Ode to a nightingale

Ode to a nightingale

As Lata Mangeshkar turns 90 tomorrow, we look at a glorious career that has spanned seven decades

By Khalid Mohamed

Published: Fri 27 Sep 2019, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Fri 4 Oct 2019, 10:07 AM

On Saturday - September 28 - she brings in her 90th birthday. Although she has kept away from the recording studios for quite a while, she does hope to record a private album of ghazals. When exactly? She doesn't specify.
All that the legendary Lata Mangeshkar is willing to state on record right now is that she has stopped listening to modern-day music, adding wryly, "If I were to tune in to today's top hit numbers, I would have to cut off my ears. Believe me, whenever the mood grabs me, I listen to the ghazals of Mehdi Hassan and Ghulam Ali, and the classical vocals of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Ustad Amir Khan."
She also discloses that she has strived to keep up with her daily morning riyaaz. In fact, when I chat with her over the phone, her voice still has that unique dulcet, honeyed quality, which from 1942 onwards, has made her a national treasure.
And the chanteuse is candid enough to admit that she was initially influenced by the style of Noor Jehan, the justly-anointed Queen of Melody, who migrated at the time of the subcontinent's partition to Pakistan. "I was compared with Noor Jehan at the outset," she remarks. "There's no denying that I did try to copy her pitch and inflections, especially after being entranced by her songs - Ud ja panchhi ud jaa and Tu kaunsi badli mein mere chand hai aaja - composed by Ghulam Haider for Khandaan (1942)."
In a rewind mode, India's prime songstress elaborates, "I must have been all of 14 years old when I was introduced to Noor Jehan. I sang a bandish in the jaijaivanti raag for her and she seemed to like what she heard and encouraged me to evolve as a singer. Subsequently, I could not meet her in Bombay, because as you know, she moved to Lahore. Over the years, we did keep in touch over the phone. She would always sound protective and made it a point to call up whenever she liked a film song of mine."
Fortuitously, Lata Mangeshkar is accessible to the media, albeit mainly for conversations over a landline phone. She also keeps in touch with her incalculable number of fans all over the world through social media. And occasionally, she does offer her opinion, as she did on the need for the preservation of the city's ecosystem - when plans were announced by the civic authorities to fell nearly 3,000 trees to make way for a car service centre of the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation. Unchecked urbanisation has  been her unwavering concern.
But couldn't her comments whip up needless controversies on Twitter? To that, she responds, "I am more than aware of that. That's why I am careful. I don't express my views on subjects which are beyond my comprehension. Mostly, I send out my wishes  to our cricket team on the eve of important matches. Plus, I tweet my wishes on birthdays, and my remembrances on death anniversaries, like that of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan."
Quite clearly, she has also taken care to avoid any controversial statements on younger sister Asha Bhosle (she's 86), whom the media has time and again sought to portray as her arch-rival.
Not surprisingly, then, there's an audible pause, before Lata didi, as she's fondly called, asserts that the question of a competitive edge between them used to be sparked repeatedly by a section of critics. "Some people," she feels, "enjoy firing up controversies. They say such-and-such song was snatched away by Lata from Asha, and vice-versa. That's been hurtful. The fact is that I'd refuse to render cabaret songs, which then went to Asha."
However, she did lend her voice to the iconic cabaret number Aa jaane jaan for the film Intaqam (1969), didn't she? Bring that up and Lata didi reasons, "That's because the music directors - Laxmikant-Pyarelal - called and assured me that the lyrics by Rajendra Krishan didn't have any double entendres. They asked me to check the lyrics. I liked the tune also, so I did it. But I would never be able to sing Piya ab tu ab to aaja (Caravan, 1971), it was just not in my style. I would have been uncomfortable and ended up doing a bad job. Asha gave that number so much class and grace."
In her 90th year, Lata Mangeshkar continues to reside with her extended family  in an apartment in Prabhu Kunj building, close to the traffic-clogged flyover on Peddar Road. Her sister, Asha, resided for decades in a separate adjoining apartment but has shifted to a high-rise tower. "I can't leave what has been my home for decades now," says the Bharat Ratna awardee. "At this age, I can't uproot myself. I tend to be sentimental about every little memory. Moreover, my brother Hridaynath, my nieces and nephews take care of me here. So why even think of looking for another thikana (address)?"
She points out that Asha Bhosle may have moved but has retained her apartment in Prabhu Kunj and visits her regularly. "See, nothing can ever come in the way of our family bond," she laughs.
Recently, a message on WhatsApp had circulated that the Nightingale of India had resolved never  to sing again. Mercifully, that turned out be a malicious rumour. After all, as long as there is music, there will be Lata Mangeshkar.

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