It's hard to think of an artist whose achievements could equal those of Lata Mangeshkar, one of the most respected singers in India. With a career spanning 80 years, thousands of songs and an almost uncountable list of honours, Mangeshkar, whose death was confirmed by her sister Usha to the Press Trust India on Sunday, was one of the greatest artists of a generation. She was 92 and had been in hospital after being diagnosed with Covid-19.
Born in 1929 in Indore to musician Deenanath Mangeshkar and his wife, Shevanti, Mangeshkar and her four siblings – who would all become accomplished singers in their own right – were introduced to Indian classical music and theatre early in life. As the eldest, Mangeshkar began performing in her father's musical plays at the age of 5, even dropping out of school to focus on her craft.
But it was her father's untimely death, when she was 13, that would kick-start her career. Vinayak Damodar Karnataki, a close friend of her father, took Mangeshkar and her siblings under his wing and helped her to find jobs as a playback singer for Marathi films.
However, it was when Karnataki's company moved to Mumbai, the home of Bollywood, in 1945, that Mangeshkar found her footing. Her first major hit was Aayega Aanewala from the 1949 film Mahal, now considered a cult movie classic.
By the time she was 23, Mangeshkar had recorded dozens of songs for films, including her first in Tamil for Vanaradham in 1956.
Initially dismissed as "too thin", Mangeshkar's voice soon became the template of female playback singing, duplicated to this day by many others.
In 1960, Mangeshkar recorded Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya for the seminal movie Mughal-e-Azam, often considered one of the greatest Indian films made. The song, which has become as beloved as the film, is one of many major hits Mangeshkar would go on to record.
Songs such as Inhi Logon Ne (from the film Pakeezah, 1972), Bahon Mein Chale Aao (Anamika, 1973), Tere Bina Zindagi Se Koi (Aandhi, 1975), Jiya Jale (Dil Se, 1998) and Ek Tu Hi Bharosa (Pukar, 2000), are easily identified as hers, as is Aye Mere Watan Ke Logo, one of India's most popular patriotic songs that Mangeshkar first sang live on India's Republic Day in January 1963, in the presence of then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
Mangeshkar recorded thousands of tracks in her career, spanning more than 36 Indian and foreign languages, although she primarily sang in Hindi.
She won so many Filmfare Best Female Playback Awards that, in 1969, she made the decision to give the category up so new talent could be discovered. The Filmfare Awards, one of the longest-running film awards in India, honoured her with a Lifetime Achievement in 1993, one of many such accolades she received in her long career.
In 1969, she was bestowed the Padma Bhushan, India's third-highest civilian honour, and then in 1999 was given the Padma Vibhushan, the country's second-highest. A decade before that, in 1989, she was handed the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, India's highest accolade in the field of cinema. The Indian government recognised Mangeshkar again with the Bharat Ratna, its highest civilian award, in 2001, for her contributions to the the nation, making her only the second vocalist, after MS Subbulakshmi, to be given the award.
In 2007, the French government made her an Officer of the National Order of the Legion of Honour, its highest order of merit. The Lata Mangeshkar Award, a pan-Indian accolade for achievements in music, was instituted in her honour by her home state of Madhya Pradesh in 1989.
Famously single, Mangeshkar has been at the centre of various theories as to why she never married, despite her fame and fortune. She has never publicly spoken about her personal life, but the most popular theory is that because she became a caretaker of her family at an early age, after her father's sudden death, she never really had time for herself as she dedicated her life to the welfare of her siblings.
For someone so entrenched in the big bad world of entertainment, Mangeshkar was rarely attached to major scandals or controversies. A rivalry with her sister Asha Bhosle was sometimes written about, but Mangeshkar was always quick to clear the air.
“Asha and I are close. I know people find it hard to believe. But that’s the way it is. Of course we’ve had our differences in the past. Which siblings don’t have differences?" she once told The Indian Express.
In September 2021, right after she turned 92, Mangeshkar spoke about her legacy, casting doubt on whether the new generation would remember her for much longer in the age of social media. "Nowadays, young people’s attention span is very limited," she told Firstpost. "They do not live in the past at all. It is the era of instant gratification. Everyone wants to live for the moment."
However, if the outpouring of grief that followed her death is anything to go by, Mangeshkar's melodious voice will continue to enthral listeners for years to come.