BOOK EXCERPT

Los Angeles, 1975. Lata Mangeshkar takes the stage. Deafening applause

A memoir revisits the first of numerous foreign concerts at which the renowned playback singer performed between 1975 and 1988.

On Stage With Lata is a different kind of memoir: it is a short history of Mangeshkhar’s concerts in the United States of America, Canada, the Caribbean and the Fiji Islands between 1975 and 1998. Written by the concert organiser, Mohan Deora, in collaboration with Mangeshkar’s niece, Rachana Shah, the book is an invaluable record of Mangeshkar’s efforts in further popularising Hindi film music among the Indian diaspora. In these edited excerpts, Deora and Shah recall the first concert in Los Angeles in 1975, where Mangeshkhar performed with the singer Mukesh, among others, and set off a craze for live performances that lasted over two decades.

Finally, on Friday, 9 May 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. Many popular bands have played at the Shrine, and in 1975, the popular band Genesis performed there a few months before Lataji.

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. 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. 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.

‘She bowed her head and smiled’

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. 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 Bhagavadgita. 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. 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. 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!

Wowing Vancouver

For the second show of the 1975 tour, we landed in Vancouver on 10 May. 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. This loud and aggressive voice shattered the trance that had engulfed the audience. I could tell that Lataji was visibly upset by the incident. Yet she continued and gracefully finished singing. The audience gave her a standing ovation and refused to let her leave the stage.

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.)

Excerpted with permission from On Stage With Lata, Mohan Deora and Rachana Shah, HarperCollins India.

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