As a kid I strongly believed that If God had to speak she’d sound just like Lata Mangeshkar.
In the Western coastal belt - Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka - most of my generation grew up listening to bhajans of Bhimsen Joshi and Lata Mangeshkar. The great Bhimsen Joshi renowned for classical music was at stratospheric levels that seemed beyond reach. Even singing his Bhajans was impossible. Lata Mangeshkar on the other hand seemed part of everyone’s family and a voice that soothed everyone.
One of my Indonesian colleagues had mentioned to me that she’d found that all Indian songs seemed to be sung by the same voice, and I couldn't help laughing when she said that and asked her to listen to the newer songs sung by emerging artistes. But the reference is a great way to illustrate the complete domination of Hindi film music by Lata and her sister Asha Bhonsle. Enough has been written about this and shown in movies. There however was a difference iMHO to this. A Monopoly (or a Duopoly) was possible because they were that good. It is hard to ever find fault in any of the singing by these sisters, and they hit their peak towards their middle age and even in their 60s were belting out hit songs.
The point to remember is that these songs were mostly from an age when mixing and separate sound recording & mixing was not an option. The entire song had to be recorded at one go, with all singers, chorus, with the musical background performing at one go. Both Lata and Asha Bhonsle could be relied on completing the song within a few hours.
This had several benefits, mainly the vast body of exceptional songs and hits. About the turn of the century when I was in Dubai, one FM channel was playing songs by Lata through the day to celebrate her birthday, and it was an overwhelming experience because I think both the listeners and the different RJs were going through their own journeys recalling the times they had first listened to the hit songs and what it had meant for them personally. and one also couldn't help realizing that this list was endless and even dedicating the entire day to her music barely did justice to cover barely a percentage of the hits she’d delivered through the decades.
One un-intended consequence of this monopoly was that the few times anyone used other singers, they were bound to be hits or stand out and be remembered. From Runa Laila to Usha Uthup, Vani Jairam, Chhaya Ganguly, Preeti Sagar etc. - enough voices sang in films and delivered memorable hit songs. I think the struggle would have been greater for singers to stand out today - earlier it was easy to be distinctive - one just had to sound different to Lata.
Eventually in the last couple of decades, new singers gained ground and music directors (especially AR Rehman) experimented with different styles of voices - curiously this only solidified the association of Lata’s voice to what I can describe is the ‘soul’ of India - where a strong emotional connection can be established only employing her style of voice and singing. A R Rehman used her in a few songs, but the one song in Rang De Basanti of a mother’s turmoil on losing her son, could only be sung by Lataji.
Lata’s voice was unique - there were other good singers with a similar style. For me, the best way to establish this was the fact that no one could replicate her singing or voice easily. During the late 80s and 90s there was this horrendous trend of remixes, with ‘Jhumka beats’ and covers done where popular hits were butchered to an un-recognisable pulp. But beyond this remixing, the most irritating part was the attempt to sing songs by Lata - as no one could get the nuance, the inflection the pauses right.
As I continue to listen to her songs it is hard to not be amazed by her prowess. Currently I am listening to an exceptional album where Bhimsen Joshi and Lata Mangeshkar collaborated to produce Bhajans, and each one of them sublime. This to me is one of the best showcases of her singing talent, as she was not only singing with one of the greats of Indian classical music but matching (and IMHO even surpassing him in a few cases).
Many have called her the Goddess Saraswati and given her great body of work that will serve to inspire and be part of our national fabric, its only fair to say she’s part of the soul of India.