At 87, legendary singer Lata Mangeshkar keeps herself busy by interacting with her Twitter family of 6.3 million. She enjoys sharing older pictures that she carefully photoshops herself, and the occasional live chat with fans. But she’s certain that she will never open up about her life in an autobiography.
So the closest you’ll ever get to knowing her is probably through the book Lata on Stage, published by Harper Collins. The book chronicles her life through 1975 to 1998 - a period when she spent a lot of her time doing live shows in the US, Canada and Fiji Islands.
Author Mohan Deora, Mangeshkar’s close friend and organiser of these stage shows, gives us a ringside view of the singer’s iconic run on the stage with collaborators like Mukesh, Raj Kapoor and Kishore Kumar. “My first concert outside India was in 1974 at the Royal Albert Hall in London. I did not want to perform in a community hall or in a school or something. That’s where some of the earlier performances of playback singers had taken place abroad,” writes Mangeshkar in the book’s introduction.
In this interview, she rewinds to her early days as a playback singer and why she doesn’t identify with musicians of today.
Lata On Stage helps us understand you better. We get some insight on your work ethic, relationships with other singers, and other interests. Have you changed your mind about penning an autobiography?
I’m not in favour of my autobiography. I’ve completed 75 years in the industry. In so many years there have been many people who have treated me badly. You have to write the truth in your book and then inadvertently you end up upsetting a lot of people. For those who are no more, to write bad things about them doesn’t feel right. And then if I don’t write it, it means I’m not being honest.
Balasaheb Thackeray used to say, he won’t write an autobiography because it will just lie in people’s cupboards gathering dust. I think I agree with that. Also, it’s my life and it’s for me to know - why should I have to tell the world?
Lata Mangeshkar arrives in Los Angeles in 1975 for her first US/Canada tour
During one of your stage shows in Detroit, the late Sunil Dutt was asked to introduce you. According to the book, he described you as a liberated woman who made her mark in an era that was not in favour of working women. What was is like being a female playback singers in the 40s?
There were quite a few female singers at the time, but the problem was that humein koi poochhta nahi tha. Playback singers had no value, they weren’t even credited on records. For example, in Mahal (1949) the credit for my song ‘Aayega Aane Wala’ went as Kamini - the name of Madhubala’s character in the film. Singers weren’t even credited in the film’s titles. I was the first one to speak up about it. The first film that credited me in the titles was Barsaat (1949). I got a lot of support from Raj Kapoor saab. I remember we wouldn’t even be nominated for Filmfare Awards. I picked a fight with them over this. I said if you don’t want to give us an award, it’s fine. But then why do you call us to perform at your ceremony? I refused to attend. I said, ‘Make someone else sing’. I later pushed for awards for lyricists also.
I remember we wouldn’t even be nominated for Filmfare Awards. I picked a fight with them over this. I said if you don’t want to give us an award, it’s fine. But then why do you call us to perform at your ceremony? I refused to attend.
Were men intimidated by you? The book mentions that Raj Kapoor wouldn’t dare drink in your presence.
I didn’t want to scare anybody. (laughs) But he knew that I didn’t approve of it. He thought if Lata doesn’t like it, I should avoid drinking in her presence. He used to respect me a lot. This was his greatness. If he wanted, he could have drunk in front of me. Aadmi karna chaahe toh kuch bhi kar sakta hai.
You’ve said that you didn’t approve of singers wearing fancy clothes or excessive jewellery. You wrote - We had to look like singers, not like glamorous movie stars. Why couldn’t singers look like stars?
I started as an actress in a Marathi film when I was about 13 years old. I did a couple of small roles after that too. But I never enjoyed putting on make-up and crying and laughing in front of the camera. Personally I have always liked to dress simply right from childhood. I used to stand straight on stage wearing my sari, two plaits, a paper in hand and my glasses on. I wouldn’t even look here and there. After my performance, I would leave the stage. Mujhe hamesha se laga hai ki singer ka ek raub rehna chahiye ki yeh singer hai aur yeh aise hi gaate hai. Nowadays everyone dances - kya kya nahi karte. That’s their choice. Maybe people like them more because of that. But I didn’t like it.
Do you think today’s singers can afford to not dance on stage or dress a certain way?
Why not? Agar aap logon ke rang main rangna chaahte hain, toh aap unse alag kaise hue? Jo doosre kar rahe hai, usse alag karna mujhe jyaada achha lagta hain.
How do you spend your time nowadays? You are quite active on Twitter and Facebook. Do you enjoy that?
I like social media. I once did a Twitter chat and spoke to my followers. They asked me questions and I enjoyed answering them. It felt good. A lot of people send me really old photos of me with my mother and sisters. I love collecting them. I don’t do photography any more, but I used to love it. Whenever I travelled abroad I’d spend time taking photos. In Mumbai, it used to be hard because people recognised me and then a crowd would gather around me.
Personally I have always liked to dress simply right from childhood. I used to stand straight on stage wearing my sari, two plaits, a paper in hand and my glasses on. I wouldn’t even look here and there.
What would you tell the next generation of singers?
There are many people who are really talented. They listen to a song just once and can pick it up. But that’s film music. If you really want to be a true singer, it’s a must that you learn classical music. That’s your base. Without getting that right, you can never be a great singer.