She is one colossal, unforgettable experience
What can I say about Lata Mangeshkar? That she's the greatest singer? That would be hammering a cliche to pulp!
That she's an enigma? Certainly! In fact, that is why I named my book that way. No one, not even those closest to her -- and I am lucky to consider myself in a fairly elite group -- would be able to really say that they know her as well as they would like to.
For me, she has been one of the positive turning pints in my career as an announcer, compere, DJ and voice-over artiste. I was a newsreader on television and used to host the popular radio show, Kohinoor Geet Gunjar. I usually recorded at SL Studios in Tardeo, which was owned by Shashank Lalchand, scion of the Lalchand family of industrialists, and Lataji's concert recording engineer.
He suggested my name to her for one of her Indian tours, and being an avid radio listener and television watcher, she was aware of my work and me.
I remember the day in 1978 when I was to meet her for the first time at the same SL Studio. She was to come in for a rehearsal at 7 pm. Nervous, yet excited, I reached there at 6.45 pm. I remember the studio clock chiming 7 o'clock and a Fiat drawing up outside and didi alighting from it!
She was pleased that I too, was punctual, because she is so particular about punctuality herself. She remarked on it, attributing it to my being a television newsreader. Somewhat nervous and yet audacious, I suggested to her that if I were to compere her shows, I would not like to include chutkule (anecdotes) and would also like to be present at the rehearsals.
She said, 'You know, I was going to lay down these two conditions to you myself!' We had made a good beginning and my first show with her in Kolhapur went off like a breeze despite all my trepidation about not knowing Marathi as well as I know Hindi or English.
As a person and as an artiste, she has certain characteristics which stand out, and towering among these are some really fantastic paradoxes.
To begin with, she's tremendously, genuinely humble. She is very pious and God-fearing, and her way of greeting people with hands folded and with a slight forward bend of her body is, self-confessedly, her way of acknowledging that she is what she is because of God's special blessings on her.
When I began my association with her, I was practically a nobody and she was already the Lata. But never has she made me feel that chasm between a living legend and a successful professional.
And the paradox comes because she is well aware of her station in life, of where she has reached and the pinnacle on which she sits. The other paradox is her uproarious sense of humour -- because she is also a very strict disciplinarian!
I have seen these qualities in opposite kinds of people, but I have never found them co-existing in one human being. At shows and in her recordings, I keep telling her Itna mat hansiye (Don't laugh so much) because it would affect her voice.
When I have to use my voice, I give it rest for hours before that, but she does not bother. She even begins to narrate something absolutely hilarious in the interlude between the mukhda and antara, stops just in time to take up the lines at the perfect samm and continues her narration when the next interlude begins!
But she's a daunting taskmaster. On our foreign jaunts, we would naturally be in a mood to explore the new places and have fun. But we were not permitted any laxity before the shows. Many a time we had no time left after the endless rehearsals. In fact, there used to be a standing joke among us. On the flight, we would jokingly tell each other, 'Catch up on your sleep, man! We are going to have a rehearsal at the airport itself! '
That is essentially the secret of her success -- she's a perfectionist. There's no compromise on work. Her foreign -- or national -- audience would probably lap up anything Lata will sing, merely because of their good fortune in getting to listen live to her.
But she never thinks that way. Rehearsals in Bombay would begin 10 weeks before the show, with the full orchestra each time. The last rehearsal would be hours or minutes before the actual show! She wants to be perfectly prepared.
She also give a lot of importance to the selection of her songs. With her limitless repertoire, one would have thought that it did not matter which 20 songs she sang among the thousands of hits she has. But Anil Mohile, her arranger, Lataji and I would slog to work out a careful list of about 40 songs for every show.
She's so fastidious that all 40 would be rehearsed, even if only half the numbers were to be actually sung. Lata Mangeshkar remains prepared for all eventualities like a sudden public farmaish (request) or a change because of the people's mood at a particular time.
Her authority is always couched in sweetness. She would have made a hugely-successful executive if she hadn't become a singer! On our first-ever tour of Paris, which was the first-ever show there by an Indian artiste, she was annoyed because the organiser was taking it easy. We had yet to begin 45 minutes after the scheduled time. She told me to take a message to him: 'Please tell him to arrange a car. Main hotel jaana chahoongi!'
And the curtain went up in two minutes flat! Later, the organiser wondered why she had made such a fuss when the audience could have waited for Lata Mangeshkar for even an hour. I conveyed this to her and she told me sweetly, 'Harishji, please tell him that we like to start on time kyoon ki hum paagal ho gaye hain' (because we have all gone mad)!
Yes, she's a great one for punch-lines. She's full of them! Once, Sulakshana Pandit said on one of my radio programmes that if she had been a boy, she would have married Lataji. She heard to that particular programme and on our next meeting, said, 'I wonder if she would have asked me whether I wanted to marry her!'
Talking about why she never sang for O P Nayyar, she once told me, 'Both food and rumours taste much better when salt and pepper are sprinkled on them!'
She would have also made a great writer, as besides her tendency to use punch lines, she is an extraordinary raconteur. A lesser-known fact about her persona is her penchant for photography. It's a serious hobby with her, and being a perfectionist as always even in that pursuit, she's excellent in it as well. When I showed her some photographs I had taken on a tour, she guessed correctly at the type of camera I had used and the speed of the film that I had employed and commented impartially and expertly on the results!
I asked her, 'How do you know the technical aspects so well? Have you read books on photography?' And in reply I got one of her best punch lines. With a naughty smile, she said, 'Harishji, maine to music par bhi kitaabein nahin padhi! (I have not read any books even on music!).'
Which brings me to didi, the artiste. Apart from her dedication and regimentation -- she's very particular about her daily routine, though she tends to succumb to temptation in matters of food because she loves eating -- she's got one plus point which makes others remain singers and Didi a singer plus.
Singing is easy for her, as it is in her blood, as it is in the case of Ashaji as well. While singing, she does not concentrate at all on her music. It's there in her system. So she concentrates entirely on the words and the emotions that she has to express in them.
She once told me that she never sings gale se (from her throat) but with her whole being. I think that's what comes across on the mike. I have heard her sing her Albela hit, Dheere se aana re at least 50 times on stage. It's incredible how she sings with full-throated throw and punch into the mike and yet the effect is so soothing and caressing!
R D Burman once told me that as a kid he was sitting behind her in the recording room for one of his father's recordings. He could hardly hear anything and concluded that she hadn't begun. He drew back the chair noisily and walked out of the room, banging the door shut.
The take had to be cut and when he explained the reason for his exit to his father, Dada Burman made his son hear what Lataji had been singing with crystal-clear clarity and force on tape. Pancham was zapped!
She has been often accused of monopoly. I think those who blame the Mangeshkar sisters neither understand music nor the economics of film-making. Khayyamsaab once said, 'It is we music directors who have created this monopoly. When we make a tune, we want the best in the business to record it.'
Producers get a better price when Lataji sings -- today even the music commands a higher price. It's amazing but even in the languages in which she has sung just a handful of songs -- like Gujarati, Kashmiri, Punjabi -- her songs rank among the all-time hits in that language!
She has also been termed manipulative, but logic proves otherwise. Look at the factors ranged against her: she never ever compromises on her price, she has maintained zero -- or I would say even negative -- public relations. She has clashed with producers, a long list of the topmost music directors and even Rafisaab.
And when she gives you a date, there's no guarantee that she will come on that day. A slight indisposition and she will excuse herself. When rehearsals for a tour are on, she does not accept songs. And yet she has remained on top, and people have waited for weeks or months so that only Lata Mangeshkar would record a particular song.
In fact, she's a great one for planning, which I think speaks of her nervousness about results, though I will not say that it means that she is insecure.
One day in June 1986 she called me up and told me, 'Please write down this date and keep it free for me: May 14.' I told her, 'Didi, you mean June 14.' She said, 'No, May 14 -- next year. That's the day we are leaving for our next tour. Please adjust your television and radio work so that you can have 22 days free for me.' I told her, 'In that case, please also tell me the departure time of our flight!' She laughed uproariously at that.
But do you know, once a show is booked, she refuses to take on another commitment in between. You may offer her the earth, but her answer will be 'No.' Now which ambitious, aggressive or manipulative person would be like this?
For me, simply, Lata Mangeshkar is one colossal unforgettable experience!
As told to Rajiv Vijaykar
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