Book Excerpts · Longreads

How Lata Mangeshkar Became the Queen of Indian Concerts Abroad

One day some concert organizers came to my father and asked if they could hold a jalsa where my father Deenanath Mangeshkar, a celebrated classical singer, would perform. I was standing nearby and overheard the conversation. I said, ‘Baba, I want to sing too.’

‘What will you sing?’ he asked.

‘You taught me Raga Khambavati, so I’ll sing that, and a song from one of your plays.’

He looked at me somewhat taken aback – perhaps my confidence took him by surprise. I was only nine years old. My father thought it over for a few minutes and agreed that I could sing with him on the stage.

Later that day, I put on a white frock with tiny patterns on it, styled my hair in a wave across one side of my face, and started to head towards the main door of the house when my mother stopped me and asked where I was going. I didn’t answer her and quickly slipped out. There was a photographer’s studio across the street from where we lived. I pushed my way in and asked the photographer to take a picture of me. A few days later, it appeared in the local newspaper alongside a photograph of my father, with the caption: ‘Classical programme by father and daughter’.

The evening of the concert finally arrived. I was the first to get onto the stage and sang Raga Khambavati. Then my father sang late into the evening. I was very sleepy and put my head on his lap and fell fast asleep. Everyone seemed happy enough about my first public appearance. My father, who was a very good astrologer, once read my horoscope. He told my mother, ‘Lata is a very good singer. You cannot imagine how famous she will become. She will sing but will not marry.’ His words did come true and music became the centre of my life.

I am sure that performing on the stage at that young age helped me to sing in public. Over the years, I have sung at many concerts in India, especially in Kolkata. We sang in theatres and stadiums. The Bengali audience was fantastic. They listened so attentively. They usually asked me to sing the Bengali songs that I had recorded.

My first concert outside India was in 1974 at the Royal Albert Hall in London. It was a wonderful show. A close friend, S.N. Gourisaria, and the celebrated diplomat and statesman, V.K. Krishna Menon, who had launched the India League in London, organized the show beautifully. Dilip Kumar introduced me in glowing words, but when I stepped onto the stage and faced the audience, I felt a trembling sensation in my throat. I could not utter a sound. I did not know what to do. I knew it was the daunting pressure of getting it right. I somehow sang the opening shloka and by the time I had finished singing, I had become a tigress!

In late 1974, Mukesh Bhaiya came to see me and talked about Mohan Deora who lived in Detroit. He said Mr Deora had organized concerts for him and now wanted to produce a Lata Mangeshkar tour of the US and Canada. I was hesitant about singing in America. In 1969, when I was visiting my close friend Nalini Mhatre who lived in Canada, she thought it would be fun if we went to New York for a few days. In later years, I came to love New York and it became my favourite US city, but at first, I found it scary and intimidating. The hotel where we were staying was very rough: it was not a nice place at all. Rather odd-looking people milled around, and at nights we could hear loud and aggressive banging on the doors. I got scared and told Nalini we should go back to Canada at once. This unfortunate experience coloured my first impression of America.

Mukesh Bhaiya was aware that I was reluctant to perform in the US, but he insisted I should at least meet Mohan Deora. So Mohanji came to Mumbai in December 1974. To be perfectly honest, when I met him I was not sure that he and his team would be able to organize the shows well. That was my first impression. But Mukesh Bhaiya said Mohanji was a very good man and a good organizer. He said he was happy with his US shows and assured me that everything would go well. I thought it over and finally agreed. ‘Mukesh Bhaiya, if you come with me, I’ll go,’ I said. ‘Of course I’ll come with you. It’ll be something new and exciting for the audience there if we went together.’

I did not choose the auditoriums for the US/Canada tours. But I did tell Mohanji that considering my first show abroad was at the Royal Albert Hall, we had to find venues of the same calibre. 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.

Kishore-da once told me about a show in a cinema hall in Southall, London. He was singing ‘Koi humdum na raha koi sahaara na raha’ [I have no one to love or someone to depend upon] when a totally drunk fellow staggered onto the stage, put his head on Kishore-da’s shoulders and started sobbing loudly. Kishore-da got a terrible fright. ‘What’s going on here?’ The organizer rushed forward and took the man away. Then someone shouted rudely, ‘Now sing us “Mere sapnon ki raani”.’ It must have been a Punjabi fan who probably adored Kishore-da, but instead of making him feel appreciated, he managed to alarm Kishore-da even further.

With this story in mind, I thought to myself what I would do if these kinds of things happened to me in America. I was confident of the audience in London. I always liked London, and still do, so I did not hesitate to sing there. But I was unsure of the American audience. Would there be whistles and catcalls? I didn’t know what to expect. That’s why I said to Mohanji, ‘Look, I’ve sung at the Royal Albert Hall, so my shows must take place in good venues.’ And Mohanji did find the best venues for us in the US and Canada, and that made a big difference.

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The popularity of Lata’s shows even attracted fraudsters and scams. Tickets sold for this fictitious show were actually refunded.

Before we arrived in the US, the musicians and I rehearsed many times in India. We also rehearsed at the venue itself during the morning of the show. I would check the mic position and do a sound test. The first show of the 1975 tour took place at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles on Friday, 9 May. It went extremely well. A few days later we performed at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. It was another amazing show. The audience was so generous in their appreciation, and showered us with love.

The third city in our 1975 tour was San Francisco. We landed there on 11 May, and from the airport I went straight to the hotel, changed and by 4 p.m. I was at the Oakland Auditorium Arena. I always made it a point to arrive at the venue at least an hour before the show, and then I would sit quietly in the green room. On the other hand, Mukesh Bhaiya, like Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar, had this habit of coming late. We waited for him but he did not show up. I was not sure if we should carry on waiting for him because he was supposed to introduce me on the stage.

The hall was packed. It was 5.30 and still no sign of Mukesh Bhaiya. Everyone looked at me for a decision. I told Ramesh Shishu, Mohan Deora’s tour partner, to announce that we were starting. Without the usual introduction, I sang the shloka and then proceeded to sing three songs. By that time, Mukesh Bhaiya had arrived. I could see him watching me from the wings. He looked very sheepish and embarrassed.

When it came to the presentation of the show itself, I was definite about some things. For example, I did not want any of us singers to wear garish clothes, big earrings or excessive jewellery. I wanted simplicity. We had to look like singers, not like glamorous movie stars. What the audiences liked, I think, was that we were dressed simply. When Mukesh Bhaiya sang, he was not wearing a silver-threaded or sequinned jacket. It looks dreadful anyway. If we were dancers, watch us dance. But we are singers, and I wanted the audience to listen to our singing.

To keep the audience entertained, we presented a variety of voices. I would sing three or four songs, then Mukesh Bhaiya sang. Once he was done, we would sing a few duets. Then Usha would come on, and I might sing a duet with her. I usually started the second half of the show and sang the last song. My sister Usha, my nephews and my niece Rachana, who was only nine then, would also sing. Rachana still sings very well and can sing classical music. Asha’s son, Anand, came with us for some shows but he did not sing.

A basic rule about stage performance is that the singer should know the song lines perfectly. Some singers would end up singing the wrong words if they had forgotten the lyrics; this should not happen. As far as the selection of songs was concerned, we had a sense of what was popular in both the United States of America and Canada. We also chose songs that worked well on the stage. I made it a point to sing a medley in different languages – Bengali, Marathi, Assamese, Gujarati. I would tell the audience that I had prepared the medley especially for them. It is always heart-warming to hear your mother tongue, especially if you are living in a far-off country.

There were some songs that people liked, and I didn’t, but I had to sing them, like ‘Bindiya chamkegi’. I never liked that song even when I had first recorded it. The songs the audience really loved were the haunting melodies like ‘Aayega aanewala’, ‘Kahin deep jale’, ‘Ajaa re pardesi’ and ‘Naina barse rhim jhim rhim jhim’. When it came to the duets with Mukesh Bhaiya, people enjoyed ‘Saawan ka mahina’. I think it amused them because in the song Mukesh Bhaiya has to teach me how to pronounce the word ‘sor’.

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The revolving stage at the Valley Forge Auditorium, Philadelphia. (16 January, 1977)

After the last show in 1975, Mohanji organized a dinner for us all in a good Indian restaurant. The restaurant staff had set up a long table on the first floor for us. We were quite a few and Raj Kapoor also decided to join us. When Raj Kapoor arrived, he said with great gusto, ‘Open the champagne!’ So the champagne bottle was opened. Everyone was offered a glass. Raj Kapoor looked at me and could see that I was feeling very uncomfortable. There was a friend sitting next to me, so he came to her and said, ‘You live in New York, you can have a drink.’ This friend of mine was scared of me and immediately said, ‘No, no, no, I don’t want any champagne.’ I told her, ‘You’re used to having a drink, go ahead. But I won’t drink.’ Then Raj Saab came to my side and said, ‘Stop scaring people, Lata! Let them be. They are terrified of you and that’s why they’re not drinking champagne!’ I was laughing inside, but did not say a word. But it was true – Mohanji and the others were not drinking because I was there.

The first US–Canada tour was very joyful in every way, but disaster struck in 1976 when we went back to America. Mukesh Bhaiya and his son Nitin were staying on the floor above mine in our Detroit hotel. At five one evening, I got a call from the hotel reception saying, ‘Mr Mukesh has suffered a heart attack.’ He was immediately taken to hospital and we rushed over there. Mohanji arrived just when the doctor came to tell us that Mukeshji was no more. I felt as though all my strength had left me. I sat on the sofa in the waiting area, numb. My brother Hridaynath went to the auditorium and broke the news to the Detroit audience that we were cancelling the show. We refunded the ticket money. A week or so later, I came back to Mumbai and went to see Mukesh Bhaiya’s family. It was a shocking thing for us to lose him. I was very close to him. I called him my brother and believed that he was a real brother to me.

As time passed, we developed new ideas for the shows. We thought audiences would love to see some of their favourite stars on stage with us. So, for the New York show in 1980, a friend of mine and I met Amitabhji at the Willingdon Club in Mumbai to request him to come to America. He immediately agreed. I asked him if he could sing, and when he said that he could, I encouraged him to sing on stage. I was very moved to hear that the minute Amitabhji and Jayaji had landed in New York, instead of going to relax at their hotel, they went directly to Sloan Kettering Hospital to see Nargisji. They knew she was ill and was being treated for cancer. Our New York show was held at Felt Forum where Amitabh Bachchan sang ‘Mere angne mein’, and when he came to the line ‘jiski biwi chhoti uska bhi bada naam hai’, he asked Jayaji to join him on stage. When she stepped onto the podium, he carried her in his arms. The audience went wild with joy.

Some months later, I read an interview in which Amitabhji said that he had sung for the first time in public because I had asked him to. He added that our musical concerts had given him the idea of doing his own shows in America. Mohanji later told me how extremely popular and good they were. I am grateful to Amitabhji for coming to New York for our show, and for mentioning the fact that I had encouraged him to sing in public.

In 1985, Kishore-da accompanied me on tour. The audience loved our duets, especially ‘Gaata rahe mera dil’ and ‘Kora kaagaz tha ye mann mera’. This time we asked Sunil Dutt to be part of the show and he graciously agreed. In fact, Kishore-da and Sunilji created an impromptu comic act. Kishore Kumar had played Sunil Dutt’s singing guru in Padosan, so Kishore-da pranced onto the stage calling out, ‘Bhole, Bhole!’ (Sunil Dutt’s character’s name in the film). From the other corner of the stage, Sunil Dutt cried, ‘Guru, Guru!’ Kishore-da then proceeded to sing ‘Mere saamne waale khidki mein’ while Sunilji stood at a microphone, lip-synching. The audience were beside themselves with laughter. It was hilarious.

Kishore-da would talk a lot between songs. I remember during the Toronto show, he said, ‘Let us sing the duet that you don’t like, and I don’t like either.’ I was silent, wondering which song he was talking about. Then he said, ‘We’ll sing “Chai pe bulaaya hai”. I know you don’t like that song, do you?’ I did not reply. I really did not like the song and had in fact told him that we should not sing it. But he often surprised me and did all sorts of crazy things. It was a wonderful experience working with Kishore-da. We had so much fun together on the stage.

People have asked me if I have ever suffered from stage fright. I do not believe that I have, but I was fearful of making a mistake. So I would prepare myself mentally and give myself ample time. Two hours before the show, I’d choose the sari I was going to wear; sometimes I got ready in the hotel and sometimes I would change at the venue itself. Then I’d sit in the green room thinking that I had to sing well, people should not say that Lata was nervous or scared. I didn’t want to hear people say, ‘This went wrong, that went wrong.’ What I wanted to hear was, ‘Lata sang well.’ It was the same thought I had whenever I recorded a playback song. It was not fear, rather the determination to get it right.

I was known for enunciating every word in a song. Everyone thought that the words I sang were always clear, and that I sang in tune. I was confident about that. When singing on stage, what was essential for me was to be able to hear the harmonium clearly – because it gave me the right pitch. So the arranger/conductor Anil Mohile stood near me as he played the harmonium. Sometimes a musician might go off-key – say a string was broken or he would play a wrong note – so I relied on the constant pitch of the harmonium. It was reassuring to me that Anil was close at hand.

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A proud moment to see the Lata-Kishore concert sold out at Madison Square Garden, New York. (22 June 1985)

Thinking back to that time today, I know the tours would not have been possible without the kindness and help of so many, including my sisters Usha and Meena. Most importantly there was the generosity of the audience. From 1975 to 1998, in every venue and country where I performed, even in Australia where I sang at the Sydney Opera House, people showered me with affection and appreciation. Performing for a live audience is an altogether different experience – 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. Nor could I have ever imagined the tremendous love that I would receive in the Caribbean and in the Fiji Islands. Many people have asked me to do shows in America, but I felt a sense of loyalty to Mohan Deora because of our very close ties.

The first time we went together to Las Vegas was on Mukesh Bhaiya’s insistence. Then it became a habit. Bhabhi and I would spend hours in the shopping malls in Vegas. I also thoroughly enjoyed playing the slot machines. I would go to one casino or another. Whatever money I won, the same coins would be put back into another slot machine. Sometimes I played throughout the night and at six the next morning, I’d make my way to the hotel/casino coffee shop and have a glass of cold milk, a toast, and some dollar pancakes with maple syrup.

One evening some Indians saw me playing the slot machine and looked shocked. ‘Lataji likes the slot machine?’ When I returned to India, a journalist called me up and said, ‘I hear you enjoy gambling and you go to Las Vegas to gamble. I don’t like it.’ I got angry and said, ‘It is not your father’s money that I’m spending. I play with my own money.’ He went silent. I was really annoyed. Was it a sin or something? I am not Mirabai or a saint. I am a human being and so what if I enjoyed playing the slot machines?

Another odd thing happened. One day in Las Vegas, I decided to wear a blue shalwar-kameez and a blue dupatta, although I usually wear saris. A few days later, a report appeared in an Indian newspaper: ‘Lata was standing in front of a hotel casino. She was wearing blue jeans.’ I thought to myself: ‘Shaabaash!’

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Audiences came in thousands to see Lata Mangeshkar in both USA and Canada.

When I think back to those times, there is one incident that I am unlikely to forget. I was in Trinidad on 28 September 1980. It was my fifty-first birthday. We had performed at the Jean Pierre Complex in Port of Spain [the capital of Trinidad and Tobago] on the night before. Mohan Deora’s team, my family, and all the musicians decided to host a lavish birthday lunch for me in what must have been the hotel ballroom or something. Everyone was in a jolly mood. Anil Mohile stood up and announced that he and the musicians wanted to say a few words on the occasion. Anil wished me happy birthday and added, ‘Didi has just sung “Main solah baras ki” [I am sixteen] for the film Karz, and she really still sounds like a sixteen-year-old.’ Anil’s words were followed by the comments of many musicians. Then the sitarist Jairam Acharya stood up and cheerfully said, ‘Didi is so extraordinary that I request all of you to observe a two-minute silence.’

For a moment, no one knew how to react and then we all burst out laughing. We just could not stop. Tears of laughter poured down our faces. Poor Jairam had no idea what he had just said. He looked around the room with a confused expression while we could not stop laughing. These small incidents make up a lifetime.

(Excerpted with permission from Lata Mangeshkar’s introduction to On Stage with Lata, written by Mohan Deora and Rachana Shah, and edited by Nasreen Munni Kabir. Buy it here: http://amzn.to/2mv3prg)

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