Since 1949, when Lata Mangeshkar was first noticed for her extraordinary singing talent in the Mahal
song ‘Aayega Aanewala,’ her magical voice has taken a firm hold of the Indian imagination. The tuneful
purity and timeless quality of her voice have had a profound impact. For over six decades, as the much
loved singer, she has reigned supreme in Indian film music and has been conferred in 2001, the Bharat
Ratna, India’s highest civilian honour.
Lata Mangeshkar has recorded more songs than anyone else in the world and yet, despite her
extraordinary fame, she is a deeply private person who has mostly shied away from glitz and
Lata Mangeshkar…in her own voice, a series of fascinating conversations between Lata
Mangeshkar and Nasreen Munni Kabir, takes us into the world of India’s most gifted singer and reveals
the person behind the voice that has provided the soundtrack for the lives of billions.
Nasreen Munni Kabir is a London-based documentary filmmaker/author who has made
several documentaries produced for Channel 4 TV (UK), including Follow that Star (a profile of
Amitabh Bachchan, 1989), the series Movie Mahal and The Inner/Outer World of Shah Rukh Khan
(2005, Channel 4/Red Chillies). She has also written several books on Hindi cinema, including Guru
Dutt, a life in cinema, Talking Films/Talking Songs with Javed Akhtar, and The Immortal Dialogue of
Born in Hyderabad, India, she has lived most of her life in the UK. In 1999, she won the first
Asian Womens’ Achievement Award for her work in promoting Indian cinema in the UK, and is a
former governor on the board of the British Film Institute, serving a six-years term. A consultant to
Channel 4 for over 25 years, she continues to curate their annual 20-part Indian film season.
She is currently working on a book in Raj Kapoor’s Awaara.
Lata Mangeshkar remembers a dream that returned to her every night when she was in her early
twenties. Coming home from recording two songs in the morning. Two in the afternoon, and two in the
evening, she would fall asleep and the dream unfurled: It is early morning and she finds herself all alone
at a black-stoned temple by the sea. Unaware of the deity associated with the temple, she makes her way
through the sacred space. At the back of the temple, there is a door. She opens it and sees a few steps
leading from the door to the dappled water. She sits on the stone steps and the waves gently wash over
Young Lata thought nothing of the dream but when it reoccurred night after night, and for
several months, she decided to share it with her mother, Shudhhamati Mangeshkar, who listened quietly
to her and said: ‘God has blessed you. You will be very famous one day.’
Her mother’s reading of the dream could not have been more prophetic. Today Lata
Mangeshkar is loved to the pint of worship. People speak of her voice as a divine gift and some even
talk of her being a reincarnation of Goddess Saraswati. She is acclaimed as one of India’s greatest
singers, has won countless awards, including the Dada Saheb Phalke Award (1989) and received
extraordinary recognition, including India’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, in 2001.
Lata Mangeshkar’s fame in the world of Indian music is unrivalled. Unlike many stars whose
celebrity status distances them from ordinary people, admiration for her is highly personalized because
she is intimately linked to the emotions of millions of people through her songs. No bond could be
Since 1949, when she was first noticed for her extraordinary singing talent in the song
‘Aayega aanewala’ from the film Mahal, Lata Mangeshkar’s voice has taken firm hold of the Indian
imagination. The haunting and timeless quality of the song itself - brought alive through the tuneful
purity of her voice and flawless phrasing - had an instant and profound impact on all who heard the song.
For countless millions, Lata Mangeshkar continues to embody an emotional experience through her
solos and duets with Mohammed Rafi, Kishore Kumar or Mukesh. Her songs transcend all barriers of
language, region and religion - and her spirituality is present in equal measure whether she is singing a
bhajan or a naat.
For decades, she was the most sought-after singer, and every top actress, from Nargis,
Madhubala, Meena Kumari Nutan to Madhuri Dixit wanted Lata as their voice. She remains a widely
respected figure in the Indian film industry and is affectionately called ‘Didi’ [elder sister] by all. Lata
Mangeshkar is the highest-selling Indian artist and has made fortunes for Indian record companies. Her
songs have helped spread an appreciation of Hindi film music throughout the world. In India, she has
achieved iconic status, and created everlasting music that has become the soundtrack to our lives.
Based on Lata in Her Own Voice, a six-part documentary series that I directed in 1991,
[produced by Hyphen Films Ltd for Channel 4 TV in the UK; Commissioning Editor: Farrukh Dhondy],
this book was set in motion through an email addressed to Sanjeev Kohli, composer Madan Mohan’s
son. Sanjeev Kohli played a crucial role in the making of Lata in Her Own Voice and I sought his advice
again to see whether we could preserve in book form the extended interview with Lataji that I had
recorded for the film. With characteristic and lightning speed, Sanjeev Kohli emailed back: ‘Didi says
go ahead.’ I then asked whether we could update the material, make it longer, more conversational, and
fill in any gaps that might be apparent.
Once I had her agreement to the idea of a ‘book of conversations,’ I called her several times a
week between May and August 2008. We went over the original interview and covered many new areas
of discussion. She sometimes talked in English but most often in Hindi, I immediately typed her
answers on my laptop, translating them into English.
Lataji was always open, warm and candid. Her memory for songs and dates was astounding.
When asked the name of a song she had sung for Ghulam Haider or Noorjehan, her recall was instant,
despite the fact that she has recorded several thousand songs and was being asked to remember
something that had taken place over fifty years ago. And when she could not recall a song or a date, she
had no hesitation in saying to me: ‘I don’t remember.’
Sometimes a telephone conversation had a strangely humbling and unnerving effect on me.
While discussing ‘Aayega aanewala,’ when I asked if we could include the beautiful opening lines of the
song in our book, she said: ‘You need the words? You can write them down.’ She then proceeded to
hum, half-sing and recite from memory:
Khaamosh Hai zamaana chup chaap hain sitaare Aaram se hai duniya bekal hai dil ke
mare Aise mein koi aahat is tarah aa rahi hai Jaise ke chal raha ho mann mein koi hamaare
Ya dil dhadak raha hai is aas ke sahaare
Time stands still. The stars are silent The world is at rest. Yet my heart is uneasy Suddenly I
hear footsteps approaching As though someone were walking through my heart Or is it the
sound of my heart quickening with hope?
I was too embarrassed to tell Lataji the kind of effect hearing her half-sing, half-recite the
poem had on me. Remember, this was Lata Mangeshkar on the line, not a recording! Sitting in my Maida
Vale flat on a sunny London day, I felt a rush of emotion, a sense of being an unworthy eavesdropper
who happened to hear a bit of living history.
Lata Mangeshkar’s songs are living history - so strongly tied to all our life stories and
articulating our many emotions. Once the lyrics were typed in, our conversation continued and we
talked of other things.
This is how the book slowly took shape: we would talk, I would type and during our next call,
I would read back the translated conversation to her and she would say: ‘Yes, that’s it. But it was in 1945
After a month of phone calls, I wondered why it was so easy to translate Lataji. And then it
dawned on me: her voice is so utterly expressive that her tone dictated the most fitting word to use. You
knew when ‘resigned’ - as in ‘Lataji said in a resigned tone’ was right - and when ‘meekly’ painted a
more accurate picture of how she reacted at a particular moment. Lataji expresses subtle shades of
meaning - emotional and psychological - and so for the attentive listener nothing is lost. It is this gift of
being expressive that comes through her voice and when she sings ‘Ajeeb dastaan hai ye,’ ‘Chandni
raatein pyaar ki baatein,’ ‘Ai dilrubaa nazaaren mila,’ or ‘Lag jaa gale,’ she stirs an emotional
From a more technical perspective, it made complete sense to me why so many composers
have marveled at Lataji’s uncanny ability to instantly grasp both the tune and the emotional import of a
song. She is a brilliant actress, and though unseen, her voice adds hugely to the scene’s drama and
intensity. An actress lives with the character she is playing for many months and so comes to understand
how to deliver dialogue and judge the pitch of performance. Lataji is able to grasp in an instant the
psychology and emotional map of a character, and like the best male playback singers such as
Mohammed Rafi, Kishore Kumar and Mukesh, who have also achieved this, she sings in character. In
her voice there is total identification and empathy with the character’s depth of feelings.
There are many examples in which we see how Lataji’s singing enhances the impact of a
scene. Think of Nargis miming ‘O’ mere laal aa ja’ in Mother India or Meena Kumari in ‘Chalte chalte’
in Pakeezah, or Nutan in ‘Suno chhoti si gudiya ki lambi kahaani’ in Seema. An interesting question to
ask is whether Lataji is singing for the actress or the actress’s performance is determined by Lataji.
Her musical skill is well known and widely appreciated, but her natural acting talent and her
mastery of the intricacies of language and poetry is equally remarkable. During our conversations, she
repeatedly said that for her, lyrics were the most important aspect of a song. She has always preferred
songs that say something about our inner feelings and are not just catchy tunes.
From September 2008 to March 2009, Lataji and I went through the entire manuscript, page
by page, word by world, to avoid any errors that might have been caused by phone crackle. As I read the
manuscript to her, she listened with complete attention, gently correcting and elaborating.
There is a deluge of misinformation on Lata Mangeshkar and I found dozens of very
imaginative tales on the Net, including one that claimed that Lataji on hearing that Master Vinayak had
dies, cries the whole night and then thought Lord Dattatraya was standing before her, telling her to be
brace and carry on struggling through life. When I asked her if this had really happened, straightaway
Lataji said: ‘No, it didn’t.’
One of the aims of this book is to try and separate truth and fact from rumour and fabulous
Many accounts of exceptional artists of the past, especially in Indian cinema, depend on
hearsay or on the memory of those who knew them. This is particularly true of early film practitioners
because so little first-hand written material exists. But memories and impressions of people are
subjective, and can be unreliable. We know history is subjective. And what you remember of people
sometimes says more about you than them - and so to hear Lataji speak in such detail about her own life,
in her own words, is what makes this book a unique record.
In a single lifespan, Lata Mangeshkar has been and is witness to the astonishing changes in the
history of India, and has helped in great measures to redefine the world of Indian film music. She has
worked with composers, lyricists, singers, actresses and filmmakers who have together assured the
place of Hindi film music in our hearts, potently and powerfully.
This book includes observations by Lataji’s immediate family and leading personalities of the
Hindi film industry who have described their relationship with her and share what they felt about her
singing abilities. Their comments add a greater understanding to the ‘Lata Mangeshkar’ phenomenon.
Many interviews were recorded in 1991 and since that time, some exceptional artists who spoke of her
have sadly passed away; these include Naushad Ali, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Sajjad Hussain and Talat
It has been an undoubted privilege for me to work on this book, to spend time with a warm,
engaging and caring woman with a brilliant mind. And one who, difficult as it is to believe when you hear
her youthful voice, will be eighty on 28th September, 2009.
Her infectious laugh, lively eyes, sparkling sense of humour and great wisdom are easily the
most endearing aspects of her multi-layered personality. The very special quality about her is the
respect she commands and the respect she gives. In private she may enjoy impersonating a co-singer or
indulge in a little harmless gossip, but in public she will neither put anyone down nor show disrespect in
any way. In al our conversations she always spoke of Mohammed Rafi as ‘Rafi Sahib,’ and of Mukesh as
She is never familiar and keeps a polite distance. But the world around her has changed, and
her notions of discretion and privacy are no longer seen as virtues.
Talking of public figures today often means delving into their private lives and digging for
dirt rather than simply asking who they are, how they work and what they think. I hope this book - by
asking those questions - will shed light on the work and life of the extraordinarily gifted, deeply modes
and God-fearing Lata Mangeshkar.
Without the unstinting help and support of Sanjeev Kohli, this book would not exist. Special
thanks to Rachana Shah, Peter Chappell, the Mangeshkar family, Javed Akhtar, Dipa Chaudhuri, Navidita
Thapa, Madhuparna Banerge, Akshay Kohli, the Kohli family, Anand Bhosle, Mahesh Rathod, Vijay Jani,
Angelina Rodrigues, S.N. Gourisaria, Lindy Sharpe, Ramachandra Guha, Tim Highsted, John
Minchinton, Hazel Morgan, Lesley Mason, Gautam Rajadhyaksha, Justin Chubb, Niranjana Rao, Barbara
Meyer, and my sisters Priya Kumar and Shameem Kabir for their invaluable support and continued
North Indian Music (293)
Original Texts (64)
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