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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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.