In conversation with Lata Mangeshkar

February 18, 2018

‘India’s Nightingale’, the legendary Lata jee talks about music through the decades, especially music which tied her to friends and fans in Pakistan.

In conversation with Lata Mangeshkar

In collaboration with Rachana Shah from Mumbai

She couldn’t ever visit Pakistan and yet her feelings for millions of fans and well wishers this side of the border have never waned once in all these years. A recent, heartfelt conversation with Lata Mangeshkar, India’s Nightingale, reinforced that her melodious voice resonated this side of the border and pulled at the heart strings just as strongly as it did in India.

I introduced myself as a writer from Pakistan and her prompt response was, "I have always been told how much I am loved, appreciated and discussed in Pakistan. I wanted to visit the country but unfortunately, for one reason or the other, it couldn’t happen."

Lata jee spoke about Pakistan ever so endearingly and I couldn’t help but notice that during our whole conversation, whenever she talked about Pakistan, it seemed she was talking about Noor Jehan simultaneously; as if they were one and the same to her.

"That’s probably because I grew up listening to, and liking, her voice; since the day she migrated to Pakistan, I had been in touch with her," she explained her bond with Noor Jehan.

Our conversation continued and I learnt that Lata Mangeshkar had always wanted to come to Pakistan, to perform for her millions of fans and to meet her estranged friends. She shared a story about a show, once, which she was supposed to do in Pakistan. She said that it was a Pakistani poet, who shall remain unnamed, who first came up with the idea of her performing this side of the border.

"When Zia sahab was in power, this poet was convincing me to perform in Pakistan; arrangements were made and the musicians were all set to perform. On knowing this, Zia sahab called upon the poet, asking for details of the plan. As the poet, who was also supposed to be the organizer of the show, shared the plan, Zia sahab looked at him quietly, smiled and said: ‘So you want the people of Pakistan to throng to Lata jee’s show and forget me? I know how much the people here are mad about her!’"

Needless to say, the show never materialized.

"I don’t know how so many days and years passed; I’d performed in many countries, sang thousands of songs abroad in over 26 languages and I traveled a lot but time flew so fast that I didn’t realize that I have yet to visit Pakistan where so many of my friends live, where millions of my fans wanted me to perform," she said. "I wanted to meet Noor Jehan; I wanted to have more sessions with her. I wanted to see Farida Khanum, meet Mehdi Hasan sahab. It just couldn’t happen."

"I still want to," she reiterated.

Talking to Lata jee reminded me of something I had read years ago. I had read someone quoting her as saying, "Mehdi Hassan sahab kay galay mein Bhagwaan boltay haen." (Bhagwan speaks in Mehdi Hassan’s voice) and I always wondered about the authenticity of this quote. I found myself verifying it with her, to which she replied, "Unki awaaz thi hee aisi," (His voice was just like that).

"I am happy that we’d always been in touch," she continued. "I used to talk to Noor Jehan, Farida Khanum and to Khan sahab. I just can’t forget the days when Noor Jehan came to India. I was so glad to see her; to talk to her. I welcomed her in her inaugural show by presenting two songs. And yes, I wanted her to come onto the stage and sing. So she sang! It was a lovely evening; unforgettable!"

Sharing further details of that visit, she said that they didn’t stop meeting even after the show and they had a great time together.

"The following day, I met her (Noor Jehan) at Yousuf Bhai’s (Dilip Kumar). We talked about music, we talked about old friends and we talked about everything that we shared in yesteryears. We then met in London, in the United States and other places. Today, I can’t explain how much I miss those days."

What makes her feel good now is the fact that she stayed in touch with Noor Jehan as well as other Pakistani artistes through the years. At times, in those glorious days, Farida Khanum also visited India and met her. "It was always great to exchange love and affection whenever we met," she said.

I wanted to know a little more about her interactions with Mehdi Hassan and she shared a lovely little anecdote. She says she was once told that Mehdi Hassan wanted to make music for her and as soon as he recovered from a paralysis attack that he had suffered years ago, he actually went to India and discussed the idea with Lata jee.

She recollects, "Mehdi Hassan sahab, my younger brother – musician (Pandit) Hridayanath Mangeshkar - and I discussed the plan, also talking to a poet who already had written some lyrics. We chose one ghazal and rehearsed. And since everything went smoothly, we got the ghazal, ‘Tera Milna Acha Laga’ recorded. We named it, ‘Sarhadein.’ I sang in Mehdi Hassan sahab’s composition, as he wanted me to, and more importantly, it was a duet! It was a pleasure singing with Khan sahab; it makes me feel so good. It was something special for both of us and that’s why, as I remember, we didn’t even think of marketing it properly."

Rekha, a big fan of both the singing giants, took keen interest in the project and managed to get the album launched a few days later. The final version of Sarhadein also featured Rekha Bharadwaj, Usha and Sonu Nigam.

Unfortunately, the moment did not last long as just a few days after the recording, Mehdi Hassan had to rush back to Pakistan as he was quite unwell. After the launch, Lata jee sent a tape of the composition to him but his health and memory did not serve him well.

"I was told that when his son tried to play the song for him, he was too weak to remember what it actually was!" she remembers. "I was very upset on knowing that; but this is how life is all about. I wish he could remember the duet I sang with him and for him."

Collaborating with Mehdi Hassan is definitely something she cherishes dearly but Lata Mangeshkar has shared many fond moments with Pakistan.

"I talk to Abida Parveen jee quite often," Lata brought up, seemingly recapping all her valued relations with artists this side of the border. "She has recently praised my nephew Baiju’s compositions, which are based on the works of Sufi poet Shah Hussain. I have also sung duets in Punjabi with Baiju."

CSpeaking of Baiju, we started talking about Lata jee’s family, a family of artists. Her father Dinanath Mangeshkar was a classical singer, composer and a filmmaker. He had his own company that mostly produced Marathi films. "Pita jee started teaching me when I was only five. He was like Bhagwaan to me. Whatever I learnt and earned is all because of him. I see his picture everyday, the way I do puja," she shared. On her consistent and simple life style, she said her father always taught her to live this way. "I am simple and always will be."

Our conversation shifted from the past of musical greats to contemporary trends in cinema music.

"Ab yahan shayari nahin hoti," she lamented. "Poetry is weird and compositions are not as phenomenal as they used to be. Good music and sensible poetry are a rarity these days." She added that there were very few people who were still doing well. I asked her opinion on AR Rehman’s music to which she said, "He’s a trendsetter. He’s the master of his own genre and he’s doing well. He’s got popularity; that’s important too. I appreciate him more for establishing an academy for children in Chennai. Bhalay se aadmi haen woh. (He is a good man)."

Among the trendsetters, she feels great to have worked with Master Ghulam Haider, Shankar-Jaikishan, Madan Mohan and Naushad. "They had their own class. What they have done in music is simply remarkable. Their tunes are still popular, their styles still followed. Their contribution is beyond comparison."

These composers were the pioneers of modern cinema music, she expressed; the songs and the scores that were made in those days are still listened to with just as much love and appreciation.

"The duo, called Shankar-Jaikishan, contributed vitally in developing an elaborate orchestra for films," she asserted. "The duo set a style in cinema music and they made countless tuneful songs and brilliant scores." She thinks today’s songs and their impact is short lived; one cannot listen to these songs all the time.

"Well before the 1940s, cinema songs had an entirely different concept," she reminisced, tracing out the history of experimentation in Indian music. "For instance, the actors themselves used to sing and they sung so terribly! They didn’t even know the basics." After years of experiments and technical developments, the trends evolved in an entirely different way. She remembers that in 1941 a young composer from Lahore, Master Ghulam Haider, brought a revolution to the entire philosophy of playback singing. "He made songs for Shamshad Begum and music was never the same again."

Master Ghulam Haider made music for Majboor in 1948 and that was Lata Mangeshkar’s first major break. "It then took ten years for Shankar-Jaikishan to shape-up and fine-tune the cinema songs!"

The 1940s was undoubtedly more of an experimental decade than one of drastic development; composers and singers were finding their space in the industry whereas motion pictures were the only significant source of financial incentives. Looking back over time, she says: "That was the time we came across the great voices of Noor Jehan and Saigol. The trends were very different from what we see and hear today."

She recalls, "Many singers had really bad voices: some were addicted to nasal singing. "I didn’t like nasal voices and there were so many of them in those days though."

1949 was a breakthrough year for Lata. She sang ‘Ayega Ayega Anewala’ composed by Khemchand Prakash for India’s first horror thriller, Mahal in 1949 and the movie successfully catapulted Lata and Madhubala both into superstardom.

Shankar-Jaikishan, who debuted the same year, composed super hits such as ‘Jiya Beqarar Hae’ and ‘Hawa Mein Urta Jaey’ for one of Raj Kapoor’s blockbusters, Barsaat. Lata Mangeshkar sang nine songs for the movie, including two duets with Mukesh.

In the years that followed, Lata worked with leading composers including Shyam Sundar, C. Ramchandra, Madan Mohan, Salil Chowdhry, Khayyam, S. D. Burman, Laxmikant-Piyarelal, Hridayanath Mangeshkar and R. D. Burman.

"RD Burman had his own perception of music and to me, he is one of the most unforgettable composers," she remembered.

In 1996, Pakistan’s top music director Nisar Bazmi talked about Lata Mangeshkar and said that "Unki awaz mein pakeezgi si hae. (There is purity in her voice.)" I reminded her of the comment to which she replied, "Pakeezgi soch mein hoti hae; baray Ghulam Ali sahab ki awaz mein pakeezgi thi; kiyon keh woh Allah walay log thay. (Purity is in one’s mind and soul; there was purity in the elder Ghulam Ali sahab’s voice because he was a man of God.)"

Moving on, I was curious to know details of the legendary recording of ‘Yeh Kahan Aagaye Hum’ from Silsila, in which Lata had sung the playback and Amitabh Bachchan had recited Javed Akhtar’s poetry. I personally wanted to know what happened when the two legends came together.

"That was not the case," Lata jee corrected. "First I reached the studio and got the vocals recorded. Amit jee, as I was told, had reached the studio well after I’d left. We didn’t meet." That ended years of romanticism and fantasy that I had attached to the ‘recording scene’ of the song.

"I don’t listen to music much, anymore," Lata jee confessed, moving on to the present day and reflecting on the state of music today. She wouldn’t say more on the issue, closing it for discussion.

We spoke about emerging musical talents in Pakistan and India; she had very clear views that originality would survive and copycats had no future. "If they work harder and have their own style, they will surely do better!" she said about the innumerable female singers who claimed to be inspired by her.

Our discussion came to an end and we concluded on a hopeful note of better relations between the two countries, which shared a rich, musical heritage. "Wherever we live, we should live with peace and harmony," she said. "Tolerance and love can always make a difference. We should all live in peace, together."

In conversation with Lata Mangeshkar