Truly, God preserves her
Lataji would tie a raakhi on my father, and he was simply the closest any individual in the film industry was to her. My dad called her didi, though he was an established singer when Lataji came in. He would pick her up from their house at Prabhu Kunj and take her to recordings -- and this is what Lataji and her sisters have told me.
For her Mukesh bhaiyya was very special. My initial relationship with her was that of a nephew with an aunt.
But it later changed to awe when I decided to take up singing as a profession. Maybe another Lata is there, hidden in anonymity, but unless she worships work the way she does, and has the same single-minded dedication and perfection, Lata Mangeshkar will remain untouched and unbeatable.
None of us have heard Meerabai and Saraswati, but for us she represents them as well. She's simply the most beautiful voice in modern times, untouched in voice quality, range, versatility and her eternal love for perfection.
I have had such a long professional association with her in films and on stage as well as our personal closeness due to dad. So I dare say that I have authority to speak these few lines on her.
The musicians and we, the co-singers, would become restless with the endless rehearsals before going on stage, but not her. She was the epitome of discipline and perfection, and faultless as well as effortless on the mike. And the most important point was that she, the one and only Lata Mangeshkar, needn't have put in all that effort.
She taught me how to worship my work. I noticed she would take off her slippers before going on stage. From that first time, I have emulated her to date as the only male singer who sings barefoot no matter how cold it is in any open-air auditorium.
She has also literally introduced me to the world of stage, and taught me not to take it lightly. This was on that fateful tour in 1976 when papa died after completing eight of the 10 shows. Early on this tour he had developed a throat problem because of something he had eaten and she told him to take it easy.
I was with the troupe on a casual holiday and she asked me to step in -- and I began on stage with three timeless duets with her -- Aaja re ab mera dil pukara (Aah), Sawan ka mahina (Milan) and Kabhi kabhi mere dil mein (Kabhi Kabhie).
As the roar of applause broke out, papa broke down and told her, 'Now my pension is secure.' When papa suffered that heart attack just before the ninth show, it was she who took charge, though personally she was devastated and wept loudly. She was the first to inform me when papa was declared dead.
Two months later, we were back in the US to complete the two remaining shows and she was so comforting and affectionate, ensuring that I wasn't depressed. She treated me in a big-sisterly way and announced on stage that Nitin and she did not want to leave papa's work unfinished, and so were back.
And today, thanks largely to that lady, I am settled in my main vocation. I am proud to say I emulate her in one more way on stage -- that even if I am going to sing from the same list of 50 songs every time, I rehearse on the scale she does, with complete musicians, for weeks. When you emulate, you emulate only the best, because that is like one small step in attempting to reach the heights they have reached.
It was on my tours with her -- and I was a constant feature in her shows for over 12 years after papa's death -- that I really realised both the potential of the stage as well as what Lata Mangeshkar, that pious yet disciplined lady in real life, meant to the world of music lovers. People just went mad at her shows!
In 1980, we were to perform in Guyana, West Indies. We alighted from the plane to face an ocean of humanity -- a milling throng the likes of which even she, I think, had not imagined. There seemed to be literally a hundred thousand people there and the organisers told us later that even the Queen of Great Britain and other heads of state who had visited there had not commanded even a fraction of that crowd.
The entire 60-km stretch from the airport to our hotel was lined with cheering men, women and children, most of whom were locals who did not understand a word of Hindi, but loved her songs. There was a constant shower of petals and people were literally weeping and cheering and shouting 'Laatta! Laatta!' in their West Indian accent.
And though so many were even prostrating themselves before our motorcade -- I had requested her to stand and she stood with folded hands throughout -- not a single person misbehaved. I have seen the euphoria over Michael Jackson in Bombay -- it simply wasn't in the same class! When we reached our hotel all of us were weeping uncontrollably!
Then in 1983, we decided to do a show in Swaziland, at the tip of South Africa -- a place where only 10 Indians lived. But we had no choice then, as Indians were not permitted entry into the rest of South Africa.
But you should have seen the response! People from surrounding countries had flown and driven across borders in thousands. And on the day of the show -- which was to be in an open-air auditorium -- there came one of those terrible storms with lightning and blinding rain.
But was the audience daunted? No way! We opened the show to a sea of umbrellas and raincoats in an auditorium packed to capacity! Those who were unfortunate enough to be unprotected stood for all those four hours, even holding their chairs over their heads, but no one left before the show was over.
That is one vivid image that will never go away from my mind! That is the magic, the charisma and the mesmeric artistry of Lata Mangeshkar!
In my recordings with her -- the first was Main kaise use pasand karoon for Rajji and LP's (Laxmikant-Pyarelal) Satyam Shivam Sundaram -- she was extra considerate, extra patient. She used to hop from recording to recording those days, but if she came to know that I was to be a co-singer, she would allot a longer time for me.
During our tours, as I said, she was like a big sister, and would personally ensure my comfort and my being put up in the same hotel as she was.
An episode which I can never forget happened in 1979 when we landed in Glasgow, Scotland, on a freezing day just three hours before our show. She was not too well on the flight and was complaining of a heavy head.
We were a shade worried and so many of us made different suggestions for her well being. All she said was, 'I will not eat lunch. Get me an ice-cream instead!' We were flummoxed, because we were sure that ice-cream would aggravate her headache. But we couldn't argue.
And three hours later, an extremely normal Lata Mangeshkar performed at her peak, revealing later that ice-cream always helped her in such cases.
Truly God preserves her. And I hope that He keeps at it.
As told to Rajiv Vijaykar
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