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Meet Lata Mangeshkar (1967)

To me and, I believe, to every Indian, Lata Mangeshkar is not so much a person as a voice -- a voice that soars high and casts a magic spell over the hearts of millions of Indians from the Himalayas to Kanyakumari. It is a voice that is ageless, pure, vibrantly alive, untramelled in its range and flexibility, hauntingly expressive and enchanting in its sweetness.

Above all, it has a certain ethereal quality, an indefinable something, with a unique appeal for us Indians.

It would have been in a sense appropriate if a voice such as Lata's had sung exclusively the ecstatic bhajans of Mirabai. For these bhajans, apart from their poetic excellence and haunting melody, are an expression of total surrender to God. They are a quest which can only be expressed by a voice such as Lata's.

But Lata's voice, which really belongs to a temple or an ashram, has been in the service of film music for full twenty-five years now. Film-music is inevitably attuned to the requirements of box-office and box-office seems to require that film music should have catchy rhythms, swinging, sugary tunes, polyphonous and loud orchestral accompaniment and an abundance of sentimentality.

It is at least apparently incongruous that Lata should have almost exclusively devoted herself to singing songs for films. It is not a little unusual that, in her case, musical excellence has attained with the utmost ease a hypnotic popularity. And it is certainly unprecedented that in the world of films, where fashions change every couple of years,

Lata should have reigned supreme as the best and the most popular singer for an uninterrupted span of twenty-five years.

Lata Mangeshkar is thus a unique musical phenomenon-a phenomenon that not only arouses one's curiosity but also makes one feel grateful. The gratefulness is felt because, in the confused and corrupted world of film music, she keeps alive something that is pure, essentially musical and uniquely Indian.

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I had always wanted to meet Lata and the fact that she was completing her silver jubilee  as a singer provided an ideal occasion for doing so. I had expected her to be rather inaccessible and reluctant. Actually, she was quite co-operative.

I started the conversation with a reference to the landmark in her career: "You will soon complete twenty-five years of an eventful musical career. What are your feelings on this occasion ? It is obvious that you must be experiencing a deep sense of fulfillment. But do you also have any regrets, a sense of opportunities missed and lost for ever ?"

Lata shook her head, rejecting, as it were, my question. Her expression acquired a certain severity and became devout. She said: "I have no sense of fulfillment and no regrets. The only feeling I have is one of deep gratitude to God for his infinite kindness."

I looked at her closely to find out if there was any false note in what she said. I found none. Her words seemed to spring from her heart. In any case, I was not surprised by her devoutness. Lata hails from Goa and she has inherited the devoutness that has been nurtured in that soil by Hindus for centuries. It has become an essential part of her personality and music. And, if we decide to leave God out of the picture, Lata`s musical talent is a legacy left to his children by her father, the late Master Dinanath, a well-known singer and actor on the Marathi stage. Ironically, he died penniless.

Naturally, I asked Lata about the influence of her father on her music in her early years.

"He died when we were all very young. I, the eldest of his children, was barely twelve at the time. But I remember him distinctly. He was always so full of music that we all naturally got interested in it. He also taught me music, although only for a little while."

"I hardly ever heard him on the stage though," she continued, in a reminiscent mood. "He was orthodox in his ideas. He would not let us, his daughters, watch a play, and he was absolutely opposed to the idea of my acting in one. He was terribly annoyed when I once acted in a play behind his back. He did not mind our learning music, though. In fact, he encouraged it."

"Were there any other musical influences in your formative years?"

"Yes. I listened to music whenever I could. But it was not really the external influences that made me a singer. Music was in me. I was full of it. Tunes floated through my mind endlessly, and I used to hum them all the time, even when having my meals. I remember that, once at school, I even counted things in terms of the notes in the musical scale! And I had an amazing memory as well as a capacity for musical imitation. I could remember tunes heard years ago and reproduce them exactly."

"It must have been wonderful to be so full of music. Are you full of it even now ?"

"Yes, I suppose so. I think up tunes and hum them all the time."

"But didn't you have any regular musical training at all?"

"Oh, yes, I had. And it was rigorous training in classical music. I was first taught by my father. Later on, in 1945, I became the student of Amanali Bhendibazarwale. It was the late Master Vinayak the famous film director and producer, who insisted on my having the training and offered to pay two hundred rupees a month for it. It was a very kind offer, but I was too proud to accept it. In later years, I got training from Amanatali Devaswale. I wish I had had more of it. But I soon won recognition as a playback singer in our films and I had to devote all my time to this demanding and fascinating career."

"Do you think that this training in classical music has proved useful to you in becoming a successful playback singer?"

"Certainly.The training has made it easy for me to understand and execute what a music director wants. It has given my voice a consistency and flexibility which singers of film songs often lack. I also think that the training has helped my voice retain its musical qualities all these years. Voices of playback singers do not generally last that long."

"I am sure", I said, "that the training in classical music has done you a lot of good. Yet classical music and film music are two quite different things, and a musician who excels in classical music can prove a flop in the world of film music."

"Oh, yes, the two are quite different. Film music requires a voice that has a certain delicacy and a capacity to express emotion in all its richness and variety. Long sessions of rigorous training in the classical style can deprive a voice of these qualities. I have to be very careful to avoid overexerting my voice. And that is one of the reasons why I cannot train myself in the classical style, although I would love to do so."

"In a way, to sing film songs appears very easy. Almost anybody with a pleasant voice can sing a film song effectively. Yet very few manage to succeed as singers in film music. How do you account for it ?", I asked.

"One has to have and develop a number of qualities in order to succeed as a singer in films. A film song is sung to express a mood...an emotion. The singer must have the ability to grasp the mood and express it through music. Unlike in classical music, words matter a great deal in film music. The singer has to pronounce them with clarity and in a manner that brings out all the emotion they carry. The singer also needs a correct understanding of what a mike does to one's voice. And, above all, the voice has to be trained to do a lot of things with ease and grace and a compelling appeal."

I then asked her about her early years and the struggle that she had to go through to establish herself as a playback singer.

"Those were hard times", she said. "We were very poor and desperately in need of money. I had, therefore, to work without respite. I remember occasions when I worked without food and sleep for two days and more. And then there were prejudices to be overcome. It used to be said disparagingly in those days that songs sung by Maharashtrians smelt of dal and rice! I had to disprove it and cultivate a fine Hindustani accent as well. There was so much else to learn, too, and I had to do it mostly by myself."

"But didn't you have any model before you? Didn't you, at any time,say to yourself that you would like to sing like somebody -- like say, Saigal ?"

I thought of Saigal because I had observed a certain affinity between that great and popular singer of film songs and Lata.

"Yes, of course. I loved Saigal's wonderful songs. The songs had no frills. There was no attempt to display musical virtuosity. He used to sing them simply, from the bottom of his heart. That is what I wanted to do. That is what I tried to learn from him. That is what I have been striving to do all along ", she said, with a certain passionate urgency.

"And have you done it?" I asked.

"God has been very kind", was all she said.

"Any singer who casts such a tremendous spell on the people must have something more than a sweet voice and a capacity to express emotion through her music. She must somehow touch the very soul of a people. Their deepest yearnings, the very core of their being, has to find expression in that singer's songs to a degree. Saigal did this and so have you. "

She was silent.

"There is a difference between the two of you, though", I continued. "Saigal always sounded like an angel that had fallen. His was a flawed spirituality; and, because it was flawed, it had a special appeal. Your voice expresses something pure, unblemished and yet lonely and sad. In any case, the songs of both of you move people deeply."

"I remember an occasion when I was in Calcutta", she responded. "An old man saw me and suddenly rushed forward and fell at my feet. He was not an illiterate man- he seemed to belong to the educated middle class. I was so moved by what he did that I started crying. I cried all the way home, and I cried for a long time afterwards", Lata laughed, deprecatingly, as if to suggest that it was rather silly of her to have been so deeply moved.

But this evidence of her being an emotional person was rather interesting. For she had looked quite self-possessed and businesslike in everything she had said and done. In fact, she had seemed to me rather an unemotional person, although her songs reveal a rare capacity to feel deeply and express emotions with compelling power.

I asked : "You have been in the world of film music for the last twenty-five years. What are the changes in popular taste that you have noticed ? Has it changed for the better of for the worse?"

"There has been a considerable change in musical taste and it has not all been for the better. I would not really blame the people for the vulgarisation of taste. It is the music directors who are responsible for it. They are the makers of popular taste."

She wanted to say more but didn't, obviously not wanting to hurt anybody.

"Do you think that the influence of Western music on our film music has been healthy ?"

"I would not say that such an influence is inherently bad. There has always been a lot of give and take in the world of music. Our classical music itself is a blend of many influences; and the Western Pop singers have borrowed a great deal from Africa and elsewhere. I do not, therefore, mind it if our music absorbs foreign influences. What I do mind is indiscriminate borrowing which creates the kind of hybrid, hotchpotch music we have today."

"Can't something be done about it?"

"Oh, yes, something can be done, and efforts have been made in that direction. But it is so difficult to change things in the film industry. There is a sort of formula of success; and nobody wants to violate it. So things go on in a groove."

She paused a little and then continued: "A film song must be appropriate to the situation in which it is sung. It must express the mood, the interplay of emotion, the element of drama that is inherent in that situation. The words and the tune have to be apt. The orchestral accompaniment must heighten the effect of the song and it must fit in with the locale and the situation. But we don't seem to bother about it. There is a slavery of latest fashions and trends."

I smiled and said : "In any case, I do hope that something is done to minimise or cut out altogether those noisy and jarring orchestral interludes that interrupt every film song at every step."

She agreed with a smile: "I would like to elaborate the musical theme myself rather than leave it to the orchestra." She added, more seriously: "There was a generation of music directors that used to worry about the appropriateness and unity of their musical compositions, and I am really grateful to men like Ghulam Haider, Shyamsunder, Khemchand Prakash, Naushad and Salil Chowdhury for the music they composed for me to sing. But those who succeeded them have not worried about the basic things. They are very talented men who have introduced a number of innovations. But they seem to be overlooking something very essential."

"That brings me", I said, "to a very basic point. Film music is light music and I do not expect from it the kind of satisfaction and joy that one derives from classical music. But I do expect that film music should give pleasure, even to a man with a cultivated musical taste. This does not generally happen, although there are bits and pieces of film songs that are really nice. Can anything be done to change this state of affairs?"

"That is not impossible," said Lata, emphatically. "A great deal can be done."

"Are you trying to do it yourself?"

She smiled and said: "I will not say anything about it now."

"What are your plans for the future?" I asked.

"No plans in particular. I will carry on with my work. But I do hope that I will be able to devote more time to classical music. I love to listen to it. I am a great admirer of musicians like Bhimsen Joshi,Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Amir Khan. Pt. Omkarnath and D.V.Paluskar, who died an untimely death. I want to sing classical music one of these days, if I can."

Source: (*This interview first appeared in Illustrated Weekly in 1967.)

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.