Lata Mangeshkar and the Idea of India in Song

Lata Mangeshkar and the Idea of India in Song

Independent India came of age as Lata Mangeshkar sang for 80 years, with patriotism, devotion, love and longing. And now she is silent

It was the morning after Basant Panchami on February 5, the heralding of spring, a day dedicated to Goddess Saraswati, the deity of knowledge, language, music and the arts in the Hindu pantheon. India’s nightingale Lata Mangeshkar, also known as the embodiment of Saraswati, fell silent.

At 92, she hadn’t been recording songs for the last few years. Yet her passing and the visuals of her cremation with full state honours at Mumbai’s Shivaji Stadium, wrapped in the Tricolour evoked a wide range of emotions for millions of Indians. In the debris of her death, it is hard to say which aria of her life we will miss the most.

Much of what she sang in 36 languages, over 80 years—from her first musical performance at the age of nine with her father, the late vocalist and actor Deenanath Mangeshkar, to her last recording in 2019 for the Indian armed forces, “Saugandh mujhe is mitti ki”—is available in the audio archives of India. On tape. On the Internet. In our personal music collections. In our nerves. Yet the disconcerting fact that Lataji’s voice will live forever but her mortal form, her gentle kind presence that housed and honed that incredibly melodious and unparalleled voice is gone, feels like a broken record.


What will we miss then? The fact that Lata Mangeshkar won’t mirror the ecstasy of our hearts when in love as Piya Toh Se Naina Lage Re (Guide). Or sing for our body and soul in the stirrings of seductive desire as Baahon Mein Chale Aa (Anamika). Or pray with deep devotion when we pay obeisance to nature and divinity as Allah Tero Naam (Hum Dono)? To nurture our spirit as we grieve our losses as in Do Dil Toote, Do Dil Haare (Heer Ranjha)? Or remind us of the mortality of existence in Naam Gum Jayega  through Gulzar’s lyrics for Kinara.

To give patriotism a voice so deep, so powerful, so passionate as in Ae Mere Watan Ke Logon Zara Aankh Mein Bhar Lo Paani, that when we lose our way in the woods of uber nationalism, as of today, Lata Tai’s sonorousness binds us back to who we are, where we were born, what being an Indian feels like.


Lataji’s voice expressed the million cross-wired sentiments, confusions and confidence of Independent India. It held a fond tremor for India’s soldiers. It raised money for cricket and children in need. Only she could evoke the gooseflesh shudders, the otherwise inexplicable realisation of being a patriotic Indian laden with the toils of sacrifice, the pride of martyrdom, the love, loss and longing of a nation as it was growing up. Only she could sing bhajans like a blessed devotee filled with faith. For those of us growing up in the ’70s and the ’80s, only she could give our first loves and lingering romances pulsating hope. She could drive India to cheer and joy, to tears and truth, to faith and felicitation. Independent India came of age as Lataji sang. She made us feel alive.

And now she is dead.


Lata Songs and the Beautiful Blur

Lata Tai. Lata Didi. Lata Mangeshkar. Bharat Ratna. Bharat Kokila. Nightingale of India. Jewel of the country. Voice of the nation. The extraordinarily talented little girl with two thick plaits who sang at Goa’s Mangeshi Temple. The young woman who stormed the Hindi film industry leaving composers, lyricists, directors, musicians and fellow playback singers spellbound with her talent, so far above anyone else’s in quality, range, sweetness and feeling that they gladly stepped aside when she would step in.


The singer who made lyrics and lines so much her own that today as we pay her the final tribute, we must consciously remind ourselves that the songs that echo in our hearts were never written by her. From Radio Ceylon to All India Radio. From Pakistan to India. Yet that tender-sweet timbre of her voice blurs the names of lyricists, composers, music directors in our memories, making them all “Lata Mangeshkar songs”. In this beautiful blur live other greats—S.D Burman, Naushad, Khayyam, Madan Mohan, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Shankar-Jaikishen, Gulzar, Kaifi Azmi, RD Burman, Jagjit Singh, Hemant Kumar, Javed Akhtar…Not to mention her gifted colleagues and co-singers, most prominently Mohammed Rafi, Kishore Kumar, Hemant Kumar and her sister Asha Bhonsle, another musical force, of what the world knows about Hindi films and music. Numerous composers and poets worked with her in other languages. Ae Mere Watan Ke Logon was written by Kavi Pradeep and composed by C Ramachandra. Yet it was her rendition of the song that  made India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru cry. She sang to us as Vyjanthimala, Nanda, Nadira, Sadhna, Mumtaz, Rekha, Hema Malini, Madhuri Dixit, Preeti Zinta and dozens more in Hindi films. She sang in 35 other languages besides Hindi which was never her first language and chanted hymns with the kind of humility we may have forgotten in the aggressive “listen-to-me, look-at-me” tides of social media.

What do we lesser mortals know about Goddess Saraswati after all, but the oddly even instinct that she must be like Lataji ? Or that Lataji was like her.


Lata Mangeshakar being honoured with India’s highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna, by President K.R. Narayanan in Parliament in New Delhi March 21, 2001.

Saraswati White

Lata Mangeshkar’s appearance remained untouched by any trend or type. She, however, created one for the world to behold, idolise and lock in our memories. Dark, thick plaits, a red bindi on the forehead and simple saris as an adolescent. An unassuming simplicity that would evolve to resplendent clusters of diamonds on her ears, an equally shining bangle or two on her arms, a watch on one wrist and the gradual but unwavering shift to white saris with colourerd borders. The hundreds of silken Kanjeevarams we saw her in, sometimes with striking Ganga Jamuna borders, at other times with thick black and gold edges. White Patolas with red borders. White Banarasis with coloured zari borders. White cotton Ikats with woven borders. The pallu always draped over the shoulders. Never the sass of a heroine, always the grace of a deity. The ever present wrist watch ticking through 80 years, many thousand songs, in more than a thousand films and hundreds of live performances. The red bindi stayed till the last moment as did the navratna strings she would wear on her neck.


Saraswati white and Lata Mangeshkar. A flesh and blood embodiment of the goddess of arts and music as interpreted in Indian calendar art. With an edge of red. Or ochre, green, mustard, orange, blue, black. Only saris. Always white.

Draped with the Tricolor as her mortal remains arrived at Shivaji Stadium on February 6, white and colour blurred to create a farewell tone. Unsurprisingly it had the hue of a voice. It was golden. A colour for India at 75.

Banner: Lata Mangeshkar at a press conference in Mumbai, April 28, 1999. Photo: SEBASTIAN D’SOUZA / AFP