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Lata Mangeshkar, the sweetheart of Bollywood, dies at 92

Indian Bollywood playback singer Lata Mangeshkar in 2013.
AFP via Getty Images
Indian Bollywood playback singer Lata Mangeshkar in 2013.

Lata Mangeshkar, one of the most enduring and popular singers in the history of Bollywood, has died at 92.

She died in Mumbai, where she had been hospitalized with pneumonia and COVID-19.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted that he's "anguished beyond words." Across India, government buildings are flying their flags at half-staff.

Over the course of some 60 years, Mangeshkar recorded songs for more than 2,000 Indian films, giving voice to sweet, noble heroines onscreen. Her high, honeyed voice did as much to shape a film as its script or the actors, and millions of fans worldwide reveled in its sound. She was one of less than a handful of musical artists to ever win the Bharat Ratna, India's highest civilian award (which she won in 2001), and only the second recipient to come from the world of film.

Primarily, Mangeshkar was what is known as a "playback" singer: she recorded songs used in movie soundtracks, which actresses would then lip-sync onscreen. She was the singing voice for generations of actresses ranging from Madhubala in 1960's Mughal-E-Azam to Kajol in 1995's Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, one of the top-grossing Indian films of all time and now headed to Broadway.

But Mangeshkar also composed music herself and worked as a music director for Indian films, and recorded ghazals (romantic songs) and bhajans (Hindu devotional songs). Over the course of her career, she recorded literally thousands of songs in over a dozen languages.

Mangeshkar was born Sept. 28, 1929, in the city of Indore. Her father, Deenanath Mangeshkar, was an accomplished actor and North Indian (Hindustani) classical singer and actor before his death when Mangeshkar was just 13 years old. But she found a mentor in a friend of her family, "Master" Vinayak Damodar Karnataki, an actor and film impresario who helped boost her burgeoning presence as an actress and singer — work that she undertook in part to support her mother and siblings. There were five children in the family, and all went on to careers as singers and composers — but the two most famous by far were Mangeshkar and her equally beloved and well-known younger sister, Asha Bhosle, who often sang more saucy roles in stark contrast to Mangeshkar's chaste sweetness.

During the year of her father's death in 1942, Mangeshkar recorded her first film songs in the Marathi language, and she soon began singing professionally in Hindi as well. In 1945, when Master Vinayak moved his company to Mumbai, Mangeshkar went along. In those days, the city was known as Bombay, and it was the center of India's nascent film industry. ("Bollywood" is a portmanteau of "Bombay" and "Hollywood.") The timing was felicitous for her personally; her move to Mumbai came soon before Partition, when the Indian subcontinent won independence from Great Britain and the land was divided into two countries, Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. During that deeply violent and turbulent period, some of Bollywood's best singers of the time, including Noor Jehan, moved to Pakistan, which made room for Mangeshkar's ascent.

Mangeshkar soon became a favorite of composer Ghulam Haider, who gave her her first big hit: "Dil Mera Toda" for the 1948 film Majboor. Over the decades that followed, she collaborated with a string of other Bollywood composers and lyricists, including Naushad Ali, father and son S.D. and R.D. Burman (the latter of whom became Mangeshkar's brother-in-law after his marriage to Asha Bhosle), the writing duo Laxmikant-Pyarelal, Javed Akhtar, and A.R. Rahman, among many others. Through generations of composers and shifts in popular musical taste (from gauzy love songs to bouncy disco), and often singing in the stead of heroines decades younger than she was — her voice was the constant.

Mangeshkar's popularity, both within the Indian subcontinent and abroad, went on unabated for decades, unrivaled by any other female Bollywood singer with the possible exception of her sister, Asha Bhosle.

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Anastasia Tsioulcas
Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.