Bollywood superstar Lata Mangeshkar, known to millions as the “Nightingale of India” and a regular fixture of the country’s airwaves for decades, died Sunday morning at the age of 92.
Mangeshkar’s high-pitched melodies were an instantly recognisable feature of Indian cinema, with her work appearing in more than 1,000 films.
She passed away in a Mumbai hospital after being admitted to its intensive care unit several weeks ago with Covid-19 symptoms.
“Heartbroken, but blessed to have known & loved this incredible soul,” said actor Anil Kapoor, best known internationally for his role as a game show host in Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire”.
“Lataji holds a place in our hearts that will never be taken by anyone else. That’s how profoundly she has impacted our lives with her music.”
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Mangeshkar was born in 1929 in Indore, central India, and started her musical training under the tutelage of her father Deenanath, singing in his theatrical productions when she was just five years old.
Her father’s death when she was 13 forced her to take on the role of breadwinner for four younger siblings, and the family eventually moved to Mumbai in 1945.
There she pursued a career as a playback singer, recording tracks to be mimed by actors, and her voice soon became a staple of Bollywood blockbusters.
In a move reflecting her huge following, she was invited by the government to sing a patriotic tribute to soldiers killed in the 1962 Indo-China war at India’s Republic Day commemorations in January 1963.
Her rendition of “Oh the People of My Country” reportedly moved then-prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru to tears.
In the following decades, composers and film producers vied to sign the prolific Mangeshkar for their movies.
“I composed keeping Lata Mangeshkar’s range and voice quality in mind,” composer Anil Biswas said in an interview.
“She had a wide range, and one could think of more complicated melodies than with the earlier untrained singers.”
‘Stalwart of Indian culture’
Mangeshkar dominated Bollywood music for more than half a century, and is considered by many to be the Indian film industry’s greatest-ever playback singer.
Mangeshkar was not shy about taking a stand when it came to raising her prices or asking for a share of the royalties earned on her songs.
Her longevity and discipline saw her lend her voice to teenage actresses who were 50 years her junior.
Critics complained that her dominance left little room for newer singers to thrive, but her audience remained loyal, ensuring that her songs ruled the charts.
She was also known for her quirks, such as never singing with her shoes on and always writing out each song by hand before recording it.
In 2001, Mangeshkar was awarded India’s highest civilian honour the Bharat Ratna, and she received France’s Legion d’Honneur in 2009 in recognition of her contribution to Indian music and cinema.
Though she dropped out of school, saying she only ever took classes for one day, Mangeshkar was fluent in several languages.
Her oeuvre included devotional and classical albums and spanned around 27,000 songs in dozens of languages including English, Russian, Dutch and Swahili.
Authorities have declared two days of national mourning for the singer.
Her body was publicly cremated in a Mumbai park on Sunday evening with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and others laying flowers on her funeral pyre.
“Coming generations will remember her as a stalwart of Indian culture, whose melodious voice had an unparalleled ability to mesmerise people,” Modi said.
News of her death prompted an outpouring of grief from film industry luminaries, and a crowd gathered outside her Mumbai home as Bollywood titan Amitabh Bachchan and other celebrities arrived to pay their respects.
“Her voice touches the soul of every Indian,” 56-year-old fan Rajesh Kumar Ram told AFP from the scene.
“Her songs have been with us all through our lives,” he added.
Mangeshkar was equally revered across the border in Pakistan, where TV channels spent the day broadcasting rolling coverage of her death and playing songs from her repertoire.
“The subcontinent has lost one of the truly great singers the world has known,” said Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.
“Listening to her songs has given so much pleasure to so many people all over the world.”