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Lata Mangeshkar - The Didi from India who conquered America

A new book offers you a peak into legendary singer Lata Mangeshkar's life beyond the confines of city recording studios

Lata Mangeshkar
Lata Mangeshkar

The year was 1974. At London's Royal Albert Hall, the crowd had gathered in droves to watch Lata Mangeshkar, then 45, perform live for very the first time on an international stage. For someone who had started her playback-singing career nearly three decades before this, and was already on the cusp of becoming a legend, one would assume thatthe concert would have been a piece of cake. But, in a new book, Lata recalls this moment as one wrought with trepidation."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 whatto do. I knew it was the daunting pressure of getting it right," writes Lata.

Lata Mangeshkar with the Clintons in Chicago, June 1995
Lata Mangeshkar with the Clintons in Chicago, June 1995

Switch to 1998, when Lata went on her final tour abroad, she was a whole new person, says Mohan Deora, the man, who spearheaded her international concerts in the USA, Canada, the Caribbean and the Fiji Islands, starting 1975. "Lata didi had become a master of ceremonies… she was joking, laughing and engaging in repartee with her audience." Deora's just-released book, On Stage with Lata (HarperCollins India), which he co-wrote with the legend's niece Rachana Shah, sheds light on Lata's tryst with the international stage and how she single-handedly transformed the perception of Indian concerts in the West.

On stage with Kishore Kumar
On stage with Kishore Kumar

The germ ofthe idea for the book first came to Deora, 74, after he retired as nuclear scientist in Detroit, in 2013. "I had a wealth of stories from the many concerts with Lata didi. And, whenever I shared them with friends, they'd tell me it needed to be preserved in a book," says Deora, who now lives in Florida. "When I discussed this with Lata didi, she was very encouraging. But, because I was unsure about pulling it off alone, she suggested that I rope in her writer niece Rachana."

Lata With young Rachana Shah and her brother
Lata With young Rachana Shah and her brother

The result is an endearing 160-page memoir that takes you through the songstress' life beyond the confines of the recording studio, with rare photographs and previously untold accounts, including the tragic demise of singer Mukesh in Detroit during Lata's 1976 tour.

But nothing comes close to the tell all introduction by the veteran, which has been written by Nasreen Munni Kabir. Kabir also edited the book. These concerts didn't just bring Lata in direct contact with her fans from the Indian disapora, it also became an excuse to taste the freedom that stardom in her own home country had denied her. She shopped in malls, cooked with friends, relished candy floss, binged on frozen cola and even, played slot machines in Las Vegas until the wee hours. "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," writes 87-year-old Lata with unapologetic candour, adding, "Was it a sin or something? I am not Mirabai or a saint. I am a human being." Her frankness though masked by the sincerity of her saccharine voice reveals a side previously unknown.

(L-R) Lata Mangeshkar at her favourite Casino Belagio with sister Usha, niece Radha, Arundhati, Deora’s wife Suvarna, the casino manager and sister Meena
(L-R) Lata Mangeshkar at her favourite Casino Belagio with sister Usha, niece Radha, Arundhati, Deora’s wife Suvarna, the casino manager and sister Meena

It's with this same forthrightness that Lata insisted on a large performing space for herself and the orchestra that was accompanying her on her first US tour, recalls Deora, currently on a short visitto Mumbai. "Until then, shows with music artistes were only held in small community halls, schools and colleges, and tickets were priced at $2," he added. Deora, who moonlighted as an event organiser driven by his love for film music, says he was tasked with his "career's biggest challenge when Lata didi made the request". "Back then, Americans didn't know anything aboutIndian cinema or music. None of the mainstream auditoriums thought we would be able to generate enough funds to buy the hall, let alone hold the show," he says. But, Deora, who moved to the US in the 1960s, and had been harbouring a dream to bring Lata on foreign soil for over a decade, took the risk.

Lata Mangeshkar opening the concert of the first tour with a shloka from the Bhagavad Gita on May 9, 1975. PICS/MOHAN DEORA, HARPERCOLLINS INDIA
Lata Mangeshkar opening the concert of the first tour with a shloka from the Bhagavad Gita on May 9, 1975. PICS/MOHAN DEORA, HARPERCOLLINS INDIA

The show was eventually held at Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles - a first for any Indian artiste. Lata would go on to perform at elite centres, including Carnegie Hall and Madison Square Garden in New York and John F Kennedy Center in Washington DC, over the next 23 years. Nobody, would henceforth, dare to question the repute of an Indian artiste and Deora says thatit was possible because of Lata. He also credits the singer for infusing a "punctual rhythm" to concerts. "Indians are known to be late. But, Lata didi worked by the minute. She would come exactly an hour before the event, and start her show on time. Just for her sake, we printed the concert timings as 7.38 pm on the ticket, to indicate that for her show, you couldn't walk in late," he says. Even though Lata stopped performing abroad in 1998, she continues to be close to Deora, who she calls Mohan bhaiya, and his family.

Shah, daughter of Meena Mangeshkar Khadikar, says writing this book along with Deora, helped her see her auntin a different light. "What you will see here is a singer, who not only evolved as a stage artiste, but also did a great bit to uplift the standard of Indian performances abroad.

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