Media shy Lata Mangeshkar gives a rare glimpse into her private life
Lata Mangeshkar...In Her Own Voice: Conversations With Nasreen Munni Kabir
Published by Niyogi Books
Price: Rs 1,500
IN 1962, Lata Mangeshkar woke up one day with a terrible queasiness and a pain in her stomach. She began throwing up a greenish-coloured vomit. After a doctor brought an X-ray machine home, it was found that Mangeshkar was being slowly poisoned by a cook who sneaked off soon after the incident. The family believed he had been planted there, but never discovered who was behind it. So Mangeshkar suffered for three months, bed-ridden. "I thought I would never be able to sing again," she remembers in the new biography, Lata Mangeshkar...In Her Own Voice.
Innumerable times in this book, we are reminded how lucky we are that she did continue to sing, that the prodigiously gifted Lata Mangeshkar decided to sing at all. For any listener of Mangeshkar, any connoisseur of music, any lover of film and its history or any collector of art, this book is a treasure, a keepsake, an heirloom. And that is because it is in the voice of Lata Mangeshkar.
At the outset, you may wonder what type of biography this is. Whether it is a biography at all, because it is one continuous, undulating conversation with the author Nasreen Munni Kabir. This conversation is barely punctuated by chapters, skips chronology to maintain an easy, uninterrupted tone and contains a chunk of tributes from colleagues and family as its tailpiece.
Mangeshkar herself answered this query during its launch, saying the only reason she agreed to a book on her is because the questions were asked and she only had to answer them. "I find it vain to write my own autobiography," she explained.
The singer's authorisation helps it pieces together the story of India's most extraordinary voice, but it remains as if Lata Mangeshkar were answering the queries in your head every single time Kabir asks a new question.
This also means it dips into Mangeshkar's personal collection of photographs; and every fan knows what this means to receive from the hands of a private, reclusive star. Some of these pictures are even taken by Mangeshkar herself, who picked up photography as a passion early on.
The book is culled from the interviews that Kabir conducted for a Channel Four documentary series, but as the author mentioned in another interview, the finished documentary clocked 17,000 words, while the book is of 45,000 words. A large, heavy book with merely 247 pages to describe a legend, it contains several photographs.
You scarcely feel a tinge of disappointment at the book. It is precisely this conversational style that allows you to finish it rapidly. And it is this style that makes you listen to Mangeshkar not singing to a tune that someone else wrote for her, but fashioning a melody out of her own life's events and giving a glimpse at how a genius views her world.
There may be questions you'd wish you could have asked her or wondered what might have come out if Kabir had lingered just a trace longer (I particularly was intrigued by the idea that Shammi Kapoor and Lata Mangeshkar argued all the time when they first knew each other. "He was outspoken and said hurtful things," describes Mangeshkar and you wonder, "Like what?"). Her private life is touched fleetingly; her single status, her "rivalry" with Asha Bhosle swiftly dealt with.
To be fair, Kabir meticulously covers most other ground and from her questions, it's obvious she's painstakingly researched Mangeshkar. We learn how Mangeshkar started supporting her family after her father Pandit Deenanath passed away suddenly, handing her entire salary to her mother and going from one recording to the next without even stepping out for a bite.
We hear of Mangeshkar's fondness for diamonds and emeralds, that the first car she bought for Rs 8,000 was a grey Hillman and of her abiding relationships with Mukesh, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Pandit Narendra Sharma, Dilip Kumar, Yash Chopra and Madan Mohan. There's the story of how five-year-old Mangeshkar never went back to school after she was sent back on her first day when she refused to be separated from baby Asha.
There's more. Mangeshkar's favourite film is The King & I starring Yul Brynner. She owns the entire Sherlock Holmes collection. Her blood pressure shot up when she attended the funeral of Kishore Kumar. And there are days that she just doesn't want to talk, to anyone.
From the tributes, you glean unfamiliar glimpses of Mangeshkar. Naushad Ali speaks of a poor girl who would "come by train to the studio, drenched, holding the umbrella in her hands". Sister Meena Khadikar talks of how as a child, Mangeshkar threatened to leave home in a fit of anger and with a bundle of clothes under her arm, but kept looking behind to see if anyone was following her.
The best though comes from Mangeshkar herself. Did you know that Hindi film musicians and singers never played to sheets of music notes, but learnt every tune by rote before they performed? This book is nostalgia, treasured film history and perspective in one impressive package.
The biography may have more the tenor of an interview than an analysis of the personality or a rehash of all the speculation surrounding a legend. Yet the icing is in hearing it, undiluted from Lata Mangeshkar. Not a note out of place.