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Rachana Shah on new Lata Mangeshkar book: I can’t even imagine music without her

The legendary singer’s niece has co-authored a book on the significant North American tours that took place from the 1970s through the 1990s. Shah spoke to Cinestaan.com about reviving those memories with On Stage with Lata.

Courtesy: Rachana Shah

Sonal Pandya

In the mid-1970s, South Asians who made the US and Canada their home got an opportunity to ease their homesickness with a concert tour featuring Lata Mangeshkar and Mukesh. The shows at iconic venues like the Shrine auditorium in Los Angeles and Carnegie hall in New York created a frenzy like little else. From then till the late 1990s, Mangeshkar returned for nine more tours with singers like Kishore Kumar, Nitin Mukesh and Manna Dey. Some of the concerts even had special appearances by Hindi film personalities like Raj Kapoor, Amitabh Bachchan, Dilip Kumar and Saira Banu.

Conjuring magic with Lata-Kishore: An excerpt from On Stage with Lata

Co-authored by Mohan Deora, the event organiser, and Rachana Shah, Mangeshkar’s niece who was a part of those tours, On Stage with Lata takes you behind the making of those momentous concerts. Cinestaan.com spoke to Shah about the conception of the book, the essence of the legendary Lata Mangeshkar, and the possibility of a documentary from this material. Excerpts:

What was your first thought when you were approached to co-author the book?

The period of the book spans from 1975 up to 1998 and [Mohan Deora, the main organiser of the show] had kept all the clippings, whatever documentation [there was of the shows]. He had nothing in his head that he was going to make a book out of it. In one of his visits to India, he spoke with Didi [as Mangeshkar is popularly known] and me and said, ‘I have all this, but I need to put it into black and white.’ It’s just a thought which occurred to him. Didi told him, ‘She is my niece and she is a writer. Why don’t you take her? And you two have such a nice relationship.’

I’m extremely fond of Mohan uncle. So that is how I came into the picture. Because the book is from his experiences and his vision of the whole thing, the narrative of the book flows through Mr Mohan Deora’s eyes. That was a daunting task for me, to get into his skin and write keeping that in mind. I guess, as a writer, one has to face challenges, otherwise it is not exciting.

You accompanied your aunt on these tours with your family. What are some of your abiding memories from this tour? It was a historic tour, it was the first time she was performing in North America....

[On] the first tour I was a child and as a child one doesn’t realize the impact of what is going to take place. As you rightly said, it was a historic moment. Didi is such a simple and down-to-earth person. She doesn’t know she is Lata Mangeshkar. At home, the atmosphere is just like in any other normal home. We knew how she is worshipped around the world and all that, but it never really hit us because she never behaved that way with us.

I had never been to America, so for me it was like one big foreign trip which I was going on with her and we [Shah's brother Yogesh and cousin Anand] were getting pampered. She indulged us, took us to Disneyland and all that. It’s only over the years that I kept accompanying her, that’s where it started dawning on me, [that] what I am witnessing and what I am going through is history being created. It’s this one lady who is taking Bollywood abroad and keeping it at a stage which is unmatched. And thanks to Mohan uncle, when he approached me to co-author the book with him, we actually relived each moment with this book and I can’t thank him enough because reliving it and seeing it from a perspective of today as a completely grown woman, I marvel at her. She is one of a kind and I go speechless when I speak about her.

You also sang backup for her on the tour.

I used to sing with my brother. We both used to perform. I didn’t perform in all shows. [Lata Mangeshkar] said, whenever you guys [want], there was no compulsion on us. She is not that kind of person [that] you will have to [sing]. It was a free thing. She was very particular that we educated ourselves [though].

You didn’t want to continue with singing? Did writing interest you more?

As a child, it seems my mom [Meena Khadikar] remembers that. I used to sit and write short couplets, poems, and all that. She has all these memories. I probably must have been doing all this. I love music, I can sing, I’ve learnt classical music also, of course, from my mama [uncle] Pandit Hridaynath Mangeshkar. For three years, I learnt from Ghulam Mustafa Khan as well. I’ve done Marathi stage also for nearly three years. That was exciting, but writing was my calling.

Lata Mangeshkar
Courtesy: HarperCollins India

What I found interesting in the book is that Lataji revealed that she wanted to become a doctor.

Yes, she wanted to become a doctor, and more than that she also had this urge to become a barrister. She has always given a lot of importance to education. Unfortunately, she couldn’t [pursue] it because of their circumstances. They lost their father at a very young age. Their whole life just turned upside down. I don’t know, when I look back and think, had that not happened, I can’t even imagine music without her. One can’t predict what [route] life might have taken then.

On these tours, you met many international celebrities as well. Lataji met then president Clinton and his wife Hillary. Were you present there?

Yes, I was there. One thing that stays constant is Didi. Nothing has changed, she is what she is. She is the same, if she were to meet then president Clinton or if she were to meet anybody. Her behaviour doesn’t change. She has the same respect for each and every human being that she comes across. That is the one thing I’ve tried to imbibe in me. That is a fabulous trait. I think for an artist to emote that kind of emotion has to have all that within them, in order to come out.

A lot of venues were surprised that an Indian concert was getting sold out instantly.

Because they had not expected that. They had these pre-set notions in their head, I don’t know what it was. I was too young to realize their process, but yes, they were taken aback at this demure lady, pint-sized singer, who had created havoc in our country. It must have been like a shock.

Were there any memorable moments that stayed with you over the years?

Every experience with Didi is memorable and it is a part of you. What I marvelled at was her strength of punctuality. She was the only artist who would do so many rehearsals and really put herself on the line.

She would start her rehearsals in Mumbai, carry it with her when they went [abroad]. They would even rehearse before the shows and it was not because she was unsure as an artist. No, it was because there was a promise made to the audience who had paid to listen to her. Honestly, when an artist performs, they perform. But here, they didn’t even want to falter 1%. Keeping that in mind, her rehearsals would continue and we would be part of it.

Perfectionism is her trait. That is something which I think the youth of today should take on because that kind of study that goes into everything, that is what separates, I think, the extraordinary from the ordinary.

Lata Mangeshkar
Courtesy: HarperCollins India

Now that you have written this book, the perspective of all these shows abroad, would you think about an actual book on your aunt and her astonishing career?

Didi is a very private human being and we all respect that. You’re thinking of an autobiography or a biography.

Even just her memories of recording these famous songs.

Yes, that I would, wherever I get a chance, I would love to write about her. But I would not do anything which would upset her or which she would not want me to do. I would keep that respect for her because she is a very private and dignified person. You will never find her speaking ill about anybody. That’s not her.

This was a unique chapter of her life, as a stage performer. And that too, only overseas, not in India. [On Stage with Lata] is a clean, honest, simple book. No presumptions, nothing to it, and what we [Nasreen Munni Kabir, who edited the book, and Shah] did is, we decided to keep the English simple. Though it is through Mohan Deora’s eyes, we wanted Lataji’s simplicity to come out the right way. That was a conscious effort on Nasreen and my part, to keep that essence alive.

There are such wonderful interactions in the book of the performances onstage of her and Mukesh, and of her and Kishore Kumar.

[Lata Mangeshkar] was very witty on stage [with Kishore Kumar]. It’s completely different personalities (laughs). One is too boisterous, flamboyant, and the other is mild-mannered.

Is there any video footage of these shows?

Yes, there is video.

This would make a great documentary as well.

Of course! Unfortunately, they were recorded [when] the technology was not so great. But we have it. It’s all there. In fact, [the other] day Munni and I were talking. She said this is going to be like a reference book (laughs). I said, ‘You’re so right!’

Nasreen Munni Kabir would be a good candidate to helm it as she has made so many documentaries on Hindi film personalities.

She is amazing! [It’s] why I chose her, because of her association and deep relationship with Lata aunty. They share that. She knows whom she is dealing with. I’m so glad that the people who are reading it are liking it. It’s so important for the world to get to know her as a stage performer and what she achieved in foreign lands. It’s fine in your own country, but outside, it’s a whole other ballgame. She opened up the channels for other Bollywood people to go there.