12 August 2009

Lata Mangeshkar ... in her own voice Conversations with Nasreen Munni Kabir

Lata Mangeshkar talks about herself to her friend Munni
I had meant to flip through this book and just get a sense of it, but once I started reading, couldn’t stop. Nasreen
Munni Kabir is a British film maker of Indian origin. In 1991 she made a documentary film on Lata Mangeshkar who despite her wariness of the press agreed to be the subject because she had liked Nasreen’s series Movie Mahal and her documentary on Guru Dutt. The book is presented as a long question-and-answer session, and Lata Mangeshkar talks about various aspects of her life – her childhood, her early struggle, her career, her interests and more. I liked the easy flow of ideas, and the sense of being present during the conversation. When Nasreen and Lata chatted about the songs she had sung over several pages, I actually had those lovely old tunes running through my mind during the rest of the day. One of the things that struck me as I read is that when someone today becomes well known and worshipped by the public, it’s often just because of media exposure and “hype”.
This book makes it clear that in Lata Mangeshkar’s case
her success stems primarily from her extraordinary musical skill, her dedication to high-quality output, and her thorough professionalism. Driven by economic need, she worked with single-minded purpose and made use of every opportunity to work and perfect her skill. When she sang, people were moved by the way her voice reflected the emotion in the lyrics. When the words were in languages she was unfamiliar with, she practiced hard to perfect the pronunciation. She had no formal education – but had an astonishing memory and musical ability from the earliest age.
She had pleasant working relationships as well as warm personal friendships with most of her colleagues, and they feature in the book as well. She had become the head of the family when her father died and took care of her mother Shuddhamati Mangeshkar who had been widowed when only 36 – and who she was later able to take on holidays with her to many countries and even once to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen at a garden party. My favourite image was the one of the great singer as a youngster standing at a Bombay commuter railway station and singing a song for her Masterji’s approval; of hopping into a carriage on another occasion with Kishore Kumar. The book tells us about Lata as a person – her skill at cooking, her love for dogs (she had 9 at one point, much to the chagrin of her poor mother!) her interest in photography, cricket – and slot machines! She would hire a bicycle because she loved to ride – but never owned one. When Nehru once asked for a private performance after a public one, she had the poise to say quietly, “I won’t sing now”. These stirring images are enhanced by many beautiful and evocative photos of special occasions and people over the years, including some taken by Lata Mangeshkar herself, and one absolutely stunning one showing her beautiful long hair. Over the years, Lata Mangeshkar has acquired a reputation in some quarters for negative traits and bad behaviour, and for being jealous and egotistical. Nasreen Munni Kabir is very clear that she will only talk about who Lata Mangeshkar is, what

she thinks, and how she works – and is not interested in digging into her private life for dirt. However, she does set the record straight on a number of unauthorised and untrue stories that have been published in various articles and on the internet. About 30 percent of this book is from the material collected for the documentary but in addition, Nasreen conducted twenty long telephone interviews from London, and then came to Bombay and spoke with Lata for a few months face-to-face. They spoke mostly in Hindi but the book is in high-quality idiomatic English, and the song translations are worthy of a poet. Having worked together on the documentary and now this book, Nasreen and Lata seem to have got along really well and their respect for each other is tangible right through the text. When Lata Mangeshkar speaks of her friends and the people who have been important to her in her life, it’s no surprise that she includes Nasreen Munni Kabir in the list.

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