February 10, 2022
My mother tells this story better but here goes: I took to speaking early and at age 2, I had developed a proclivity for singing along incoherently to songs that played on the television. Of all those songs, I felt a strange, precocious connection to “Tere Bina Zindagi Se” (“Without You, My Life Has No Complaints”) from Gulzar’s Aandhi (1975). The duet, sung by Lata Mangeshkar and Kishore Kumar, is picturized on a couple reminiscing about their relationship after many years of separation. I sang along knowing nothing about the movie or the contemplative lyrics by Gulzar. I sang along because I was enraptured by Lata Mangeshkar’s voice. I’ve listened to Lata Mangeshkar for as long as I’ve been conscious; the same is true for many South Asians who’ve grown up in the shadow of her illustrious career.
On Sunday, February 6, the great songstress died after battling a month-long bout of COVID and related organ failure. People around the world grieved her death. After all, she had enthralled listeners with her emotive capacity and remarkable vocal range (her voice could stretch to four octaves) for over seven decades. India’s federal government announced two days of national mourning. In Mangeshkar’s home state of Maharashtra, the government held a state funeral at Shivaji Park in Mumbai and declared Monday, February 7 a public holiday. After a procession from her home in Pedder Road to Shivaji Park, local politicians; Hindi film stars Shah Rukh Khan, Ranbir Kapoor, and Aamir Khan; and cricketer Sachin Tendulkar attended. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi flew down to Mumbai to pay his respects.
Lata Mangeshkar’s story is the story of independent India. She was there to witness the growth of post-independence Hindi cinema and herald the nascent industry with her breathtaking voice. However, in addition to her inimitable contribution to Indian melodies, Lata Mangeshkar was also a witness to, and sometimes a participant in, India’s murky history. Her death has split even her most loyal audience, some of whom wish to celebrate her decorated career and some others who would like to reckon her legacy with some of the glaring, problematic political choices she made during her life.