By Aminta Kilawan Narine, Esq.
My ancestors may have lost our language centuries ago, but Lata Mangeshkar has almost perpetually been our bridge to the Motherland. Lata Ji, born in Madhya Pradesh as Hema Mangeshkar on September 28, 1929, passed away on February 6, 2022. Among many accolades Lata received was having made the Guinness Book of World Records as the most recorded artist from 1948-1987. She was hailed as India’s “Nightingale.”
As a mainly self-taught bhajan and Bollywood film song singer, I learned a great deal by simply listening to popular Hindu songs and bhajans over and over. I picked up on doing this from my mom who herself has a naturally beautiful voice. In the early 2000s, when the Internet wasn’t as saturated with easily Google-able lyrics, my teenage self would press pause on tracks I stole from Limewire. I would hand write the words of songs that spoke to my heart. Almost all were originally sung by then living legend Lata Mangeshkar. How one singer could be the playback for Madhubala, Vyjayanthimala, Meena Kumari, Rekha, Kajol and Aishwarya Rai will always be beyond me.
As a child, I frequently gravitated towards my late grandma Julian Khilawan Pardesi’s room in the morning hours. She had a habit of getting up early; after all, “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise,” as she’d say. One of the first things my grandma would do as she awoke from her slumber, besides putting on some Johnson’s baby powder, would be to take a different tape out of her spinning cassette organizer and press play. The music, echoing from a boombox, would fill our entire Ozone Park and later South Ozone Park homes with a gentle airyness, daily odes to our fore parents that beckoned me to wake up early too. I vividly remember my grandmother’s self-manicured fingers grasping for a tape. Sometimes it would be taan music, sometimes Anup Jalota or Shri Prakash Gossai. I was always internally excited when she reached for the dubbed one whose paper cover insert was almost entirely white, save for my grandma’s blue-inked script writing, saying “Lata Mangeshkar songs.” Lata’s voice had a way of moving me to tears even as an adolescent. Sweet. Nostalgic. Home.
When I began singing in the mandir, I would go through my Bhajan book and find only the songs that were sung by Lata. I wanted to sound just like her, like the movie stars did. “Bachapan Hai Din Bhula Na Dena’’ was one of the first film songs I ever sang publicly. My then-teacher Shri Jeewan Chowtie thought it suited my budding nine-year-old voice. I often sang Tora Man Darpan at funerals and Jyot Se Jyot Jagaate Chalo during Lakshmi puja. I chose Daaka Dale on stage at my high school Archbishop Molloy’s International Day and Kabhi Kabhi in my solitude after a broken heart. Lata didn’t just accompany me while singing, but she guided me and countless relatives and friends onto the dance floor too, especially when Mohe Lagee Re started playing. Every Indo-Caribbean setting seemed appropriate to play Lata’s songs, while clutching a carnation flower in prayer or a glass of Johnny Walker.
It should be said here that, as is often the case with cultural icons, Lata’s political history may have been questionable, given her involvement with the Hindu rashtra. A proud and practicing Hindu myself, I could never get behind the hateful injustices perpetrated by Hindu nationalists. This issue deserves unpacking and deep introspection, however there is no minimizing the vast impact Lata has had on Indian diaspora communities the world over.
When I learned of her passing, even at 92 years old, I felt a deep sense of loss. I spent a few minutes each day for a week singing in the shower listening to her music, tears streaming down my face. I told my husband we’d have to keep her music alive for our unborn kids somehow. Lata could often be seen wearing a white saree much like Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of music and learning. Given my informal training, she honestly functioned as my living Saraswati. Thankfully, she’s left a record number of songs for us to remember her by. May her soul rest in peace.