The Nightingale with clay feathers

Lata Mangeshkar was indeed an icon no one in this country can surpass. But she should not be put on a pedestal for she had some terrible human vices

Lata Mangeshkar
Lata Mangeshkar

Neeta Kolhatkar

The sweetest story about Lata Mangeshkar is that she used to sing privately for Raj Singh Dungarpur - on her landline.

They used to live yards from each other but nevertheless he would call her almost every day just for the song.

These were the days of landlines and telephone operators soon got wind of the romance between these two celebrities. Neither was important enough for government security agencies but the telephone operators routinely tapped into their phones just to hear their conversation, expressed in songs.

Both spent a lifetime oblivious to the fact that their privacy had been breached or that their phones were bugged.

Lata Mangeshkar's is a household name spanning three generations-- we have grown up listening to her melodies.

But the MTNL operators, privy to a lot of conversations and ongoings, thought it a bonus to be in on the romance. Whenever calls happened between the two, there would be pin drop silence in the MTNL operators' room. They would attend no other calls and sit quietly listening until Lata's song for Raj Singh came to an end.

Mangeshkar has been an icon of this country and the playlists at many events were dominated by her songs.

Most people found her endearing and it is well known that leading politicians including Prime Ministers like the late Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi would call Lata Mangeshkar personally. The latest in this line of prime ministers is Narendra Modi who is said to have called her on more occasions and the warmth shared mutually, with Mangeshkar calling him and praising him for leading the country in the right direction and calling on his mother.

These and many other entitlements and contradictions made her who she was-- feisty and someone who could have wielded her power for the benefit of larger public, because she was in a position to do so. It certainly must have not been easy to hold the entire family together, be the sole breadwinner and pursue her dreams and ambitions.

This may have led her to fiercely guard her territory, but she too fell for nepotism to the extent that she failed to encourage and nurture young talent. Suman Kalyanpur was one example who had a melodious voice but remained in the shadows of Mangeshkar, because music directors saw her essentially as a replacement to Mangeshkar. They had a similar style of singing. In fact, even after the Mangeshkar sisters became successful, Lata and Asha were not known to allow talent to flourish. It definitely was not easy for Mangeshkar when she started playback singing, which was dominated by men.

She had a few disagreements that were well known in the Hindi and Marathi music worlds. Mangeshkar had a fall out with G D Madgulkar, Mohammed Rafi, S D Burman and many others. Some were known to have not repeated her in their songs because of her style of singing. Sudhir Phadke, known as Babuji or O P Nayyar for that matter signed her for only a limited number of songs as both preferred Asha's style of singing. In fact, most Marathi music directors were known to be petrified of Mangeshkar because they felt they could not afford to pay her and they could not muster courage enough to ask her.

Her well known public fall out with Mohammed Rafi was over the issue of royalty. Mohammad Rafi was clear that unlike the western Rock stars and singers, he and Mangeshkar were basically only playback singers and it was not ethical to demand royalty since they did not cut albums for themselves when they sung for a film. He felt it was a team effort and they should be happy with the fees they were paid, which he said can be negotiable.

It is well-known that Mangeshkar got good royalty on her film songs, although some have also said they fell out because he refused to stop singing duets with other female chanteuses and thus aid her attempts to keep them out of the industry. But despite the friction, it wasn't too long before their duet songs were back on track.

But it is in the field of politics and ideology that there is some reservation about Lata Mangeshkar. It is no hidden fact that both Mangeshkar and Phadke had very close ties with the Hindu Mahasabha and VD Savarkar. She never hid her preference.

In fact, though Mangeshkar complained she was a misfit in the Parliament after she was nominated to the Rajya Sabha, her presence in strategic sessions helped this country enforce the dreaded POTA - Prevention of Terrorism Act, 2002.

She rarely attended the Parliament sessions due to her professional commitments. However, on March 2, 2002, the NDA government led by the then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee did not have the majority in the Rajya Sabha, but Mangeshkar was among the 98 members who voted in favour of this bill, while 113 voted against it. Moreover, she was yet again present to vote for this same bill on March 26.

She had also been vocal of her complete support to Modi and has made it public. Mangeshkar is not known to have taken dues paid to an MP, but sadly did not even use the MP funds for any public good.

While Mumbai city was her karmabhoomi, majority of Mumbaikars have felt let down by her. They were deeply disappointed when Mangeshkar refused to listen to the pleas of harried citizens demanding that the flyover at Peddar road should be constructed. This is one example when iconic personalities put on a pedestal brutally show their shortcomings when they choose personal benefit rather than larger good.

The then chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh said he had initiated the idea of a flyover at Peddar road after she had complained to him of the terrible traffic in Mumbai - being a stickler for time, she was furious people would get caught in traffic snarls. Now this is the same person who later bitterly opposed the Peddar road flyover.

Some residents who still feel they should have not objected to this project say that she was misled by a handful of rich, privileged people who felt this flyover would cut their exclusive access to this road - if these elite had objected the government would have shot down their objections but no one could have said ‘no’ to Lata Mangeshkar. Hence, they used her. But why did she willingly submit herself to their misplaced cause?

She really had no personal reason for such objections. But it was not just elite residents but also politicians who were allowed to manipulate her. Once I spoke to her for over five minutes and in that period, she also asked me to send her lawyer a message on her behalf. Now, interestingly this proved to be a good piece of evidence to be used when she backtracked.

She had said this flyover would cause her a lot of distress and it would block her balcony, apart from the traffic sound that would damage her vocal cords. This piece of news appeared in the papers and for four days all leading FM radio channels in the city ran talk shows on this controversy to ask citizens if she was right. She had said she would leave the city for good if the flyover project was undertaken.

Much to the surprise of the RJs and chagrin of Mangeshkar, most respondents said they will go over to her house to help her pack her bags and bid her leave. At that time, she had become a confidant of Raj Thackeray, chief of Maharashtra Navanirman Sena party. It was decided a clarification in her name would be issued, which the party did and was faxed from their party office. Could she not have done so herself?

I, for one knew she was dissembling. For, prior to this controversy, I had visited Mangeshkar's house to officially shoot for a talk show on music and seen her studio which had excellent sound proof panelling. You could not hear anything from outside that room. So there could have been truth in what the other residents said - she could have used her power and position for the benefit of millions of Mumbaikars who have been suffering on a daily basis in huge traffic jams on Peddar road. But she didn't.

In fact, after this incident, many disgruntled Mumbaikars started a horn bajao campaign outside her building, Prabhu Kunj, day and night. It caused a lot of mirth among kaali peeli taxi drivers who are among the biggest sufferers of the day long traffic jams. This anger against Mangeshkar diminished with her aging.

Speaking of her aging, many of the Manageshkar fans were highly disappointed after they attended a few of her live shows. One such was held at Andheri sports complex, where she was seen promoting her niece who lacked any talent. Many old-timers complained they had not paid to listen to a family band and left the show disappointed. But they did not blame her personally, rather like the flyover controversy, they attributed it to vested interests - her siblings and friends who she was able to resist as little as she was the elite residents of Peddar Road, even to the extent of billing the organisers for a cup of tea and packet of biscuits!

Lata Mangeshkar was indeed an icon no one in this country can surpass. But she should not be put on a pedestal for she had some terrible clay feet.

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