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Lata Pishima

by Lajo Gupta

There was another reality. It wasn’t a figment of one’s imagination. We lived it.  

Ours were acclimatized, inventive lives sans air-conditioning or television. Our fridge was an icebox that needed ice brought to it, everyday and water drained out every night. We had pump stoves and coal stoves and the only luxury was electricity which revved up ceiling fans and worked the radio and lights.

But there was always plenty to do – plenty that we made-up; plenty of visitors and concerts and books, plenty of house parties that went on through the night … a simple blissful tapestry all threaded through with the vein of music.

Music was the core. Classical Music surrounded by a periphery of eclectic choices!

Baba had forbidden my going to movies after “Sujata” because after watching my aunt - Ma Annapoorna Pishima cry in the movie, I started sobbing in empathy and it must have really bothered Baba because he promptly pulled me out of the theatre for an ice cream and put a stop to all such excursions… for me.

Which could have bothered but didn’t because we still had books and the radio!!!!  

The radio filled us in on movies we weren’t allowed to see – a short excerpt of a story punctuated with songs, with meandering imagination filling in the blanks and making everything feel like a personal experience.

Really weirdly personal … sometimes scary, like Woh Kaun Thi … sometimes romantic and sad like Prem Patra, sometimes patriotic like Haqeeqat and sometimes a happy jaunt like Half Ticket or Jhumroo!

We had hand wound record players. And pocket money that could be saved to buy a 78 RPM once a month and an LP once every six months. When I look at that collection, one thing stands out firm and clear … there were more Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle singles and albums than any other!

And spools of the songs they sang for Baba. Some released, some unreleased yet!

Now, we knew where they lived. It is a landmark. And every time we passed it, I would fold my hands and do Namaskar. 

Their relationship with Baba dates back to a time I was, I suppose, a twinkle in my father’s eye. He often spoke of them, with a respectful fondness.

As time and wishful wistful thought wound on, by a quirk of fate or in answer to this wish, I found myself getting closer to my hero Asha Didima… the Verve Woman, the Renaissance Woman; the Woman who looked adversity and conformity in the eye – dared destiny and took the road less travelled to do … to be … to become.  

The outcome of this was Baba’s “Legacy” featuring Asha Didima (my Didi and Boudi) as my new gurubehen …

Lata Pishima was there but distant!

One of the first concerts I attended in Dubai was hosted by Tanvir Kanji – featuring Lata Pishima. She readily autographed the proffered brochure and asked

,”Bhaiya Kaise hain? How is my brother?”

I answered “Voh theek hain. Aapko bahut yaad karte hain”   He’s doing good. Thinks of you a lot.

Shaadi hui kya”, she asked. “Are you married?

Jee.. Do betiyan hain. Ab ek teesra/teesri” (Yes … I have two daughters. A third is expected”.

She smiled and said.”Badi ho gayi ho. Bahut dubli ho. Khaana theek se khaaya karo”. You’ve grown up a lot. You’re skinny. Eat well. (meaning: I need to eat for two)”.

And then she was swept away by the organizers.

I didn’t get to look at her face. My responses had been to her feet.   

When Baba came down for a concert in 1992, I called her as she was in Dubai and Baba and she spoke for a while. They seemed to be in a great mood and laughed a lot. She couldn’t make it to the concert as she was leaving the same day but such is the fabric of destiny … the connections made – the relationships built, return to us, in moments unexpected

 In later years, once when I went visiting, she came across to Asha Didima’s apartment and looked at me and smiling, made a statement

“ Moti ho gayi hai na. Baal bhi kaat diye!”

“You have become fat. And you have even cut your long hair”

I was deflated … my long hair had problems with getting acclimatized to foreign waters and my fat was due to – oh I don’t know what! Possibly eating with the Bhosles – all gourmands!   

I mustered “I don’t know” addressing her feet from point nonplus and clammed up.

But Varsha giggled and we all ended up having a good old laugh and that was the end of that!            

Last summer, in the throes of prepping for my daughter Aditi’s upcoming wedding, I was asked to write liner notes for a music disc – Ya Rabba – featuring Baiju Mangeshkar and his aunt, India’s jewel - the one and only Lata Mangeshkar.

The offer was unnerving; but since it came from blithe and bonny Baiju, I wrote it and nervously turned away from it until my first sight of the disc Baiju brought across. The jacket was unusual. Beautiful!

Baiju, singer/composer and artiste had created it.

Then the first hearing … which led to what my daughter Gayatri terms as the “recurrent daily/almost hourly repeat”.

The awesome, understated power of the voices; the sheer emotive simplicity of rendition – the haunting composition and the arrangement which knocked one into a stance of enraptured listening! This is the sum and substance of one’s subjective critique of Ya Rabba.

I did go over to the Mangeshkar family home during Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations to deliver the wedding invitations. Not a word about the music: just the Pooja and the Aarti!

As it turned out, it wasn’t to be my last … because in the next visit, I got to spend an hour plus with my Baba’s rakhi sister.

Lata Pishima.

My entrails were in knots. She had just woken up but stepped out smiling, her long braid visible … her smile as serenely sweet as ever! Raised to avoid direct eye contact with those one reveres, my eyes focused on her feet and someday, when I get a tad luckier, I shall get a picture of them because …

Hers are probably the most beautiful feet in the world.

She spoke of her long association with Baba and his gurubhai Pandit Ravi Shankar.

I told her that I had, in my Baba box, the rakhi she had tied to Baba’s wrist. She told me she had the sandalwood box that Baba gave her as her rakhi gift.

She said,” I never missed their concerts. Once I went to a concert right after a recording and gave Panditji my entire earnings for the day. When someone asked me why, I said “Mala Faar Avadto” (I loved it (the music) so much. Years later he introduced me as the ‘little girl who had given him all her earnings”.

“When I tied the rakhi to Alu Da’s wrist on Raksha Bandhan, he had nothing to give me, and so, at one concert, during the interval, he asked me to come to the green room and there he gave me this box. I have it.”

“We worked together for so long. He made, I think, 18 versions of Hai kahin par Shaadmani” for Aandhiyan. He had a hard life but forgot it all in work.”

In Dubai, while speaking to Lata Pishima over the phone, she told me “Alu Da once blessed me; he said I would sing for life. His blessing carries me forward”.

The bonds of music … as sweet and as unconditional as its practitioners of those other times, live on … through music!  

The sheer privilege of recording it here, in writing, is overwhelming. But I’m glad and utterly grateful to be here and now and out there, rediscovering …

(*Lajo Gupta is a writer, connoisseur and a compulsive do-gooder based in Dubai. She is the daughter of the legendary sarod maestro Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. Here is the link to her original blog)

About the author
Lajo Gupta

Lajo Gupta is a writer, connoisseur and a compulsive do-gooder based in Dubai. She is the daughter of the legendary sarod maestro Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. Here is the link to her original blog.