Lata Mangeshkar, Bollywood Icon and India’s Nightingale, Dies at 92

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Lata Mangeshkar, Indian playback singer and Bollywood icon, died on Sunday at Mumbai’s Breach Candy Hospital. The cause of death was complications from COVID-19, per Indian news outlets. Mangeshkar was given a state funeral, and the Indian government has declared two days of mourning, with the national flag to be flown at half-mast. She was 92.

A recipient of India’s highest honor, the Bharat Ratna, as well as France’s highest civilian award, Mangeshkar was primarily known as a playback singer, a vocalist who doesn’t appear onscreen but whose voice is dubbed in during musical numbers in Bollywood films. Though the work of a playback singer is inherently anonymous, Mangeshkar fought throughout her career for the rights of playback singers to earn royalties on their hit songs. Born to a family of musicians and performers, her decades-long career began in 1942, when she started acting in minor roles in Marathi- and Hindi-language films. Mangeshkar would later remark that she never liked acting, noting, “The day I started working as a playback singer, I prayed to God: ‘No more acting in films.’ He listened to me and I got a fairly good position in playback singing.”

Classically trained in Hindustani music and fluent in Urdu, Mangeshkar had her breakout moment in 1949; her first major hit, “Aayega Aanewala,” from the movie Mahal, launched her into nationwide fame and transformed her into a household name overnight. Mangeshkar would go on to lend her voice to roles played by generations of Bollywood actresses, from Preity Zinta and Kajol to Madhubala, Jaya Bhaduri, and Meena Kumari. With a vocal range of four octaves, she was hugely prolific, recording thousands of songs over her lifetime in more than 30 languages, including Hindi, Tamil, Bengali, and Urdu, as well as her native Marathi. Mangeshkar’s duets with singers like Talat Mehmood, Rafi, Mukesh, and Hemant Kumar were extremely popular, selling in record numbers for HMV, India’s oldest music label. Mangeshkar would go on to fight a protracted legal battle with HMV for the rights to royalties for her hit songs, which only just ended in a victory for Mangeshkar in 2018.

Mangeshkar never married, and is survived by her siblings, Meena, Asha, Usha, and Hridaynath, all of whom are also musicians. Tributes to the singer from politicians, musicians, and actors have flooded social media in the wake of the singer’s passing. Composer A.R. Rahman tweeted, “Love, respect and prayers.” India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, wrote on Twitter, “I am anguished beyond words. The kind and caring Lata Didi has left us. She leaves a void in our nation that cannot be filled.” Kajol added, “If we play her songs one by one, we could hear her for a month and never hear the same song again. Prolific and profound. I mourn with the rest of the country for our nightingale.”

Lata Mangeshkar, Bollywood Icon, Dies at 92