Lata Mangeshkar does a wicked impression of Kishore Kumar over the phone. “He was such an unpredictable man. When we would perform at shows in USA or Canada, we would decide upon a set list. But there was always a song or two that we didn’t like but would have to sing,” says the 87-year-old playback singer. So, what would Kumar do then? Mangeshkar chortles loudly before she continues: “He would address the audience and say, ‘Deviyon aur sajjano, bhaiyon aur beheno, maatayon aur pitayon (ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers), the next song is one that you will like very much, but Lataji and I don’t. What is to be done? Nothing, so we will sing it for you. But, I just thought you should know that we really don’t like this one’”.
The song in question was Shayad meri shaadi from the smash hit Souten (1983), starring Rajesh Khanna, Tina Munim and Mangeshkar’s niece, Padmini Kolhapure. Its lyrics were so coquettish, that in spite of their best efforts, the song made both Mangeshkar and Kumar sound rather dense. “Another was Bindiya chamkegi from Do Raaste (1969). I told Laxmiji (of Laxmikant-Pyarelal) that I really don’t like this song. But it was such a hit everywhere that I had to perform it often,” says Mangeshkar.
None of that mattered to the thousands of NRIs in the audience, many of whom had braved the snow and sleet to watch their favourite singers live. “The biggest reward about performing abroad was that for four hours, we could bring the NRI public closer to the country they had left behind,” says Mangeshkar, who sung an average of 22 songs at every show, not counting encores.
A new book, On Stage With Lata (Harper Collins), chronicles the legendary playback singer’s career on the international stage. Written by Mohan Deora, the co-promoter and co-organiser of Mangeshkar’s international tours from 1975-1998, and her niece Rachana Shah, it offers readers a glimpse into the notoriously private singer’s life on the road, as she toured the US, Canada, UK, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Suriname and Fiji.
These shows were a far cry from her very first public performance. “In 1938, when I was nine years old, I asked my father, Deenanath Mangeshkar, if I could sing raga Khambavati during one of his classical concerts,” says Mangeshkar. In the introduction of the book, she writes about how she dressed in a white frock and styled her hair to fall across one side of her face, and had her photograph clicked for a listing in the newspaper. The show began with her performance and as her father sang late into the evening, young Lata put her head on his lap and fell asleep. “My first show went well,” says Mangeshkar, with a chuckle. Her father once read her horoscope and told her mother that their daughter would become a famous singer and would remain unmarried all her life. His prediction came true, and even as Mangeshkar’s voice soared across the airwaves all around the world, it would take 28 years after her first Hindi film song — Paa lagoon kar jori for Vasant Joglekar’s Aap ki seva mein (1946) — for her to embark on her first inter-national performance.
“It was in 1974 at the Royal Albert Hall in London. VK Krishna Menon and my friend SN Gourisaria organised it. Dilip Kumar had just introduced me to the audience. But when I stepped on the stage, I couldn’t say a word. I must say that I wasn’t afraid, but it was the kind of feeling you get when you are determined to do a good job,” says Mangeshkar. She had been a little nervous about how her performance would be received, but she needn’t have worried. In the audio recording of the concert, there is a thunderous applause after she sings the first note of the shloka she performed at the beginning of every show. “Things were so disciplined in the West. But it’s not like strange events didn’t happen. Kishoreda once had a man who staggered on the stage completely drunk while he was singing Koi humdum na raha, and put his head on Kishoreda’s shoulder and sobbed uncontrollably. A man once threw money at my feet and I scolded him after I finished my song,” says Mangeshkar.
The prospect of performing in America was a little daunting to her, till her dearest friend Mukesh stepped in, and agreed to go on tour with her. “I had only one request. After my debut at the Royal Albert Hall, I didn’t want to perform in a community hall in some town somewhere, which is what usually happened to Indian playback singers. It makes a huge difference to a show and I didn’t want to settle for less,” says Mangeshkar. Deora did not disappoint her, and from the mid-1970s till the late 1980s, Mangeshkar performed at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, the Oakland Auditorium Area in San Francisco, Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto and Madison Square Garden (MSG) in New York City.
In the 1960s-’70s, the Western press’s awareness of Indian music was limited to Ravi Shankar, writes Deora. But by performing at these big ticketed arena-styled venues, Mangeshkar’s concerts put Indian film music on the North American map, in a way no one had done before. Interviews and profiles followed, and the Indian press took note of these tours. And soon, even Mangeshkar found out, that it is best to let what happens in Vegas, stay
“Whenever Mukesh bhaiya and I could take a break between shows, we’d travel to Las Vegas. I liked to go to the casinos and try my luck at the slot machines. I didn’t know how to play anything else. It was so much fun and I could spend hours there,” says Mangeshkar. Little would she know that after being photographed outside a casino in a blue salwar kameez, the Indian press would splash the picture all over the news, but with a few changes. “They mistook my blue salwar for jeans! They said that Lata is wearing jeans and is spending all her time at the casinos. Unke liye main gambler ban gayi! (They called me a gambler!),” says Mangeshkar, still very amused by the memory.
But one August evening in Detroit in 1976, Mukesh would suffer a fatal heart attack and Mangeshkar would lose a friend she’d loved and known for 25 years. “He was my brother, the one who took me to all these countries. He was a lively man, even though there would be occasions when he’d come late to the show and we’d panic till he got there. I liked performing with him, the mood on stage would always be soulful,” says Mangeshkar.
It would take an entire year before she would return to the international stage and soon, Mangeshkar toured with Kumar and Manna Dey. “With Kishoreda, it was fun and games. He loved making people laugh. With Mannada, our songs were on the softer side, with a more classical approach,” she says. Initially, Mangeshkar was strict that the concerts would be music shows only, a renowned actor or performer would only serve as a sort of emcee who would introduce her on stage. But as the years went by, she invited popular stars such as Amitabh Bachchan, Rekha and Sunil Dutt to join her on tour. “At the MSG show in NYC, Amitji sang Mere angne mein tumhara kya kaam hai, a folk song from Uttar Pradesh,” says Mangeshkar. A few years later, Bachchan would record it for Laawaris (1981), and having experienced the success of the international shows, would soon set off on his own tours around the world. “He told me that appearing on my shows inspired him. I haven’t attended his shows, but I hear they were wonderful,” says Mangeshkar.
At the twilight of her life and career, Mangeshkar admits that the thrill is gone. “I miss all these wonderful singers and composers I worked with, who were my friends. I rarely sing for films now. I don’t go into a recording studio thinking some kamaal (something amazing) will happen. These days, I sing spiritual songs like bhajans or the Hanuman Chalisa. I sing them in Marathi as well. I am not disappointed with what life has brought my way, I am rather content,” she says.