Bollywood Baatein: Dear Lataji, there is no one like you
As Lata Mangeshkar celebrated her 92nd birthday on Sep 28, Subhash K. Jha reminisces his 30-year-long association with, and bhakti for, the Nightingale of India
I often wonder what this world would have been like without her. Each day gives me a little more reason to be alive. That’s how it has been for me and Her,Goddess Saraswati, the singer for whom the song was invented. What would it, the song, be if she didn’t voice it?
Generations of composers sought inspiration from her voice. LaxmikantPyarelal were so enamoured of her voice that they wanted her to sing all their male vocals too. She said a firm no to that one. When she says no, it means no. I remember she was recording an R.D. Burman song in his absence. The film’s director kept saying, “Didi, once more” and she obliged every time. Finally, she turned around to the director and said, “Abb bass, ho gaya.” She walked out, put on her chappals which she always leaves at the door of the recording studio and left quickly with her entourage.
When I asked her about this incident shelaughed,“Haan mujhe cricket match dekhni thi, ghar jaana tha.”
Another example of her fierce temper: Subhash Ghai who recorded that beautiful Laxmikant-Pyarelal composition ‘Nindiya se jaagi bahaar…’ in the film Hero in her voice rang her up and gently suggested that she sing the song again, this time at a lower pitch again because, according to Ghai, the heroine is singing in the early morning, and if she sings loudly she will wake up everyone. Errr, why is she singing early-morning in the first place? She could wait till everyone is awake and then sing, no?
Anyway, her response to the absurd request: “Aap gaana kissi aur se gawa lijiye.” And the phone went dead in Ghai’s clammy hand. Of course, Nindiya se jaagi, a spectacularly rendered Laxmikant-Pyarelal composition, remained as it was.
This is not to say that she is averse to re-recordings. Not at all. Gulzar saab told me how she sang the haunting lullaby ‘Do nainon mein aansoon bhare hain’ for the film Khushboo all over again when he asked her to. Gulzar saab felt the child (Master Raju) whom the mother (Hema Malini) was putting to sleep through the lullaby couldn’t sleep if she sang that loud. The music composer R.D. Burman didn’t have the guts to ask her to re-do the song. Gulzar saab made the request and she immediately sang it again, there and then after the first recording.
Lataji doesn’t suffer fools. That she has borne with me for more than 30 years is proof of the fact that she doesn’t consider me a fool. Two questions that I am always asked about her are, does she sing for you, and has she ever been angry with you? The answer to the first question is, no. I’ve never asked her to sing for me. It is as absurd as asking a music conductor to conduct an orchestra during a social meeting. But believe it or not, I sing to her. On her birthday, I insist on singing Happy Birthday to her.
“Aapke himmat ki daad deni padegi,” says my dear friend Shabana Azmi.
And how does Lataji react to my singing? She laughs, that musical laughter of hers in which we can hear the sound a child’s innocence, and she once said, “Aapke liye yeh bhi bardasht karna manzoor hai.”
As for the other question, has she ever lost her temper with me? Yes once, when after something I wrote all hell had broken loose. She was upset and she didn’t hide it. I rang her up after a few weeks ready to be told to buzz off. Instead, she greeted me warmly and said, ‘Arrey aap kahan hain?”
She hadn’t forgotten. But she had forgiven. Main yahan hoon. Right here. Your ardent devotee for 62 years. I know there are so many of them, millions of Indians worship you. But you have to admit, there is no one as devoted as myself.
I once said this to her after she was pulled out of the jaws of death in 2019. I wept on the phone when she recovered. Frail and weak She said, “Aap jaisa bhakt koi nahin hai.”
That was the best reward for my lifelong devotion. Thank you, Didi, thank you for the music the songs that I am singing thanks for all the joy they are bringing, who can live without them I ask in all honesty?
Without your songs what else would I be? I know these are lines from an ABBA song. But I also know the Swedish band must be Lata bhakts just like me. Who is not?