Lata Mangeshkar speaks (1999)

Lata Mangeshkar sang Jiya jale jaan jale, the tortured, tormented song from Dil Se, she was 70, almost the dowager of Indian music, and as set as an artiste can be in her singing style. She sang the teasing, light-hearted Didi tera devar deewana at 68.

This year, she completes 57 years of singing -- she began singing when she was nine. And yet, pick up the telephone and call her at her Peddar Road flat in Prabhu Kunj, Bombay, and you will hear the silvery voice when you instruct the child to call Lataji to the phone.

Lata is deeply family-oriented -- one whole floor in her building belongs to her and her family. The floor has five flats, each one occupied by a sister or brother. She is very fond of her nephews and nieces, she feels protected by her family and, in turn, is jealously protective of them ("I can't stand it if people start criticizing my family," says a firm Lata). She is also profoundly religious. She does a lot of charity work about which no one ever gets to know. Above all, she is a private person who likes solitude.

On that whole floor -- like a joint family home -- just one room is exclusively hers. You get the feeling that she is relentlessly, ruthlessly, trying to cut down on her needs. Her one indulgence is a pair of gold payals (anklets) which she wears all the time. Her mother once remonstrated with her, 'Wearing gold on the feet is inauspicious; only royalty has that right.' 'So what,' she retorted uncharacteristically, 'I will wear it.'

Lata Mangeshkar has three other homes. One is a tiny flat in Pune, where she stays when she tires of Bombay. Another is an old disused fort-like mansion at Kolhapur where sometimes there are no servants: she goes there for silence and peace and stays there for weeks on end. When she isn't there, the people of Kolhapur look after the house. They never question their right or responsibility to do so -- it is almost a sacred duty.

And her third flat is in a city she loves -- London. In fact, she constantly seeks excuses to visit the place.

Interviewing her has been one of the ambitions of my life. I used to wonder how a woman who has seen so much sadness and privation could bring so much joy to people by just singing. From rickshaw-drivers and beggars to prime ministers, everyone's life has been touched by Lata Mangeshkar.

So when I met her, I asked her what the most joyous moment in her life was. When she performed at the Albert and Victoria Hall in London, she fluted gently. She explained that the English managers of her programme (a three-day function at the hall) had done their best to talk her out of it because they were convinced that she would not be able to fill up the hall. When the concert eventually started, there were 5,000 people waiting outside the huge doors to be let inside. The first night, she got a 10-minute standing ovation. It was the most satisfying moment of her life.

And the saddest? Her mother died in 1995. Everyone loves their mother. But Lata worshipped hers. She had been ailing and Lata was out when the end came. At that time, Lata said, she found she just couldn't cry.

After a fortnight, she was due to travel to America to meet US President Bill Clinton. She returned from the US, reached her London flat, opened the door and suddenly felt completely, absolutely bereft. Her mother wasn't there, she wasn't in Bombay, and she would never be there even again. For three days, she wept. She would wipe her eyes and more tears would flow.

Lata is cricket-mad. The day my interview was fixed, India was playing Pakistan in Madras and had all but won the match when they lost it by 12 runs. Lata was in a foul mood. She didn't have her lunch that day. I thought the interview would have to be re-scheduled but, then, she came around. When the Indian team won the World Cup, she happened to be in London and she invited the team to her flat and treated them to gajar ka halwa that she had cooked herself.

She has had no formal education whatsoever. She went to school for just one day, and she was asked to write Shri Ganeshaya Namah on the blackboard. The teacher was quite pleased with her and asked her to come again. The next day, she took Asha -- then just a year old -- with her. 'This is not a creche,' the teacher told her, 'you can't bring your sister here.' Lata went back home and never returned. Later, she taught herself Hindi, Urdu, Sanskrit and English. Today, she has PhDs from 11 universities.

She is a perfectionist: every interview, every performance is thoroughly planned and rehearsed. It is only now that she occasionally sings without rehearsing. She says she doesn't like listening to her own songs -- if she can, she switches the set off. If she can't, she starts talking loudly to distract people from the song because, she says, she can see all the mistake she's made.

Though Lata was awarded the Padma Vibhushan yesterday, she doesn't want a presidential nomination to the Rajya Sabha, nor does she want to enter politics. She believes it is enough of an honour that she was born an Indian and a Maharashtrian. She recalls with nostalgia and gratitude, Noorjehan's contribution to her career in those dark, seemingly hopeless days in Kolhapur when she began singing and, often, there was nothing to eat for three days in a row. She met Noorjehan once at Wagah and it was a warm reunion. In this extract from her two-and-a-half-hour long interview, she speaks about the cruelty of the charges made against her (of stifling younger talent), the younger days and her loneliness.

Once Kumar Gandharva wrote that although you sang well, you couldn't do justice to karun rasa (pathos). He also said your voice was too high-pitched.

Yes, he did say so once. But let me tell you, in the old days, women always used to sing in a high pitch. Men used to match their sur. I learnt singing from my father and he used to sing in a very high sur. All of us -- Asha, Meena, Usha -- we all would sing in high sur. We got sort of used to it.

Then I came into films and several people scolded me. They said my voice was too high. I told them, what can I do? I just don't know how to sing in a low sur. Anil Biswas (the legendary composer) told me, "Why don't you try lowering your sur?"

Anyway, I found that as I grew older, my voice began deepening, my sur started coming down, as it were. But some preferred my younger, higher voice -- particularly Shankar-Jaikishan. We even used to fight over this.

But how can someone who has faced so much pathos in real life do injustice to karun rasa?

Maybe Kumarji (Kumar Gandharva) felt that way, I didn't do anything on purpose.

Once I remember Raj Kapoorsaab told Jaikishan: "Jaikishan, you should make Lata sing the sad songs in her high sur, but the happy songs should be pitched lower." But Shankar-Jaikishan wouldn't listen. So we used to fight. We were also about the same age -- they were just six months older than me and felt they could bully me. I used to tell them: "I won't pitch my voice so high." They would say: "You have to."

You had a fight over Mein kya karoon Ram, mujhe buddha mil gaya -- you didn't want to sign the song but you had to, because you were pressurised by Raj Kapoor...

No, he didn't put pressure... actually what happened was, I told him I won't sing the song because I don't like it... because I don't like the lyrics. So he told me: "The song is about a joke being played, you are playing a joke on your husband." He told me he would picturise the song in such a way that nobody would think it was vulgar. On that condition, I did sing the song, but I didn't see the film (Sangam).

You mean you never sang the song again on stage or anything?

I didn't see the film because of that one song.

So you first ask to see the lyrics and then decide whether or not you will sing the song?

In the beginning, I used to. And if I felt a song was vulgar, I wouldn't sing it. Gradually, all the music directors got to know that Lata will not sing a certain type of song. So such songs just stopped coming to me.

So you don't sing any songs with double entendre? Where the lyrics have two meanings?

Yes, because I understand shairi (poetry), I avoid such songs.

And yet, you did sing Laagi badan mein jwala, saiyan tune kya kar dala?

Whose song it was I don't remember. (It was filmed on Jayalalitha with Dharmendra as the hero in Izzat.) Yes, the old ones, you might find a few, I might have sung them, but in those days I was very young. I didn't know much. Even today, Kamalsaab (director Kamal Amrohi) had a song, Jalta hai badan, in one of his films. I objected a little. It was a song in Razia Sultan, which he wanted sung in a particular way, because, he said, my picture demands that. But I couldn't really put my heart and soul into it. There are some people you can't say no to. Kamalsaab loved me a lot. He was always very nice to me. So I said, okay, here goes.

Who else did you get into fights with, apart from Shankar-Jaikishan? People say O. P. Nayyar had a fight with you and never let you sing any of his songs?

Oh no, I never had a fight with O P Nayyar.

But everyone believes you did....

These are all malicious rumours. Nayyarsaab was always very courtly with me. I used to like his music a lot. But somehow I always felt the type of songs he created were better suited to Asha or Geeta Dutt. I used to think so then and continue to think so today.

Why did you never sing for him?

No, they were different types of songs, in a style which was not suited to my voice. Once, I remember, I had a recording with him and I fell ill and had to cancel it. Even after that he (Nayyar) called me and I didn't go. But we never had a fight.

I mean, he used to ring me and rib me -- he used to say "I've heard that you hear a tune on the telephone and you can reproduce it faultlessly. A music director sounds a key on the harmonium and you know what the song is, but this won't happen with me. I'm a tougher cookie. If you want to sing for me, you'll have to rehearse the song countless times."

So basically, he used to joke and kid with me.

You spoke of your differences with Shankar-Jaikishan. Did this happen often in the music world -- disputes of this kind?

I have had lots of fights. A lot of people used to say I am very quarrelsome. Although I must say there was always a reason for fighting. And I used to fly into a rage a lot...

It is also said that you got angry with Shankar-Jaikishan and you started promoting Laxmikant-Pyarelal.

No, this is also not true. I never got so angry with Shankar-Jaikishan, I had a good relationship with them. When Laxmikant-Pyarelal were younger, they would come to our house and stay there, they and all their brothers.

We are told you and Khayyam had some differences of opinion and finally he had to compromise with you?

Someone told tales about me to Khayyamsaab. I don't know who. He got annoyed with me. Then I sang the song in Akhri Khat.

There are so many people who have misunderstood you...

Yes, well, people must have something to talk about.

People often speak of your rivalry with your sister Asha Bhosle. They say you stunted her growth so that she wouldn't overtake you....

If I had stunted her growth she wouldn't be where she is today, so famous and sought after. The first thing is, Asha wasn't here at all. She got married and went away. She found fame only later. Second, our styles are quite different. It is true that we are sisters and that our voices sound similar. But she has a very different singing style. I can't even think of such a thing about my sister, my own flesh and blood.

You still love each other as much?

Yes, we have always been together.

How did a whole film -- Saaz -- get made on this subject? You must have seen it. It tried to twist this relationship...

Yes, everyone tries to twist this.

Didn't you object to this treatment of what was clearly your life story. All the reviews said Saaz was based on your life.

Yes, but I didn't want to get into politics. What's the point of denying something which simply doesn't exist? If you try and deny something, people draw their own conclusions. When there is nothing (no rivalry), why should I try to deny it?

I was told something like this is being made. I said I have no interest in all this. I know whether I'm good or bad. I have a limited amount of time. I'd rather spend it doing puja than going out trying to deny idiotic stories.

So these people who spread stories about you, were they only from the industry?

No, they can't all have been from our industry. They must have been from outside as well. I don't know any of them. Maybe they have been visiting my home pretending to be my friends. I don't know.

Some say you stunted Suman Kalyanpur's growth. Others say you stifled Vani Jairam's chances...

Absolutely not, this is all wrong. When Vani Jairam came on the scene, I was the first one to praise her. When Suman Kalyanpur came into Hindi films, I gave her a song which was first offered to me. I had rehearsed it and I gave it to her to sing.

Which song was this?

I don't remember now, but the music was by Mohammad Shafi. I was sitting with Shafi one day -- his wife is Vilayat Khansaab's sister. I used to go to tea to their house. One day, Suman came there. He  told me, "Tai, this girl sings well." I knew Suman because she used to sing Marathi songs and would often come to our house. I said, "Shafibhaiyya, you call me your elder sister, so give her one of my songs."  He said: "Won't you mind?" I said: "Absolutely not. If she makes a name for herself, I will be happy." But there are always some people who want to spread stories, who said Lata didn't like this. Even that poor girl, that Runa Laila, even she came to me. Someone said something to her -- and they were our own people.

So all these things were said on your behalf and no one even asked you what you felt?

Yes, some people didn't like these girls coming here and singing..

I think you were once travelling abroad and you had a recording and you told the composer to hire Vani Jairam for that song.

Yes this happened several times. The film -- Naushadsaab's -- was being made and I had a duet. I was to travel to America. So I told him you take someone else for this song. He got very angry with me. He said what will I do now? I said take Suman for the song. So he took her.


Did you start laying down these conditions when you were still struggling -- telling music directors what lyrics were acceptable and which songs you would sing? Or did it come later when you established a monopoly in the music industry?

No, in the beginning it was really difficult. I worked for six years and then my father died. I began acting and singing in films. But I was so young that it was very difficult for anyone to use me for playback.

I believe you lived in a chawl in Bombay when you were a struggling singer?

No, it was not a chawl. Nine of us -- we five(my brother and sisters), my mother, my mother's sister and two of her children -- used to live in one room. I used to walk rather than take buses to save money.

May I ask a personal question? Why did you not marry?

I never got time to think about it. I started working at 13 and I had the responsibility of ensuring the livelihood of nine people. It never occurred to me.

Don't you feel lonely? Do you ever regret this decision to stay single?

No. I never feel lonely and I don't regret it. I am happy the way I am. Who knows, if I had got married, it would have ended in a divorce! I love living alone, doing my puja and riyaaz.

Whom do you worship?

Well, my kul guru (family God) is Mangesh (Lord Shiva). But I worship Krishna a lot. I empathise with Mirabai. 

Source:(*This interview was originally published in Filmfare, 1999 and was archived on the net by Neha Desai.)

About the author
Dr. Mandar V. Bichu

Lata Online’s editor-webmaster-curator Dr. Mandar V. Bichu is a pediatrician based in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, who is also a prolific writer-journalist. His fascination for Lata Mangeshkar’s music has resulted in two books-Gaaye Lata Gaaye Lata and Lata-Voice of the golden era, and many published articles.