Author: Nasreen Munni Kabir
"Lata Mangeshkar in Her Own Voice" | In her own voice
Lata Mangeshkar’s voice has had a profound impact on the Indian imagination and she has reigned supreme in Indian film music for over six decades. In conversation with Nasreen Munni Kabir, the maestro talks about her journey in Bombay, relation with Noorjehan, and much more; Excerpts:
Nasreen Munni Kabir (NMK): In which year did you move to Bombay?
Lata Mangeshkar (LM): In 1945. Master Vinayak closed down his company in Kolhapur and started making films in Bombay. Everyone who was working for him, including my family, were housed in rooms in a large residence attached to the Shankar Sheth Shiv and Ram Temples in Nanachowk. The cameraman Papa Bulbule and his family lived on the floor above us.
The house is now completely destroyed — though the temples are still standing.
We were nine family members — Mai, my sisters, brother, cousin Indira and her two children. We had a large sitting room, a small bedroom and a veranda on the ground floor. We all slept in the small bedroom. We often put down a mattress on the floor and slept wherever we felt like. The veranda doubled up as ‘the hall,’ our main sitting area. We had a separate little kitchen and a bathing area. The toilets were situated in the common parts of the house and shared by everyone.
Before we settled in Nanachowk, Meena and I stayed for a short time with Master Vinayak and his family in Kumud Villa, their rented house on Grant Road. During that period, Mai, my sisters Asha, Usha and brother Hridaynath were living with my maternal grandmother in Thalner. And then the whole family was together again.
NMK: I believe Master Vinayak introduced you to Noorjehanji during the making of Badi Maa in which you had a small role too. Was she a kind of guru to you?
LM: No. Noorjehanji was not my guru and I wasn’t her disciple. But I liked her singing very much. Before I started working in films, I had seen Khandaan in which she starred opposite Pran who was the hero of the movie. During my time at Prafulla Pictures in Kolhapur, I was given a small role in Badi Maa, a Hindi film that Master Vinayak was directing with Noorjehanji, Sitara Devi and Yakub. I sang the song ‘Maata tere charno mein,’ on and off screen. People mistakenly say the song was picturised on Asha but it isn’t the case. The other song in the film ‘Tum maa ho badi maa,’ was sung by Meenakshi and I sang a few lines too.
The first schedule of Badi Maa took place in Kolhapur and Noorjehanji came to film a song. They converted the studio’s music room into a living area and Noorjehanji, her husband, Shaukat Hussain Rizvi Sahib and their six-month old son, Akbar, stayed there.
One day, I was on the Badi Maa set and Master Vinayak introduced us saying: ‘This is Noorjehanji. Sing her a song.’ So I sang Raag Jaijaiwanti. She then asked me to sing a film song, so I sang R.C. Boral’s ‘Jeevan hai bekaar bina tumhaare’ from the film Wapas.
While I was singing I remembered Baba’s words: ‘If you sing in front of your guru, consider yourself a guru.’ So I sang with that thought in mind and she liked my voice. She told me to practise and said I will be a very good singer some day. We met again in Bombay during the completion of Badi Maa.
Noorjehanji migrated to Pakistan in 1947 but she called me often from Karachi and I phoned her too. She used to ask me to sing ‘Dheere se aaja ri akhiyan mein,’ the lullaby from Albela or some other song. It created quite a stir in Bombay and people were commenting: ‘These two keep phoning each other and singing.’ So all the telephone operators started eavesdropping on our calls. [both laugh].
NMK: Did you both meet again?
LM: We arranged to meet once in the early ’50s at Wagah, at the Indo-Pak border. I made my way there with my sisters Meena, Usha and a friend, Mangala. And Noorjehanji arrived with a huge pot of biryani! We all ate together and had a wonderful time.
Almost every year, during May and June, she visited London with her family. I was often there at the same time and we would meet. She cooked me lavish meals and always greeted me with much affection. I called her ‘Apa’ [elder sister].
In 1982, Noorjehanji came to Bombay to attend a big musical event and Dilip Kumar and I welcomed her. In later years, when I heard she was unwell, I called her a few times in Karachi. Her kidneys were in a bad state. She was on dialysis and spoke of her suffering and pain. On 23rd December, 2000, I was in Kolhapur when my nephew, Baijnath, called to say Noorjehanji had passed away. I was very sad.
NMK: Your friendship lasted fifty-five years from the first time you met on the sets of Badi Maa. Coming back to the ’40s, you were still in your teens and working in films. What became of your musical training?
LM: I stopped studying classical music after Baba died. I practised on my own but didn’t have any formal training at that time. It was Master Vinayak who said I must further the lessons Baba had given me. He called Ustaad Aman Ali Khan Bhendibazaarwale and at an initiation ceremony held at Kumud Villa on 11th August, 1945, a gandha was tied and I became his disciple.
The first raag he taught me was Hamsadhwani. It is an evening raag and still my favourite. Many years later, Salil Chowdhury based the duet ‘Jaa tose nahin boloon kanhaiyya,’ on the same raag. I sang this duet with Manna Dey for Parivar.
Aman Ali Khan Sahib was a good and kind man and loved me like his own daughter. He gave me singing lessons at Master Vinayak’s house in Shivaji Park. The moment he arrived, he first closed the door behind him and made me eat an omelette rolled in a roti. He brought me an omelette and a roti everyday because he thought I was too thin and insisted I eat before we start.
The lessons lasted about two hours. A harmonium and tabla player accompanied me as I played the tanpura and sang.
To this day I can’t say I have ever stopped missing my father, but when I began singing again with Khan Sahib, I remember feeling Baba’s absence deeply. Khan Sahib taught me for some time and then left for Talegaon. I waited for him to return, but he didn’t. We had no news of him. A few months later Master Vinayak found me another teacher, Amanat Khan Devaswale, who was the nephew of the famous singer Rajjab Ali Khan.
He taught many film people, including Nargisji. Her mother, Jaddanbai, was keen she learn how to sing. But Khan Sahib soon discovered Nargisji much preferred playing tennis to practising the scales! He was a wonderful teacher and a great singer but unfortunately our lessons lasted a short while because he left for Indore and there, very suddenly, he passed away.
In the 1970s, I learned singing with Tulsidas Sharma, a disciple of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Sahib. I had no free time but wanted to continue studying. Then Sharmaji passed away. And again my musical training stopped. But singing in films was practice too, and I was singing from morning to night.
NMK: Master Vinayak was of the same family as V. Shantaram. How long did you work with him?
LM: Until 1947. I acted in minor roles in a few of Master Vinayak’s films, but as I told you, I never liked acting. On 19th August, 1947, Master Vinayak died. It was a big shock to us. The last film he had started was Mandir which was completed by director Dinkar Patil.
Soon after Master Vinayak had died, his manager came to where Prafulla Pictures housed us in Nanachowk and said: ‘You’ll have to move out now. The company has closed down.’ We didn’t know what to do and found ourselves in the same difficult situation we faced in 1942 — with no money and many mouths to feed. Although I had worked continuously, I wasn’t paid for over six months because Master Vinayak’s film company had fallen on bad times.
Our neighbour, the cameraman Papa Bulbule, who also worked at Prafulla Pictures said to me: ‘I know a music director who needs a new singer. If you want to sing, then come with me.’
He took me to Central Studio in Tardeo to meet Harishchandra Bali. I sang a song which he liked very much. He knew my father too.
While I was recording Harishchandra Bali’s song for Love is Blind, a film that was finally shelved, a Pathan, a film extra supplier appeared and said: ‘Come tomorrow to Filmistan studio in Goregaon. Master Ghulam Haider has called you.’ I replied: ‘But I don’t know him. What will I do there?’ He said: ‘Just come.’
NMK: Master Ghulam Haider is credited for introducing the Lahore school of music and the dholak in the film song. Were you already familiar with his music before you had met him?
LM: Yes. I had a lot of respect for him. I’ll have to go back in time and tell you a story. In 1941, when my father was alive, Khazanchi was released. It had music by Master Ghulam Haider and lyrics by Wali Sahib. Master Ghulam Haider even sang a duet in the film, ‘Saawan ke nazaare hain,’ with Shamshad Begum. Khazanchi was a big hit everywhere and in Poona too. So, a competition was organised and the top prize was for the best singer who could sing two Khazanchi songs. So I did it again! When my father went to Bombay, I sneaked off and added my name to the list. About 114 girls signed up for the contest. When Baba returned and heard what I had done, he was annoyed with me. But this time he said: ‘If you don’t win the first prize, I’ll be put to shame.’
In my childhood I had this thing about being Master Deenanath’s daughter. In other words, I considered myself a really important person — the daughter of such an eminent father. I always had this feeling in my head.
The contest began and all the girls were called onto the stage. Each girl was asked to start by saying her name. When it came to my turn, I stood up and shouted loudly: ‘Lata Deenanath Mangeshkar!’ [both laugh] Everyone clapped because Baba was famous in Maharashtra. I sang ‘Laut gayi paapan andhiyaari’ and ‘Nainon ke baan ki reet anokhi,’ originally sung by Shamshad Begum in Khazanchi. I went home and later heard I had won the first prize — a dilruba.
So with this memory in mind, I went to meet Ghulam Haider Sahib. He asked me to sing and I sang one of his compositions, ‘Main to orun gulaabi chunariya aaj re,’ from Mehboob Khan’s Humayun. Then I sang Noorjehanji’s ‘Bulbulo mat ro yahan’ from Zeenat. I was so nervous I sang the song out of tune. Ghulam Haider Sahib asked me: ‘Have you had singing lessons?’ ‘Yes. Amanat Khan Devaswale was my teacher.’ He knew my guru personally and said: ‘I see! You were taught by Khan Sahib and you can’t sing in tune?’ [laughs]
Excerpted with permission from Lata Mangeshkar; published by Niyogi Books