While reams of paper have been used to document every aspect of the legendary Lata Mangeshkar’s professional life, little information is available on the songstress’s personal space. Perhaps she may have not encouraged attempts on that front. Yet, we tried. After almost a month, fate knocked on our door. It was the melody queen on the phone, profusely apologising for not being able to keep her previous appointment. She didn’t have to do this, but Lataji is beyond the ordinary. And we were overjoyed when she agreed to do a frank and daring interview with HT Café.
Braving the Mumbai rains, we reach her second floor flat in Prabhu Kunj. Neat and devoid of any extra frills, her sweet little home is a reflection of her simple self and a huge contrast to her otherwise colossal achievements. A shaded sofa set, a carpet with a centre table on it, an air conditioner; a 30-inch television set, a Ganesha idol and a glass cabinet laden with few knick knacks. All these together comprise the living room of India’s greatest singer.
Despite having a cold and fever, Lataji cheerfully walked into the room and sat down, wrapped in off-white pashmina shawl. As we played an enthusiastic audience to her engaging recollections that touched upon her joys, sorrows, regrets, unfulfilled wishes, favourite food, music, fashion and love, Lataji blissfully regaled us for almost two hours. Excerpts from the chat.
You’ll be turning 84 in September this year. How does life look?
I’ve always loved life, irrespective of all the ups and downs that have filled my journey. I truly feel I’m completing a beautiful journey in terms of the multiple roles that have been assigned to me by destiny — be it of a dutiful daughter, a doting sister to my siblings and an able professional to all those who’ve worked with me. It’ll be 71 years in the industry. Yahaan se zindagi bahut khubsoorat dikhte hai (Life truly looks beautiful!)
Usually at your age, people do not like change. Does the changing society, thoughts and environment affect you?
I appreciate the change associated with people’s growth, but I don’t like the changes in our lives. I came to Mumbai in 1945, so imagine my acceptance of the massive changes around. I have witnessed every kind of revolution. We would step out at 4 am and roam about freely in Chowpathy without the fear of being molested, mugged or crushed under the wheels of a car. There were hardly any accidents then. And the sense of fear was almost nil. That kind of a luxury is next to impossible in today’s times. Everything is different and fairly strange today as compared to the golden days.
What do name, fame and money mean to you today?
They matter a lot, but I value it with a different approach. I have traversed a very long journey and seen all kinds of phases. So even though I believe money is transitory, it has its own place in life. But what remains after you’re dead and gone is the name you’ve earned. From my experience and understanding, I believe money follows name and fame, while recognition calls for a huge amount of sacrifice. To get something you have to lose something. That’s the rule of life.
So what would you consider as your sacrifices?
Calculations call for accounting, not sacrifices. What I gave up is personal.
One after the other, most of your contemporaries have left us forever? How do you feel about it?
Jab log chale jaate hain toh ek ajeeb sa khaalipan mehsoos hota hai (when people pass away, there’s a strange sense of emptiness). I had a very close friend in Canada; she also passed away recently. All my friends are gone, and so are the golden days. I’m still not being able to come to terms with Yashji’s (Chopra) death.
He used to call me ‘didi’ and that still rings in my ears. Everyone is slowly going away, but they’ll always be in my heart. I’ll miss them, their music and their associations. Music directors like Madan (Mohan) bhaiyya lived across my house. Evenings were so full of fun. I miss Hemant (Kumar) dada and S D Burman who called me ‘beti’. I had a great rapport with R D, who addressed me as behen (sister).
Why don’t you sing in today’s films?
I’ve sung in movies for over six decades. I don’t think my voice is any longer appropriate for today’s cinema, music or songs. The kind of songs they make or the way songs are picturised, I don’t think I can fit in.
Don’t you miss singing?
I sing for my music company, LM Music. Like any other music company, we too are fighting the hazard of the social media such as YouTube. But now it’s picking up as I have strongly associated myself with it. I also record songs for my label. We have come out with sixteen records so far. They are doing very well.
Are you a religious person by nature?
I believe in one power and that is the hand of God. I respect all religions. I go to the church, visit dargahs and go to temples. All religions take us to one destination, so why draw lines? I strongly disapprove of religion being misused by people. That’s the worst thing to happen to human kind, as it results in violence. Mujhe bahut dukh hota hai (I feel very upset). Politicians are usually looked upon as abusers of religion.
Do you agree?
I’m an artiste who has no connection with politics and don’t understand their functioning. It doesn’t engage me as I don’t find it interesting. So it would be inappropriate to comment on it.
But you had a brush with politics when you were an MP.
I was an MP for six years and visited the Parliament only six times in those six years. And I have never commented on anything. No politicians approached me with any political agenda. So, I have little knowledge about it.
Your temper is quiet legendary. How much have you managed to control so far?
I was quite short-tempered, but I never fought. There have been long misunderstandings with my music directors or co-singers, but it wasn’t sustainably severe. I remember as a gesture of respect, I would remove my footwear before entering the recording room to sing. But when I was angry, I would walk into the room with my sandals on and record my songs. That was my way of expressing my anger. People around would immediately know not to take any ‘panga’ (chance) with me. But today, with age and time, my anger has mellowed down.
Other than your trademark long plaits, and a simple sari, fashion seems to have evaded you all through? Was there any fear of experimenting with fashion?
Fashion didn’t evade me; I avoided it. If I wished, I could have been a fashion diva too, but I was never comfortable with wearing make-up, lipsticks and accessories. I don’t like short and tight dresses. And of course, it all started with my upbringing. Ours was an extremely orthodox Maharashtrian family. My mother wore a nine yard sari. I remember once when I had just stepped into my teens, I bought a puff-sleeved frock. When my dad saw me wearing it, he rebuked me. And then I gave up.
But your sister Asha is quite at it?
I know. She got interested in it after she got married. And she carries it off pretty well.
Other than music, what are your interests?
I love clicking pictures and cooking. Everyone loves my gajar ka halwa and pasanda. I also prefer sitting in my room and reading. Books are a different world and I love getting lost in them. Though photography is my passion, nowadays I have stopped clicking pictures because I do not understand the functioning of a digital camera. My old black-and-white camera is hardly in use, so I sold it off.
You have considerably opened up in this interview. Can I take the liberty to ask you what role did love play in your life and who was the lucky man in your life?
Kuch baaatein sirf apne liye hi hoti hain. Inhe humare dil mein hi rehne dijiye (There are some things only for the heart to know. Let me keep it that way).
People say a woman’s life is incomplete unless she is married with children? Do you believe in it?
People talk all sorts of things, so learn to ignore them. Else, it’ll be difficult to lead a happy life. Energies that are negative and depressing should be kept at bay. I have always done that. I remember reading your interview with Aamir Khan’s wife, Kiran Rao. Bohut khoobsurat bola hai unhone (she has spoken beautifully). It’s important to first find happiness and a sense of fulfilment within yourself, else the dream of being fulfilled only through marriage or children loses its significance.
Is there any unfulfilled wish sitting quietly in some corner of your heart?
Your question reminds me of Ghalib’s shair, Hazaron khawahishen aisi, ki har khwahish pe dam nikle, bahot nikle mere arman lekin phir bhi kam nikle. Having said this, I wish I could have completed my education. That’s one wish I know will never get fulfilled. That’s why we have ensured that all the children in our family have completed their education before pursuing their respective vocations. I miss attending college. I wanted to study and my dream was to become an eminent professor. That aside, I wish I could have been trained in classical music.
You never gave a thought to settling down?
In all honestly, the thought of being unmarried or being a mother never ever crossed my mind simply because I have my close-knit family around me all the time. My nieces and nephews (Adinath, Anand, Rachna, Bajnath, Anand, Yogesh and Radha) make up for it. I feel they are my own kids. I always believed that birth, marriage and death are destined and whatever will be, will be. I have lived with that philosophy and I’m quite happy. Moreover, these days, the strong institution of marriage isn’t the same anymore. The sanctity is eroding, and marriages have become so fragile.
There have been innumerable speculations on your relationship with Ashaji. Can you throw some light on what was the real reason of conflict between you two?
Frankly, most of the muck was media-created and the rest, people-created. I strongly believe that if anything that an elder sibling can have for the younger one, it is love, caring and a desire to protect. And other emotions like anger, detachment or hurt are sometimes result of these emotions. My case with Asha was a bit on these lines. Also, I was the quiet type whereas she was the restless and on-edge kind. She is very gutsy and is a versatile singer.
It all started when Asha (at 16) fell in love with her first husband (31-year-old Ganpatrao Bhosle, Lata’s personal secretary), and much against the wishes of our family, she eloped with him. My parents and I felt betrayed, hurt and angry at the way things were done. I didn’t talk to that man for a long time and we detached ourselves from them totally. Then there were other people in the industry that instigated her for their professional gain. They would pay her less and make her sing. Asha never understood these manipulations, so amidst all this uproar, people took advantage of the situation and her vulnerability. But soon, we got her back from her husband and life started looking up for her again.
Now that you don’t have that much pressure to deliver every day, do you indulge in food that you’d always kept away from — like pickle, ice cream or chilly, which we assume is bad for a singer’s throat?
I never liked pickle, so I’d kept away from it by choice. But I love chillies, especially green chillies, and cannot have my meal without them. As for ice cream and juices, those are also my favourites and I have always had them irrespective, except the night before a recording. So I’ve never compromised on my favourite food.