That voice! The music!: Lata Mangeshkar was the soundtrack to the lives of generations of the Indian diaspora

Two days of national mourning.

Flags at half mast.

A state funeral.

As India went about the business of honouring Lata Mangeshkar this past week — the woman they simply called the “Nightingale” — I struggled to find a way of explaining what her death, at 92, means to Indians, and the South Asian diaspora, and what a Western equivalent even looks like. The closest parallel I could land on? Possibly Edith Piaf, and what she means to France, but even there, the comparisons are wobbly, when you just look at the sheer, staggering breadth. A career stretching over 70 years (the soundtrack of many, many generations, including my own). An oeuvre amounting to more songs than the Beatles and the Rolling Stones combined (more than 10,000 recordings, actually). An acclaim, on a gut level, that is synonymous with modern India itself when you consider how ubiquitous she has been in Bollywood movies since the early 1950s (a few short years after the country claimed independence).

“She was not a queen or a president; she did not rule oceans or command armies; her only possessions were a cotton saree and a silken voice; and yet, the flag representing a billion people flies half mast in her honour. Don’t ever ask again what is real power.” Author Anand Ranganathan summed up the sentiment when he tweeted this.

Born into a family of performers in 1929, when India was still part of the British Empire — her father ran a theatre company — Lata’s career took off as a “playback singer,” part of a circle of go-tos who lend their vocals to a movie star’s lip-synced lyrics, making them sound good. Her voice, increasingly, the most coveted — and baked into the most evocative songs of all time from the sub-continent. The ones that boomed through car windows, enveloped parties and weddings, lingered during holidays and in the local curry shop.

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Growing up in Toronto in a household where Indian movies were omnipresent — Bollywood being a cultural lifeline, in particular, to those South Asians living outside India, sometimes more so than to Indians in India — her gently tilting, octaves-sweeping vocals were part of my emotional wallpaper. Though, to be honest: I cannot precisely remember when, or how, I came to discern that many of the songs emerging from the most glamorous women you can imagine, in any number of films, were — more often than not — the voice of just one woman. And a very simple, not particularly showy, woman at that.

This is the thing: while actresses came and went, generational tastes shifted, and new ingenues rose to the fore, the voice — at least until well into the aughts — remained. That kind of constancy, itself a shared language in an ever-spinning world, is what many South Asians feel when they mourn Lata.

London, England-raised Lavanya Ramanathan adroitly explained the immigrant connection to the songbird in Vox this week: “Her voice was filled with an intensity that conveyed both passion and pain. If you listen, you’ll know what I mean. You don’t even have to understand the lyrics (I often don’t) to understand what I mean. And to so many South Asians around the world, her songs represented much more than a mere melody — she was the voice of a faraway land many of us barely knew, but wished we did.”

Growing up in the 1980s, keeping up with Lata, she continued, “meant pressing play and rewind on my yellow sports Walkman with its chunky plastic buttons, I closed my eyes and imagined I was in India.”

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Pressing play myself, this week — via YouTube! — I fell into a rabbit-hole of her output, music ranging from early black-and-white-era movie classics like “Lag Jaa Gale” to contemporary classics like “Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham” to one of my faves, “Tujhse Naraz Nahi Zindagi” (a bittersweet melody from the early-eighties gem, “Masoom,” about a woman coming to grips with the infidelity of her husband, and the illegitimate child that comes to live with them — a super-provocative movie, at the time, in Indian cinema). So many songs I had even forgotten I knew, but were right there — like leaves floating on the surface of a pond, in my imagination.

Mangeshkar herself once said she does not listen to her own songs because, if she did, she would find a hundred faults in them — a quest for perfection that set her apart. Noted music journalist Narendra Kusnur explains: “Her passion and discipline were accompanied by a god-gifted voice, which not only sounded great on its own, but also suited the heroines she sang for, as she would tweak her voice and yet sound like herself.”

Indeed, her hustle was so all-consuming that she sang in upwards of 20 languages, not only in Hindi, but in tongues as diverse as Bangla, Assamese, Gujarati, Tamil, Telugu and Bhojpuri. A discography as miscellaneous as India itself.

Part of the Lata allure, too? A personal style that was never particularly embellished, but all her own: that ubiquitous white saree, often with a small band, and a red bindi (dot) on her forehead that — together — was as visually commanding as, say, a Frida Kahlo with her technicolour attire and unibrow, or a Frank Sinatra, with his fedora, and skinny suits. By never wavering in her style — and standing out by blending in — Lata made herself iconic.

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Remarkably, too, is that while Lata gave voice to great love songs and the bonds of family, she remained unmarried and childless herself. At first, it is said, because she was so entrenched in her work and because, at a very young age, she had worked to take care of her brother and sisters, supporting their educations and their careers. But, also — legend has it — because her one true love eluded her: Raj Singh Dungarpur, a famous cricketer who was also a prince, from the state of Rajasthan. Though they were smitten with each other, the relationship was frowned upon by the other Dungarpur royals, and while both remained single — and apparently devoted to each other right until his death in 2009 — a marriage was a no-go.

Coming from a generation that did not discuss such things in public, Lata never much opened up about any of this, but, in a 2013 interview with the Hindustan Times, she came closest. Having already poured all of it into her songs, she told the newspaper, “There are some things only for the heart to know. Let me keep it that way.”

Shinan Govani is a Toronto-based freelance contributing columnist covering culture and society. Follow him on Twitter: @shinangovani


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