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Why Lata Mangeshkar was an Indian music icon

For seven decades, she gave voice to the nation’s burgeoning film industry — and fought for better pay for the singers who powered it.

The iconic Indian playback singer Lata Mangeshkar, pictured in 2009 in Mumbai. She died after a month’s hospitalization with Covid-19.
Prodip Guha/Getty Images
Lavanya Ramanathan is a senior editor at Vox. Previously, she was a longtime features reporter covering trends, race, youth culture, and the zeitgeist at the Washington Post.

Lata Mangeshkar, the Indian playback singer who loaned her coy, girlish voice to the heroines of Indian film for more than seven decades and became one of Bollywood’s most powerful figures in the process, died Sunday in Mumbai. The singer, 92, had been hospitalized since early January with Covid-19.

Indian cinema is so intertwined with its music — just watch any classic Bollywood film — that a film can be a hit or a bomb depending solely on the catchiness of its songs. So directors chased Mangeshkar to breathe life into their Busby Berkeley-esque song-and-dance numbers with her impossible high notes and emotive delivery. The singer, whose voice could stretch an impressive four octaves (for comparison, Mariah Carey’s range is five), is believed to have recorded thousands of songs in more than 30 languages from Hindi to Urdu to Tamil to Bengali, as well as her native Marathi.

Upon news of Mangeshkar’s death, the actress Kajol, who lip-synced to Mangeshkar’s mellifluous voice in the film Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, shared a tweet that suggested just how prolific the singer’s career was. “If we play her songs one by one,” the actress wrote, “we could hear her for a month and never hear the same song again.”

Mangeshkar’s death was also met with the announcement of a national two-day mourning, and her star-studded state funeral in Mumbai on Sunday drew political and Bollywood royalty, from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to beloved film star Shah Rukh Khan.

The term “playback singer” refers to a background player who sings the songs penned by composers and lip-synced on-screen by actors, but along with a few other high-profile South Asian singers, Mangeshkar managed to defy the rules of the role. Though her songs appeared across Indian film, her rise to fame came largely in tandem with the explosion of Bollywood into a more than $2 billion industry with a global audience, a fact of which Mangeshkar seemed keenly aware. Though her singing voice could be famously coquettish, Mangeshkar was loud about singers’ right to cash in on the songs they’d helped to make famous, leading a battle for singers’ royalties that stretched for much of her career.

“What do I get from this? I don’t get any royalty. Now there is internet and the MP3 format,” she lamented in 2012 after her songs, owned not by her but by publishing companies, began appearing on various albums. In 2018, thanks in part to Mangeshkar’s decadeslong cry for change, Indian singers began receiving royalties, and Mangeshkar was dubbed a feminist for her calls for fair pay and her ambition.

Mangeshkar, whose father was a classically trained singer, entered films at age 13 in an effort to support her family after her father’s death. Nicknamed “Lata Didi” — elder sister — and “Nightingale” or “Melody Queen” in the media and by many fans, Mangeshkar quickly became India’s own songbird, its answer to Edith Piaf. Mangeshkar, however, stands apart from the Western musical canon as much for her longevity as for her prodigious output: She appeared on hit albums for four decades, and is reported to have sometimes recorded several songs in a single day. “I recorded two songs in the morning, two in the afternoon, two in the evening and two at night,” she would say.

Her voice rang out (and still does) from India’s movie theaters and television sets, from cars and wedding halls. Though her face only appeared on-screen a few times in her career — she told reporters she hated acting — she was featured on magazine covers as “The Incredible Singing Machine” and interviewed widely. After the end of colonial British rule, she proudly performed for the nation’s new leaders, including Jawaharlal Nehru.

Directors declared her a chameleon distinct among the sea of Indian playback singers, which happened to include her sister, Asha Bhosle. Love songs, such as her 2006 Luka Chuppi, about a mother mourning her son’s death, were rendered a little more heartbreaking, and romantic songs, like her famous Lag Jaa Gale, a smidgeon more stirring in Mangeshkar’s hands, while seductive numbers betrayed a unique vulnerability as the singer dialed into each character.

This weekend, Amitabh Bachchan, the legendary Bollywood actor whose films regularly featured Mangeshkar’s voice, took to his blog to acknowledge the value of Mangeshkar’s sacrifices. “The voice of a million centuries has left us … her voice resounds now in the Heavens.”

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