Lata Mangeshkar's childhood was loaded with responsibility

She lived comfortably for better part of her life, but her childhood was not as carefree. Lata Mangeshkar had to start working early to sustain her family

A young Lata
A young Lata

Nasreen Munni Kabir

She lived comfortably for better part of her life, but her childhood was not as carefree. Lata Mangeshkar had to start working early to sustain her family. The legend jogs down the memory lane in conversation with Nasreen Munni Kabir:

Nasreen Munni Kabir: In your childhood, were you very close to your sisters?

Lata Mangeshkar: Yes, we were. We’re still close. We love each other very much. We’re a close-knit family. We never fight. But we fought a lot when we were children. [laughs] I had lots of friends too. I played with all the girls and boys who lived on the ground floor of our house in Sangli.

My games were really terrible. I used to sit inside a car tyre and the girls would roll me down the street. I was really a very naughty child. I climbed trees, picked guavas and mangoes. I was quite notorious in our neighbourhood. I walked around with a stick in my hand, hitting everyone. I bullied everyone.

If we happened to see a film, we would come home and re-enact scenes from it. Along with our friends, we sisters staged plays that I wrote. These plays were heroine-oriented stories. My role was of a fiery kind of heroine, and Asha who was very young, was made to play the king’s daughter. Meena was the tough woman, a kind of vamp and the villain’s accomplice. My cousin, Pandharinath [Padmini Kolhapure’s father], whom we called ‘Babu’ played the villain.

We played gilli-danda and cards too. Baba fondly called me ‘Tata Baba’. Whenever Mai complained to him about my bad behaviour, he used to tell her: ‘I won’t be here long. But this girl will look after you all.’

NMK: If we may go back to the 1930s — what happened to your singing lessons during the time the family was facing financial problems? I believe your father had become virtually bankrupt.

LM: Baba produced three Marathi films through the Balwant Picture Company, a film company he set up with his theatre partners. The first of the three productions was Krishna Arjun Yuddha. But the films didn’t do well and he lost a lot of money. In 1937, he closed his film company down — that was the year Hridaynath was born in Sangli. Baba then revived the Balwant Sangeet Mandali, his theatre company.

We went touring from here to there — Poona, Kolhapur, Satara, Goa, Miraj and other places. Travelling was exciting for us children.

I couldn’t study singing for a long time because our financial problems didn’t go away. Our lives completely changed then. In 1940, Baba had to close down the theatre company too. He ended up losing a lot of money and decided to cut off from the theatre world. My lessons did suffer but nature gave me a passion for singing that never left me.

NMK: How did your father manage then?

LM: We had so many debts. The family home in Sangli had to be auctioned. I am sure my parents felt the emotional pain of losing the old house but we were still children. In 1940, we moved to Poona and lived in rented accommodation. In 1941, our Sangli house was finally auctioned and we bought a place in Poona and settled there.

The money we needed to run the house came from Baba’s concerts in which I performed too. Baba developed high blood pressure and his health was failing. He was very ill and suffered severe nosebleeds…

On Thursday night Baba vomited blood. The next day, on 24th April, 1942, some friends took him to Sassoon Hospital in Poona. I did not realise he was seriously ill, so I didn’t go with him. Just as Baba had predicted, he passed away at precisely 11.20. He was forty-two.

NMK: What was your first reaction when you heard the news?

LM: When Mai returned home from the hospital, she told me what had happened. The first thing I did was to lock Hridaynath and Usha in the kitchen. They were so young. I didn’t want them to hear the news. Besides, Hridaynath was unwell too. I cried a little and then went completely silent. An hour later, I turned to Mai and asked: ‘Where can I work? How do I earn money?’ It was the only thought in my mind. During the time my father was unwell, I knew the responsibility of the family would fall on me.

NMK: It’s quite amazing that you had such a strong sense of responsibility, especially having been, as you say, a playful and mischievous child.

LM: After Baba died I had no choice. I had to work. I was responsible for running the house and was the eldest in our family of five young siblings: my sisters Meena, Asha and Usha and brother Hridaynath. He had serious health problems and had caught tuberculosis in a leg bone. The swelling had started when Baba was alive and a wound developed after he died.

In the early 1940s, there wasn’t much playback singing, so acting was the only option. Moreover, I couldn’t have worked as a playback singer because my voice was thin.

I was young. Only thirteen. But I did sing in the Marathi films in which I acted. I remember thinking: ‘What kind of song is this? Why do I have to keep singing it over and over again? This is no song!’ I believed songs should come from musical plays or have a classical base.

NMK: Your acting years began in 1942. The 1943 film 'Gajabhau' was the Marathi film in which you sang your first Hindi song.

LM: Yes. The song was ‘Hindustan ke logon ab to mujhko pehechano’ and not ‘Mata ek sapoot ki duniya badal de tu’ as widely reported. Meenakshi sang ‘Mata ek sapoot…’ and I sang a few lines, a few words. Not the whole song.

(Excerpted from ‘Lata Mangeshkar... in her own voice: Conversations with Nasreen Munni Kabir’, with permission from the publisher Niyogi Books)

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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