Sometime around the year 2010, young Hindi poet and author Yatindra Mishra embarked on a project that entailed conducting and recording phone interviews with the legendary Lata Mangeshkar, who turned 87 on 28 September. The interviews and conversations, which Mishra continued to schedule and record until earlier this year, were meant to provide information for a book the young author planned to write. Lata: Sur-gatha, published in Hindi by Vani Prakashan, is the outcome of six years of free-wheeling conversations between Mishra and Mangeshkar, focusing largely on her musical journey and experiences. Transcribed and included in Sur-gatha, these conversations provide invaluable and riveting information in a conversational tone.
As a playback legend, Mangeshkar’s was the singing voice for a bevy of Bollywood leading ladies. Through the book, we hear the singer’s own voice, the historic voice of a prodigiously gifted woman with a quiet but indomitable strength and an unflagging commitment to professionalism and hard work. The singing voice of the iconic singer has had an unprecedented impact on Indian film music, but the voice that we hear in the book, sharing anecdotes, memories and experiences, is equally moving and inspiring.
She shares charming anecdotes from her childhood when she and her siblings would re-enact scenes from films they had enjoyed watching. She narrates how she would play Tukaram, perched high on top of a pile of mattresses and pillows, singing “amhi jato amuchya gaavaa, amcha Ram Ram ghyawa” from the film Sant Tukaram, while her sisters Meena and Asha, along with cousin Pandharinath, played the part of Tukaram’s followers, weeping copious tears as they pleaded to be taken along to Vaikunth, the celestial home of Lord Vishnu.
Another lovely anecdote from approximately 1945-46 concerns a popular radio programme, titled Aap Ki Farmaish, where listeners could send in requests for their favourite songs to be broadcast. The names of those who requested the song would also be announced with the track details. Mangeshkar sent a request for Begum Akhtar’s searingly beautiful ghazal Deewana banana hai to…. She admits that it was more thrilling for her to hear her own name requesting a song than it was to be acknowledged as the singer of some of the most popular film songs in the history of Indian film music.
She stoically recalls the days of immense hardship following her father’s untimely death in 1942, when the onus of providing for the family fell on her young shoulders. Then 12, she would leave for work clad in simple cotton saris that she purchased for a mere Rs12, washed and dried herself and then carefully folded and kept under her pillow through the night because she could not afford to have them ironed at a laundry. Often, song recordings would take place on the studio floor after the shooting schedule for the day was completed. This meant that recording sessions took place late at night and continued well until the early hours of the morning, in spaces that were not air-conditioned and where the use of fans would have marred the sound.
In response to Mishra’s question about Partition, Mangeshkar’s response is one that we should perhaps pay heed to in current times. Recalling the pain of the tragedy, she says, “We artistes never felt the need to sever ties with any Pakistani artiste or citizen. We do not bear any animosity even today. After all, they were ‘apnay’, or belonged, so why make them ‘paraya’, or alienate them?”
Shubha Mudgal tweets at @smudgal and posts on Instagram as shubhamudgal.