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Interview Hindi Marathi

Birthday special: Lata Mangeshkar’s sister Meena, niece Rachana on her talent and work ethic

As the singer turns 88, we speak to Lata Mangeshkar's sister Meena Khadikar and niece Rachana Shah to discuss her techniques and the habits she honed over the decades.

Sonal Pandya

Manna Dey once shared an interesting anecdote from a recording that took place almost 60 years ago. Dey was performing the dance number, 'Chadh Gayo Papi Bichua', composed by the great Salil Chowdhury for Bimal Roy’s supernatural thriller Madhumati (1958), with Lata Mangeshkar.

Speaking about the nuance Mangeshkar brought to the spirited number, the legendary singer, who passed into the ages four years ago, told Nasreen Munni Kabir, author of Lata Mangeshkar... in Her Own Voice: “Lata was asked to give some sort of an expression at one point in the song. I sang a line and as I finished, she sang: Oye-oye-oye-oyee... or something like that. I was taken aback and stopped.

"Lata is alive to all situations, and as far as her singing is concerned, ask her to express any situation, she can do it. I think she does justice to every song.”

Mangeshkar’s niece, Rachana Shah, echoed the same sentiment. Shah had accompanied her aunt to all her recordings for the Academy award-winning composer AR Rahman and narrated her experience of recording the song ‘Jiya Jale’ from Dil Se... (1998).

Rachana Shah with aunt Lata Mangeshkar

“That was the first time she actually sang for him," Shah said. "[That was] his first collaboration with Lata aunty. We flew down to Chennai to his studio. His timings are in the evening. It’s a very beautiful atmosphere in the studio. He lights this holy candle, I think it’s from Ajmer Sharif, and then he begins the song. His style of recording was unique to Didi [literally, 'elder sister', but that is the honorific by which Mangeshkar is almost universally known] because he makes you sing, there is just a little tempo he gives you, and the orchestration and all he builds up after the artist has sung and gone.”

For the veteran of over half a century, this was a new occurrence. But, eventually, she grew comfortable and made the song her own. Shah said, “If you hear the song in the end, that is all her own alaaps that she has done from my grandfather’s [Pandit Dinanath Mangeshkar's] bandish [a fixed, melodic composition in Hindustani vocal or instrumental music]. She was remembering him, I think, and singing it. And [Rahman] said, ‘I’m keeping it!’ Didi was shocked. She was trying out different variants without realizing that they were actually being recorded.”

Shah believes it is the greatness of a music composer when he allows an artist to 'freestyle'. “When they see the artist’s calibre, it gives them freedom. AR Rahman is such an intelligent composer and he knows his craft, look at the experience and talent,” she said. After Dil Se... (1998), Mangeshkar went on to sing for the maestro in Pukar (2000), Lagaan (2001), One 2 Ka 4 (2001), Zubeidaa (2001) and Rang De Basanti (2006).

In contrast, Shah recalled how the song ‘Koi Ladki Hai (Chak Dhoom Dhoom)’ from Dil To Pagal Hai (1997) was recorded by Uttam Singh. “When Didi was listening to it, she was saying, ‘Wow, this is a different kind of rhythmic piece.’ Didi was sitting with Uttamji, she shares a nice and deep friendship with him. They are like brother and sister. So she was asking, ‘Can I do this, can I do that?’ See, the beauty of Didi is that she always takes permission, whoever the music composer, however big or small or young or old, she doesn’t care. She is always doing her own thing only with the permission of the composer. If the composer is not too happy, she always gives in because it’s the composer’s word which is final.”

According to Shah, Lata Mangeshkar’s stature never gets in the way when she is dealing with a composer who has a vision for his song. Mangeshkar’s younger sister Meena Khadikar gave us the example of the great Naushad who was stringent in how he wanted his compositions sung. “He had a habit that how I am singing, you have to sing that way," Khadikar said. "Sometimes there used to be other music directors who used to tell her, ‘Didi, we have made this song, aap usko zaara theek kar ke gayiye [sing it as you please].’ Then she used to sing, but she always sang from her heart.”

Lata Mangeshkar with sisters Usha and Meena and family members

Both Rachana Shah and Meena Khadikar referred to Mangeshkar’s work ethic when she began her songs. She worked hard to learn the songs, taking time to understand the lyrics before rendering the number in the studio. Khadikar said, “Whatever the lyricist has written, what is the meaning of those words, she studies it first. Then she sings. Yeh toh uski khaasiyat hai [That is her USP]. She also thinks about the artiste [it is being picturised on], what voice will suit them, according to that she sings.”

Personally, she prefers Mangeshkar’s private albums where she was not constrained by the rules of playback singing and the situations dictated by the films for which the songs were being recorded. “I prefer her devotional songs, [like her Meera bhajans or the album, Dnyaneshwar Mauli], I find them more touching," she said. "For instance, in Dnyaneshwar Mauli, there is such devotion. Didi ki awaaz mein woh baat hai”, adding that it was a divine gift.

Early on, Khadikar, too, used to attend film recordings with her Didi. “Since childhood, her pickup has always been good," she said. "Her memory is very good. If you give her the song once, she never has trouble remembering it, even if it is in another language.”

Not many know that Lata Mangeshkar briefly composed music for Marathi films, but as she could not give more time to composition, she focused on her singing career. “She has done one film under her name [Ram Ram Pahuna (1950)]," Khadikar said. "After that she took the name Anand Ghan to compose for Marathi films. She also won an award for Sadhi Manasa (1965). But she was more interested in her singing. She didn’t know how to play the harmonium, but she used to take one sur and prepare the whole song.”

Meena Khadikar, too, composed music and got her elder sister to sing for her. She felt no one could capture the mood of the song quite like Lata. “The amount of work and preparation she puts in, I’ve not seen anyone else do the same. We used to also sing, but we didn’t work as hard as she did,” she readily admitted.