A lot has been said, heard and written about Lata Mangeshkar, undoubtedly the biggest icon of the Indian music industry. But hearing the diva clear the air about some famous myths about her and recollect experiences from her fascinating life beats all other narratives hands down. There’s no doubt that it’s Nasreen Munni Kabir’s meticulous research and understanding of the film industry that has helped define the personality of the star so vividly in her new book on the legend.
Flashback: (top) Five-year-old Lata (centre) with her parents and two of her three sisters in Sangli in 1944; (below) the singer as an adolescent. Lata Mangeshkar...In Her Own Voice/Niyogi Books
The book is based on a documentary series that Kabir directed for Channel 4 in 1991, Lata Mangeshkar...In Her Own Voice, with updated references to music composer A.R. Rahman in the wake of the double Oscars, besides some other points.
If you’re looking for a salacious, opinionated piece of music journalism, this is not it. Raju Bharatan’s Lata Mangeshkar: A Biography, published in 1995, leans in that direction. What Kabir offers instead is a page-turner which, if you’ve read any of Kabir’s works (Talking Songs With Javed Akhtar/Talking Films With Javed Akhtar), draws from her experience as a dedicated chronicler of Indian cinema. In her characteristically refined tone of narrative, Kabir manages to throw in personal anecdotes, allusions to rare songs and some other aspects of Mangeshkar’s professional life with equal ease.
The book also gives us the entire trajectory of the icon’s life—how the childhood bully became a young girl who had to turn breadwinner after she lost her father, and how, after years of struggling in the industry, she dethroned her competitors.
It’s inspiring when the legend recounts how she fought for recognition (Filmfare Awards introduced the best singer and lyricist categories in 1959 after Mangeshkar had a showdown with composers Shankar-Jaikishan and refused to sing at the show because it didn’t recognize singers and lyricists) and royalties. These weren’t merely personal battles; they would have a bearing on the playback singer fraternity in the years to come.
Mangeshkar also speaks of her contemporaries in a manner so candid that the reader feels she’s sitting right next to her at her Prabhu Kunj residence, watching her laugh and reminisce about the good times. There are other instances that might come as a shock to some—for example, a cook was slow-poisoning the singer in the 1960s!
Kabir uses some instances from the singer’s life to cleverly craft a glimpse of Indian history through her eyes, with references to the day India won independence and the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. The section where iconic composers, such as Naushad Ali, discuss the technical details of Mangeshkar’s voice and contemporaries such as Manna Dey show what a formidable force she was in the studio, and are extremely interesting to any music enthusiast. The book also has some rare photographs, including a landscape shot by Mangeshkar herself.
Of course, like most interviewers, Kabir too allows some element of awe to creep into her questioning, but in relation to the overall quality of the work, this is a minor flaw.
That the publishers chose to launch the book in the year the diva turns 80 is either great coincidence or deliberate—none of this should, however, make a difference to diehard Lata fans. Go for it the moment it hits the stands.
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