When 'ghost nightingale' Lata Mangeshkar swept an LA night with Saawan ka mahina

[Book excerpt] How would she sound at her first international concert?

 |  10-minute read |   06-03-2017
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Finally, on Friday, May 9, 1975, the hour of the first Lata-Mukesh concert of the tour had arrived. It was a sellout show at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. The auditorium is a brilliantly equipped venue and has outstanding acoustics.

Many popular bands have played at the Shrine, and in 1975, the popular band Genesis performed there a few months before Lataji.

The auditorium is also famous for its Moroccan-style architecture — domes, arches and elaborate filigree. The Shrine has the atmosphere of a Mughal palace.

It was a beautiful spring evening, fragrant with the season's early blossoms. The South Asian community of LA had come out in full force. Fashionably clad, beautifully coiffured women milled around. Men in dark suits, and some wearing Lucknavi kurtas filled the entrance. Six thousand people were ready to stream into that hall.

But unlike Western musical concerts where the doors are closed once the performance had started, we knew that such a rule was not practical or imposable on South Asian audiences who were unlikely to accept being shut out.

bhagawad-gita_030517100617.jpg Opening the first concert of the first tour with a shloka from the Bhagavad Gita. [May 9, 1975] Photo: Penguin India

So we had to live with the inevitable latecomers despite our radio campaigns stressing the need for punctuality. The excitement at the Shrine was so great that the people who did come late, and who had to climb over others to get to their seats, went unnoticed. The audience had come to see Lataji and that's all that mattered.

How would she sound? She was so very personal to everyone. She had lent her voice to generations of beautiful screen actresses, and through cinema, radio and television, her songs were deeply embedded in our lives.

Our treasured collection of her records was proof of our devotion to her music — those HMV 78 rpm EPs and LPs (music CDs only came into existence in the early 1980s), all stacked proudly in our sitting rooms. And here within a few minutes, Lata Mangeshkar herself would arrive before the impatient crowd.

Since Mukeshji was instrumental in convincing her to come to America in the first place, he believed that introducing her on stage was his responsibility. He spoke with great love and generosity about Lataji.

lata-and-mukesh-at-c_030517100728.jpg Lata and Mukesh at Civic Opera House, Chicago [May 23, 1975]. Photo: Penguin India

His introduction made the crowds go wild, and the excitement grew more intense when Lataji entered the auditorium.

She took off her chappals, and in a gesture of respect touched the podium before she climbed the steps onto the stage itself.

Dressed in a simple white sari with a purple border, barefooted, she walked to the microphone, holding some loose papers. On those white sheets of paper, she had written the song lyrics in her own hand.

When she stood in front of her music stand, she bowed her head and smiled welcomingly. The six-thousand-strong audience rose to its feet and the auditorium resounded with deafening applause.

When the clapping died down, Lataji began with a shloka from the Bhagavad Gita. The verse filled the air. The sweet melody of the shloka was composed by her brother Hridaynath.

Then the first musical note of "Allah tero naam, Ishwar tero naam" was heard, a noisy round of applause followed.

The orchestra conducted by Anil Mohile was made up of only five musicians but they were just brilliant. Arun Paudwal played the accordion; Ramakant Mhapsekar, the tabla; Ravi Kandivali, the mandolin; Rajendra Singh, the swarleen; and Suryanarayan Naidu, the tabla and dholak.

Accompanying Lataji and Mukeshji were Usha Mangeshkar, Meena Khadikar, niece Rachana and nephew Yogesh. She sang ten solos and hearing her songs made many in the audience teary-eyed.

My tour partner Ramesh Shishu was also the master of ceremony for the opening show and for the eight concerts that followed) and when he invited Mukeshji on stage, the audience was ecstatic.

lata-mangeshkar_030517095705.jpg On Stage with Lata; Mohan Deora and Rachana Shah; Edited by Nasreen Munni Kabeer; HarperCollins Publishers India 

They got completely carried away when Mukeshji sang "Mera joota hai Japani", "Ansoo bhari hain ye jeevan ki raahen", "Jaane kahaan gaye woh din" and the unforgettable "Dil jalta hai to jalne de".

Then came the Lata and Mukesh duets - the new and old favourites. It is hard for me to describe the emotion in that arena.

There was a hush when they sang "Aaja re ab mera dil pukara".

The audience burst out laughing when Mukeshji tried to teach Lataji how to pronounce the word "sor" in the "Saawan ka mahina" song. Usha Mangeshkar sang some beautiful solos, including her chartbuster hit "Jai jai Santoshi Maata, jai jai ma".

The two sisters sang "Gore gore o banke chhore" together.

Lataji invited her sister Meena with her daughter Rachana and son Yogesh to sing the classic Mother India song "Duniya mein hum aayen hain to jeena hi padega" with her.

The concert ended with two numbers: "Aaja re pardesi" from Madhumati and Mahal's immortal "Aayega aanewala". Lataji and Mukeshji had successfully kept the audience captive for three-and-a-half hours. What a way to start the tour!For the second show of the 1975 tour, we landed in Vancouver on May 10. Vancouver was home to one of the largest Indian populations in North America (mostly Sikhs and Punjabis). The 12,000-seater at the Pacific Coliseum — this is where Tom Jones had performed not long before Lataji — was sold out.

Midway through the evening, while she was singing a "heer" by Waris Shah, the celebrated Punjabi Sufi poet, the one that was used in the film Heer Ranjha, someone shouted rudely from somewhere in the upper balcony.

lata-kishore-concert_030517101441.jpg A Lata Kishore concert at Madison Square Garden, New York is sold out [ June 22, 1985]. Photo: Penguin India

This loud and aggressive voice shattered the trance that had engulfed the audience. I could tell that Lataji was visibly upset by the incident. For a sensitive artist it is hard to experience unruly behaviour. It disrupted the sanctity of the moment for Lataji.

Yet she continued and gracefully finished singing. The audience gave her a standing ovation and refused to let her leave the stage. Despite that moment of tension,

I think the audience took home a once-in-a-lifetime experience.Once the show was over, we all headed back to the hotel. Lataji preferred to have her dinner in her suite with her family.

Normally, after a successful concert, one imagines the artists would enjoy a lively outing at a restaurant with friends, but this was not for Lataji. Over dinner in her hotel suite, the family gathered to discuss her performance and the audience reaction.

The applause that each song received suggested to the Mangeshkars the songs that were particularly appreciated.

Three of the strongest opinions came from Raj Singh Dungarpur, Bal sahib (Hridaynath) and Ushaji. Following their discussions, the song order was rearranged for the next concert.

It made me wonder why an artist like Lata Mangeshkar needed a critical appraisal of her performance. All her songs were met by loud applause and many standing ovations; so what was the point of rearranging the song order?

Or for that matter changing the song selection? I suppose the answer lay in the fact that Lata Mangeshkar strives for perfection, to keep improving, raising standards, to sing as perfectly as humanly possible.

It made me think of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan's famous comment, "Kambakht, kabhi besura nahin gaati" (The wretched girl never sings a note out of tune.)

The response to her shows was the same in every venue and in every city. At San Francisco's Oakland Coliseum "Thandi hawaayen", "Mohe bhool gaye sanwaria", "Inhi logon ne", "Barsaat mein" and some new numbers received rapturous applause.

In his unique style, Mukeshji brought the Raj Kapoor numbers alive, including "Awaara hoon", "Mera joota hai Japani" and "Honton pe sachaaii rehti hai". Memories of India, bitter-sweet days of childhood, dreams of youth all came rushing back.

What stayed in my mind from that San Francisco trip was our visit to Fisherman's Wharf. Lataji was reluctant to play tourist, but her nephews and niece insisted. So we ended up having a lovely outing and a fabulous meal at a seafood restaurant at Fisherman's Wharf.

with-kishore-kumar_030517101118.jpg Lata and Kishore in the middle of a duet. Photo: Penguin India 

I discovered that Lataji loved seafood, especially anything hot and spicy. It was wonderful to hear her laugh and enjoy an experience of America.

It was probably the long lines of people waiting to buy tickets for the Lata Mangeshkar concerts that attracted the attention of the American press, including The Washington D.C. Post and The Christian Science Monitor.

Journalists from these newspapers came to ask for information about her. Their articles had headlines like "Lata, the Lady in white wins America", "A legend from India wins America" and "Ghost Nightingale".

The ghost nightingale title was intended to liken the role of a playback singer, who lends her voice to an actress, to that of a ghostwriter.

When we were in Washington, Lataji and the team stayed at the famous Watergate Hotel. The next day, she asked to visit the Arlington National Cemetery where John F Kennedy is buried. The Mangeshkars also visited other historical places including the White House and the Smithsonian Institution.

lata-usha_030517101244.jpg On stage with sister Usha Mangeshkar at Detroit’s Cobo Arena [June 16, 1985]. Photo: Penguin India

At Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens show on May 17, the manager, who had seriously doubted our ability to sell enough tickets to cover the rent for the 14,000-seater, shook my hand during the interval and said excitedly, "Congratulations, sir! Your revenue has crossed $100,000. That's even higher than the sum Frank Sinatra earned when he performed here recently."

A very famous journalist and commentator, Gordon Sinclair, talked at length about Lata Mangeshkar on his radio show.

Several newspapers that rarely printed anything on Indian music, beyond articles on Ravi Shankar's concerts, covered the Toronto show. The Toronto Sun (May 1975) went into great and amusing detail about Lataji and Indian cinema:

"Lata Mangeshkar is what is known as a 'playback singer'. That is the vocalist who replaces the voice of the leading lady whenever she breaks into song. In Indian movies the leading lady does so with astonishing regularity. Mile for mile, India is reported to be the world's leading commercial film producer, but almost all of that country's movies fit a formula far more strict than ever our Westerns were. Almost all of them are family dramas with conflict patterns similar to Romeo and Juliet. The lovers have to overcome the hurdles of their difference in class or religion before they find fulfillment... In the interim, the heroine almost always gets to knock off six or seven songs. And most of the time - if the actress is anyone important - her singing voice is supplied by Lata Mangeshkar... another obstacle for the potential fan from the media-saturated Western world is the show's rigorous lack of visual distraction. There is no dance, no interpretive acting - just the music. The music, on this show, then, may well be an acquired taste, but what better chance to try and acquire it."

(Excerpted with permission from HarperCollins Publishers India)


Mohan Deora and Rachana Shah

Mohan Deora and his team organised over a hundred path-breaking Lata Mangeshkar concerts in the US, Canada, West Indies and Fiji. Rachana Shah was a child singer and performed on stage with her aunt Lata Mangeshkar in various countries.

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