In the late 1990s, I drove to Long Island to watch Lata Mangeshkar perform at a concert at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York. The venue used to be home to local ice hockey and basketball teams. But off-season, it would host music concerts featuring the likes of Andrea Bocelli and India's nightingale Lata Mangeshkar.
Due to a massive traffic jam leading up to the venue, I was slightly late and the show had already begun. My first reaction from my mid-tiered level seat was how elegant Mangeshkar looked in her white sari, standing in the middle of the giant sports arena, now dark, except for a spotlight that flashed on her.
This was a no-frills show, no dancers in colorful costumes, no B-level Bollywood comedians trying to hold the audience's attention in between the acts.
It was pure Lata Mangeshkar, who sang one hit song of hers after another – from the classics Aap Ki Nazron Ne Samjha, Aaja Re Pardesi, Naina Barse Rim Jhim, to the more recent ones, like Didi Tera Devar Deewanaa, Mere Khwabon Mein Jo Aaye.
The audience – mostly South Asians from the greater New York area – loved every moment of the show, except when the singer took a brief break and her young grand-nephew took over the stage to sing. Suddenly, the audience was restless and many people booed loudly.
Finally, Mangeshkar came back on stage, like an old aunt admonished the audience, and asked them to give the young man a chance. She was polite, calm, but also a tad bit angry: "Agar aap ko gana pasand nahin aaya to theek hai," she said. "Woh umr main chotta hai. Koshish kar raha hai. Usse boo mat kariye."
There was hushed silence after that. A sense of guilt prevailed among the audience of over 10,000 South Asians.
Lata Mangeshkar Loved Performing Live
Lata Mangeshkar loved performing live, especially traveling to Europe, North America, the Caribbean, and Australia – wherever there was a large South Asian diaspora.
"Performing for a live audience is an altogether different experience," Mangeshkar was quoted as saying in the book On Stage with Lata (2017), co-authored by Mohan Deora and Rachana Shah.
"It's all happening right there – it's alive. For years, I had been recording songs in a small recording booth with only the composer, lyricist, and film director to tell me if they thought the singing was good enough. The audiences at the concerts, in contrast, were made up of people from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, who had settled in the USA and Canada for decades, and they came in thousands to the shows, applauding and encouraging us singers. I honestly did not expect the kind of reaction we got."
She gave her first live performance outside India in March 1974 at London's Royal Albert Hall. She was also the first Indian musician to perform at that venue.
The audience there included Indian politician and diplomat VK Krishna Menon and Dilip Kumar, who introduced the singer in his dramatic voice saying, "Jis tarhan ke phool kee kushboo yaan mehek ka koi rang nahin hota, jis tarhan ke paani ke behte hue jharne yaan thandi hawaon ka koi ghar, gaon, watan, desh nahin hota, jis tarhan ke ubharte hue suraj ki kirano ka, yaan kissi masoom bachhe ke muskarahat ka koi mazhab nahin hota, waise hi Lata Mangeshkar ki awaaz kudrat ki taqleeq ka ek karishma hai."
Over the years, she performed at several major venues around the world – from the Sydney Opera House to Madison Square Garden in New York City, where, in 1985, she had a sold-out concert with Kishore Kumar. Later, Sunil Dutt emceed another concert of hers at the Royal Albert Hall.
Other stars had also appeared with her – Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan were guests at her show in 1980, at Madison Square Garden's Felt Forum. In 1983, Bachchan and Rekha were present at Mangeshkar's show at Vancouver's PNE Agrodome. In fact, their pictures appeared on the concert's poster, not that Vancouver's desi population needed other stars to pull them to a Mangeshkar performance.
Mangeshkar always enjoyed performing live with Mukesh, who was like a brother to her and who first introduced her to gambling in Las Vegas. She fell in love with the city, playing slot machines, hopping from one casino to another, and shopping in the malls. And during one such tour in 1976 in Detroit, Mukesh had a heart attack and passed away immediately after.
In the pre-internet and social media days, I remember Asha Bhosle appearing on Doordarshan. She looked very sad and spoke in Hindi that she had just received a call from Didi (Mangeshkar) who gave her the news that Mukesh Bhaiya had passed away. I also remember Doordarshan covering Mukesh's funeral, where they played O Jaane Walle Ho Sake To Laut Ke Anna from Bandini. Mukesh's death left a huge impact on Mangeshkar and she stopped travelling abroad for concerts for a few years.
Mangeshkar's Mixed Relationship With American Media
Mangeshkar had a mixed relationship with the American media. Back in 1959, Time magazine referred to her as the "undisputed and indispensable queen of India’s playback singers."
Recently, in 2016, her name was dragged into a controversy when stand-up comic Tanmay Bhat did a poor imitation of her in a Snapchat video. The New York Times reported the reaction to Bhat's video, but while writing about it, the newspaper referred to Mangeshkar as a "so-called playback singer."
The Times faced a huge backlash from Mangeshkar's fans and had to apologise, adding that the piece was only explaining to its readers who a playback singer was, since that term is not used in American English.
Mangeshkar never did crossovers in the west like her younger sister Asha Bhosle. Part of the reason was that Bhosle experimented with western musicians such as the Kronos Quartet. She sang with Boy George in his single Bow Down Mister and the pop group Cornershop even had a hit song about Bhosle called Brimful of Asha.
And so, Bhosle often performed at prime venues such as Carnegie Hall in New York City where she drew a large non-South Asian audience. In 2008 the Times, in a piece about Bhosle, said, “One of her few rivals is her older sister, Lata Mangeshkar, another hugely prolific playback singer.”
But the South Asian population in North America, especially the older immigrants, kept Lata Mangeshkar close to their hearts.
Lata Mangeshkar's Voice – My Connection to India
I moved to the US in 1981 as a young student. It was the first time I had left home. I missed India, my family, and my friends. And I missed Indian films, the music – comfort food for my dislocated soul. In 1981, as a student at Columbia University, I would often sit with other Indian students. Someone would have a portable cassette player. Another person would bring his or her new cassette and we would listen to Hindi film music.
And the most popular song at that time was Neela Asaman So Gaya in Mangeshkar’s voice. Silsala opened in August 1981, around the time I left for New York, and it was apt for us to listen to the hit song. That is what kept us connected to India.
A year later, I made a close friend – an Indian film journalist called Arthur Pais (he passed away in 2013). Among my fondest memories of that time was sitting with Arthur in my student apartment in New York City, drinking beer, and listening to old Lata Mangeshkar songs.
My India was in Mangeshkar’s voice. Her songs will always keep me close to India no matter where in the world I am.
(Aseem Chhabra is an actor and producer, known for Sita Sings the Blues (2008), Iftar (2015) and Pulse: The Desi Beat (2007). He is also one of the organisers of NYIFF. He tweets @chhabs. This is a personal blog and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)