three octaves.

Lata was born the eldest of five siblings to Shudhamati and Deenanath Mangeshkar. Her father, Deenanath, was a classical singer and theatre actor who gave her and her siblings their first singing lessons and an appreciation for classical music. Little wonder she and many of her siblings, most notably her sister Asha Bhosle, went on to successful careers in music.

Her father passed away when she just 13 years old and she became responsible for her family. She became a mentee of Master Vinayak Damodar Karnataki, friend of the family and owner of Navyug Chitrapat movie company, who helped launch her career in film, helping her get her first acting and singing roles in film. She did not enjoy acting, and was “happiest singing”, eventually working mainly as a playback singer – recording songs to be mimed by actresses in films.

Lata Mangeshkar worked hard, was discipled and committed, recording six songs a day, getting by on little sleep, would sometimes have her pay withheld, and often did not receive credit for her singing voice.

“Playback singers were once considered unimportant.” … “Producers called them, paid them, they sang, they went. End of story.” – Lata Mangeshkar

Her breakout song is regarded to be “Aayega Aanewaala“, from the movie Mahal (1949), lip-synced by actress Madhubala, which was such a hit that she was revealed as its singer. This was rare for playback singers, and this allowed other playback singers to get recognised for their songs and allowed Lata to get accepted for future work. With this credit, Lata’s career blossomed, and for the next seven decades, she worked on films featuring some of the most popular actresses in Bollywood across generations, and with most of Bollywood’s prominent music directors, including the duo Laxmikant–Pyarelal, Madan Mohan, Naushad Ali, SD Burman, and AR Rahman.

Lata Mangeshkar was a woman of determination and will power, who advocated for playback singers to receive formal credit for their work. Notably, she refused to perform at the Filmfare Awards, which were established in 1954, until it recognised playback singers by creating an award category for them, which it did in 1959. She was the earliest recipient of the award and won a total of four times, before requesting that her name not be included from 1971 to encourage new talent. Other awards she has received include the National Film Awards, the Bengal Film Journalists’ Association Awards, and the Filmfare Special Awards and Lifetime Achievement Award.

In the 1970s, she performed at several concerts in India and abroad, and in 1974 was the first Indian to perform at the Royal Albert Hall, London. In a brief introduction, she told the packed audience, “this is my first concert outside of India and I am grateful for the warm reception”. By 1979, when I met her, she had brought an apartment in St John’s Wood, overlooking the Oval Cricket ground from where she could watch cricket – her second love after music!

Outside of playback singing, Lata also worked as a music director, composing music for five films in the 1960s. She was also involved in film production, working on three films in the 1950s, and producing the 1991 Hindi mystery film Lekin… (1991). The film, which was a critical success and won a record five awards at the 1991 National Film Awards, was born from Lata’s desire to create a film with good music and songs. It was loosely based on the short story Kshudhit Pashaan by Rabindranath Tagore, with music composed by her brother, Hridaynath Mangeshkar, and lyrics written by Gulzar.

In 2001, she was awarded the highest honour for India civilians, the Bharat Ratna, awarded to “any person without distinction of race, occupation, position or sex… in recognition of exceptional service/performance of the highest order in any field of human endeavour”.

Lata Mangeshkar tested positive for COVID-19 in early January 2022 and was admitted to an ICU in Mumbai, and died of multiple organ dysfunction on 6th February, after 28 days of treatment for pneumonia and COVID-19. Four days later, her ashes were immersed in the Godavari River. A two-day national mourning period was announced after her death by the Indian government, and millions of people have shared tributes to the legendary singer in the wake of her death.

“My voice is a gift from God.” – Lata Mangeshkar. May your soul rest in peace. 

About Parminder Vir OBE

In a professional career spanning 40 years, Parminder Vir OBE has dedicated her life to telling untold stories, resourcing the skills and imagination of under-served communities. She is an expert on African entrepreneurship, an award-winning film and television producer and advocate for arts and culture. She currently serves as the Chair of Ongoza, Kenya and an Advisory Board member of Dalberg Media. She served as the CEO of the Tony Elumelu Foundation where she designed and implemented a holistic entrepreneurship programme, impacting over 10,000 African entrepreneurs across 54 African countries from 2014–2019. She continues to advocate for entrepreneurship as the best path for the social and economic development of Africa.

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