She does not have anything at all left to prove. The Ultimate Diva, the Nightingale of India, the benchmark for playback, the first name in Indian music – Lata Mangeshkar is everything, and lot’s more. When she allots us ten minutes and requests the chief questions in advance, there is not a trace of arrogance – she just wants to know what she is letting herself in for. And that’s a fundamental right’s earned long before she touched 80 on September 28 and completed over 68 years since her first recording for the unreleased Marathi film Kiti Hasaal in 1942. That she’s been much chronicled is an understatement, so we try and avoid the FAQs. She listens carefully to the questions and requests us to call in the early evening. Of course we speak longer than ten minutes – much longer…
We are a bit disappointed that she’s only granted a telephonic interview, but Lata-lovers cannot be choosers and we take consolation from the thought that an entire book has been recently written on her almost exclusively from ‘phone conversations and we only have to write a feature.
How do we address her -as Didi, Lataji or by any other way, we want to know and she sweetly replies, “Whatever you are comfortable with – I am okay with anything you like.”
We start off with the only FAQ we have: How does she feel at 80, and looking back at her long personal and professional journey, what does she consider as her own biggest achievement when the world rightly considers her the ultimate singer?
“Can I tell you the truth?” she says. “So many singers have been better than me, are better than me and will be better in the future too! To be honest, my biggest achievement is that janate ne malaa pasand kele (the people liked me), they showered me with so much love and affection and gave my singing and me a consistently great response. I personally feel from the core of my heart that this is all my parents’ and my gurus’ blessings and my destiny that I was able to reach where I did. I cannot really say that I have done all this!”
But surely she has some role in such an unparallelled saga of super-success? A tinkling laugh precedes her answer. “My role is there. I worked very hard – but so many others must have done so and not got showered with the kind of love I received! Yes, I went through so many hardships, made so many sacrifices and got myself completely dedicated towards my career as my only goal.”
Apart from some clear followers of the Lata Mangeshkar school of singing, even some less-obvious playback singers seem to have patterned their vocals and career on her. Interrupting us, she says, “I don’t know. Maybe they must have thought that whatever I do is right, or maybe even that I am doing well so they could also try out the same thing. Of course, it could be excessive love or devotion to me, for when there is bhakti, you follow your idol with eyes closed!”
So how would she describe herself as a musician when she has been so much of an inspiration and role-model?
With the limitless patience of a wise teacher explaining an elementary fact to a slow student, she says, “He baghaa, mee parat tumhala ekach goshta bolte (See, I am telling you the same thing once again) – it’s all God’s benediction and wishes. I cannot describe what I am. Yes, I put in a lot of effort to understand what playback singing, as opposed to classical music or any other musical field, was all about.”
She goes on, “I made a study of the art, especially of its specialised needs. I realised that it called for a circus of three to four minutes in which everything – your musical knowledge, your diction, expression and everything else had to be packed in. It was also clear that while being conscious of all these factors, it was essentially music for a film, for a situation in a story and for a heroine. And yes, I did a lot of mehnat because I was a Marathi-speaking girl and that could affect my Hindi and Urdu dictions. I studied Hindi and Urdu and initially followed some singers who were excellent at these aspects. I would listen to K.L.Saigal, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khansaab, Ustad Amir Khansaab and Nazakat-Salamat. I even followed Noorjehan to some extent. Anil Biswas, Ghulam Haidersaab and some other film composers also taught me various aspects. And I put in similar efforts when it came to other languages like Bengali.”
What about her expertise in Western songs, something that Lataji isn’t conventionally associated with? “Oh, I got to sing a lot of Western songs – because my base was strong in Indian classical music!” What about her famous aversion to cabaret numbers? And how come she still sang numbers like Aa jaan-e-jaan and Mehfil soyi in Intequam, Aur mera naam hai Jameela in Night In London, Iss duniya mein jeena hai in Gumnaam and others?
“Yes,” admits the lady. “I would have objections to the lyrics of such songs. But Shankar-Jaikishan and Laxmikant-Pyarelal took care of those aspects, made songs suited to my vocal cords and left me free to sing them in my style rather than like a typical cabaret.”
Laxmikant-Pyarelal and Shankar-Jaikishan, in that order, were also the composers with whom she recorded the most. What does she have to say about these monumental associations, for it was these composers who offered her the maximum variety? “They were composers who left a lot to me,” she replies. “They would tell me that I could do whatever I liked with the harkats and taans. They knew that a singer contributes a lot to the overall quality of a song and that it was not enough for a composer to break his head over a composition!”
This truism, we tell her, has been endorsed about Lata by composers from the legends down to today’s names. Could she enlighten us about the process of the creation of a song through the composer making her listen and teaching the song and her contributions?
“I think that for me it was about understanding the way different music directors thought and worked,” explains the Diva. “I had to deliver what each of them wanted, but with my individual touch. Expressions were of paramount importance and I would be very particular about the taal and also the words, especially the diction or ucchaar. Some music directors were very particular about the singer sticking strictly to their composition, but most of even composers would give me some freedom, like Naushadsaab was much more liberal with me than with others. And yes, for me it was also important who was going to enact the song on screen.”
And speaking of actresses, what is the secret behind her voice fitting everyone from Nargis to Nutan, Hema Malini, Kajol and Kareena Kapoor?
“Some people are fond of saying that I change my voice for different actresses, but that’s not true,” she says decisively. “I don’t know, but my voice seemed to fit everyone! Like Meena Kumari had a thin voice like mine. But yes, I would definitely observe all these actresses and their small traits and styles and habits, which must have helped. I certainly did not make any special efforts to be different for, say, a Dimple Kapadia in Bobby. But yes, it was basically all about my understanding the mood of the song.”
Expectedly, Lata Mangeshkar is diplomatic about which actresses enhanced her singing with their on-screen performances. “I think all of them tried to do their best!” she says. “Meena, Nargis, Nutan, Hema…everyone.”
In those days of “live” recordings, what was the kind of environment with her male co-singers or even the females in duets and multi-singer songs? Was there a spirit of competition in the positive sense? “How could there have been competition?” she wants to know. “All of us had to look after the needs of the songs. We all were at our individual best!”
Point taken, Didi. What is she doing now? “I am working with my brother Hridaynath on musical project on Meerabai. We are planning Dnyaneshwari too. I am approached for the occasional film song that I take on if I like it – I recently recorded for Anand-Milind in a Bhojpuri film.” After years of recording two or more songs in a day, is it easy to pass the time of day?
“Oh, time passes very easily for me!” she signs off. And we start planning the questions we can ask her when she approaches the next milestone.