I Couldn’t Bear To Hear Myself: Lata Mangeshkar
On her 87th birthday, Lata Mangeshkar, the nightingale of India, didn’t sing for us, but she did share the highs and lows of her extraordinary journey, in this interview.
Q: How do you assess you own career as a singer?
Lata Mangeshkar: If you ask me, I did okay for myself. Acha hai… lekin aur bhi achcha ho sakta hai (I did well. But I can be better). I’ve never stopped to admire any of my songs, ‘Wah wah kya gaana gaya hai.’ But I know the places where I’ve made mistakes in my songs. And an artiste should never be satisfied with what he or she does.
With my songs also I always felt I could do better, even the ones that people today think perfect.
Q: Can you pick one song that has given you maximum satisfaction?
Lata Mangeshkar: The songs that I sang for my brother (Hridayanath Mangeshkar) in the album of Meerabai bhajans, Chala Vahi Des. I always feel that I’ve done justice to whatever Hridaynath gave me to do. It has been my most successful endeavour till date. I’ve also done justice to some of the compositions by Salil da (Salil Chowdhury), Madan Mohan and Jaidev.
Jaidev was the most challenging among the composers. He had a sound knowledge of classical music. He would say, ‘I’ve told her what to do. Now I don’t need to worry.’ Once he composed a song he left it to me to worry about it. It became my responsibility. And I’d be endlessly worried. I remember he had composed a Nepali song for me, written by the King of Nepal, King Birendra (Jun Mato Na Mero in the Nepali film Maatighar). It was one of the toughest songs of my career.
Q: It is often said that composers made you sing songs at an unnecessarily high pitch just because you have the range?
Lata Mangeshkar: This is true. I’ll give you two examples. Ehsaan Tera Hoga Mujhpar in Junglee and O Mere Shah-e-Khuba in Love In Tokyo, both composed by Shankar-Jaikishan. Both the songs were first sung by Mohd Rafi Saab. Then they decided they wanted the same songs sung by me. They came to me after filming the songs with the leading ladies, Saira Banu in Junglee and Asha Parekh in Love In Tokyo. And I was asked to sing the songs exactly the same way, since it was already shot with the heroines in Rafi Saab’s voice.
Q: Don’t you wish you had more time to practice your classical singing?
Lata Mangeshkar: Should I tell you something? It is much more difficult to do playback singing for films than to sing classical vocals.
When you are doing classical vocals there is room for improvisation. But when you do playback singing, you have to go exactly by the requirements of the character on screen. I used to find out what the heroine was supposed to be doing, why was she singing the song etc… Playback singing requires a tremendous amount of precision in rendering the lyrics and tune. Har cheez sambhaalni padti hai. Maybe composers felt that Lata could pull it off.
Q: What is your assessment of yourself as singer?
Lata Mangeshkar: There have been better singers than me, like K L Saigal saab and Noor Jehan ji, and there will be better singers than me in the future. I always say whatever skills I’ve imbibed are god’s gift. I’ll also admit that it’s never been an insurmountable challenge for me to sing anything. Every artiste has a talent. What the artiste does with that talent is up to that artiste.
Q: Recording songs during your heydays was tough. It is said you got the echo effect in ‘Pyar Kiya Toh Darna Kya’ by singing a bit of the song from the bathroom of the recording studio, and that once while recording a song for Salil Choudhury you fainted?
Lata Mangeshkar: Not true.The echo effect in the Pyar Kiya Toh Darna Kya song was achieved by singing away in a distance from the microphone, but not in the bathroom. Please! And I did faint once. But it wasn’t for a song by Salil da. It was a song by Naushad saab for the film Amar, filmed on Madhubala.
Q: Your improvisations often took your songs to another level. For example the ‘oye oye oye’ in the Bichua number from ‘Madhumati’?
Lata Mangeshkar: That was Salil da’s idea. But yes, I did put in my own harkat once in a while. Once Rafi saab and I were recording a duet for Shankar-Jaikishan. During the rehearsals I decided to improvise at one point in the song. But I didn’t reveal my harkat during rehearsals. I kept it to myself and I sang it only during the final take. When the final take happened everyone was thrilled by my improvisation. But Rafi saab was very upset. All this was in good spirit. No harm meant.
Q: Who was your favourite co-singer?
Lata Mangeshkar: Kishore da (Kishore Kumar) without doubt. We were constantly entertained during, before and after recordings with him. He would have us in splits. But he would get serious in front of the music composer.
But he was very sad under the mask. A month before his death I got to know how unhappy he was. He called me to share his sorrow. He didn’t want to come home as there would be too many people there. So we met at mutual friends’ place where I saw the other, somber, side of him. I’ll never forget what he told me about his life that evening. I can’t share that, but I had never imagined he was so unhappy from within. He said I was his rakhi sister and he wanted to share his grief with me. After listening to him I told him I was there for him whenever, wherever he needed me.
Q: You have been very lucky with your family life?
Lata Mangeshkar: Yes, indeed. I had to look after my family from a very young age. But they never made me feel burdened.
My siblings have always given me great strength and joy. They could have easily felt that I was getting more (fame, recognition, etc) than they were. But they never felt that way. To this day, my one and only brother Hridaynath has never shown any interest in my wealth. The same goes for my sisters as well. They care deeply for me. In fact, when I am unwell I hate to tell my family about it as they get so worried. Unke chehre utar jaate hain. Only the blessed get such a family.
Q: What is the greatest gift you’ve received in your life?
Lata Mangeshkar: The love that I’ve received from my well-wishers and fans. Woh pyar nahin hota toh na jaane hum kahaan hote (if it wasn’t for that love, I don’t know where I would be). Yeh bhagwan ki kripa hai (this is god’s grace)... that I still continue to get this kind of affection. What more can I hope for?
Q: Not a day passes when we don’t marvel at your voice. What about you?
Lata Mangeshkar: You mean do I marvel at my own voice? Of course not! If I did I’d probably have gotten smug and self-satisfied. I don’t even listen to my own songs. My voice is a gift from god and my parents. My father’s voice was beautiful. The little time that I got to be with him, he passed away when I was 5, I learnt so much from him in that little time.
Q: You don’t listen to your songs?
Lata Mangeshkar: I try not to. But when I do hear a song of mine, I feel I made an effort to put across the composition. I could’ve done much better.
Q: Why have you always said no to an autobiography?
Lata Mangeshkar: I don’t see the need to reveal every detail about my life. Most importantly, people go away with their written words hurting a lot of individuals and families. Sach aksar kadwa hota hai. I don’t want hurt anyone. In any case people don’t need to know everything about me.
In my opinion every human being has areas in his or her life that is to kept away from the everyone.Time teaches us to sift between the good and the bad, between the truth and the lies. Some things are best left unsaid. I believe, let the past be buried. Bahot logon ne mera dil dukhaya hai. That’s their karma, their destiny. Why should I turn around and abuse them?
Q: How do you hold back the temptation of hitting out at criticism?
Lata Mangeshkar: So many singers have accused me of stealing their songs. I never did that. And I never saw the need to protest. The truth will always remain the truth. Poet and lyricist Pandit Narendra Sharma, who was a father-figure to me, taught me self-restrain.
When I was young, I had a violent temper. I used to fight back at injustice. But Panditji taught me to pay no heed to the naysayers. Then there was my Baba in Kolhapur, he used to call me Gyaneshwar and said that I had so much to learn. My mother was also a great source of inspiration. My father passed away when I was very young. So my mother was like both my parents.
Q: What was the most valuable lesson you learnt in life from your mother?
Lata Mangeshkar: Zindagi ne bahot kuch sikhaya (life taught me a lot). To value those who are down and out. The world tends to ignore and abuse the weak. My parents taught me to always help the needy.
We saw very hard days. In our home there were free meals for every guest. But when we fell on hard times there was no food for the family. There were days when my siblings and I didn’t eat the entire day. I learnt to share what I had with others. Believe me, the joy you feel in giving is much greater than the joy one feels in receiving. Whenever someone comes to me for help I do all I can. Ho sakta hai kayee log mujhe bewaqoof banaake chalein jaatein ho. But I believe in giving what I’ve got.
Q: Many of the singers you helped turned around and accused you of practicing a monopoly?
Lata Mangeshkar: Was it my fault if composers came to me? I never went to them. I only asked for work in the beginning of my career. Once I was established, I left work for other singers. They later turned around to abuse me. And they continue to abuse me.
I don’t want to name anyone. But even when I was new and struggling I never took away anyone’s work. I remember I was rehearsing for a song with Bappi Lahiri. We were ready to record. Kavita Krishnamurthy had sung the scratch recording. When I heard the number I refused to re-record. I told Bappi to keep Kavita’s version.
She is a decent woman. She has always spoken well of me. Also Alka Yagnik. She loves me too. Some singers who came later took my helping gesture in the wrong light saying, ‘Bada humpar ehsaan kar rahi hai’.
Q: When you stormed the film industry in 1947 , you wiped away all the prevalent voices...
Lata Mangeshkar: Do you think I did black magic to get rid of the competition?(laughs). It was god’s will. Shayad mere kundali mein yeh likha tha (maybe I was destined for this). This had to happen. And it did.
Trust me when I was establishing my career I had no time to think of the competition. I just did my work. Other singers would sometimes badmouth me right in front of me. Once I turned down a song. Another popular singer did it instead. Later she came and announced loudly in a taunting voice that she had recorded that song. I congratulated her. I used to be taunted quite often.
There was music director, a Muslim gentleman, who loved me like a sister. He was keen that I sing one of his songs. I rehearsed for the song. But then I heard a new Maharashtrian singer had joined the industry. So I asked the composer to record in her voice. He agreed. She sang. The song was a hit. Later I heard she went around badmouthing me. Achcha karo aur kuey mein dalo. Such experiences have never left me embittered. Life taught me to never get carried away. I always keep my head bowed.
Q: Your advice to younger singers?
Lata Mangeshkar: They must learn Hindustani classical music and they must not get carried way by overnight success. Humility is the key to longevity.
Q: Any unfulfilled wish? What message would you like to give your fans?
Lata Mangeshkar: None at all. God has given me more than I deserve. Main itna hi kahungi ke mujhe unka ashirwad hamesha milta rahe. Main hamesha waisi hi rahun jaisa woh chahte hain.