I feel God has sent me to earth to sing. I started singing when I was five, but I don’t think I’ve worked as hard as many other people.
Why do you say you that?
After 1947 when I started playback singing, the work never stopped. Before that it wasn’t easy. I used to travel by train from Grant Road to Malad and then save money by walking instead of taking a tonga to the recording studios. I thereby saved 50 paise to Re 1 which I used to buy vegetables for my family. I was the sole bread-earner after our father passed away.
That must have been really tough on an adolescent girl.
I missed out on my childhood. I had to work hard, but I was immediately given a place in playback. One of the earliest composers to support me was Master Ghulam Haider. When he was told that my voice wouldn’t suit the heroine in a Dilip Kumar saab starrer Shaheed, he gave me songs in Majboor. Then other composers like Anil Biswasji, Khemchand Prakashji and Naushad saab came forward to sign me. From 1947 onwards there was no looking back.
There has never been a rough patch in your 65-year-long career?
I’m blessed. Nowadays I’ve almost stopped singing film songs but I enjoy singing and I continue to do the work I’m comfortable with like the recent Hamuman Chalisa and my forthcoming project with my brother. When I look back I see nothing I’d like to change.
What about your infamous rift with Mohd Rafi?
I’ll tell you what happened. We had a Musicians’ Association in the 1960s . Mukesh bhaiyya, Talaj Mehmood saab had started a campaign for artistes to get royalty so that they would have a comfortable old age. Main to leti thi royalty but I also wanted other artistes to get it. Rafi saab was instigated into opposing my campaign. In a meeting among musicians he said, ‘We get money for what we sing from producers and that’s the end of what we get.’ When he was asked his opinion Rafi saab turned to Mukesh bhaiyya and said, ‘I guess this Maharani here will say whatever has to be said.’
He meant you?
Yes. I said, ‘Of course I am a Maharani. But why are you calling me that?’ He said in front of everyone at the meeting that he won’t sing with me. I turned around and said, ‘Yeh kasht aap kyon kar rahe hain? Main hi nahin gaaongi aapke saath.’ I stormed out of the meeting and called up every music director to inform them that I would thereafter not sing with Rafi saab. We didn’t sing together for almost three years.
What about the alleged differences between you and your sister Asha Bhosle?
We’re sisters. The fights were because of her husband who was against me.
Composers gave all the heroines’ songs to you and all the supporting actresses’ songs to Ashaji ...
Not always. What about so many films where only Asha sang all the songs? In fact OP Nayyarji worked only with her. Even some of Burman dada’s scores had only Asha’s vocals.
That’s because you and SD Burman had a fight.
I didn’t sing for him for 14 years. Someone had caused mischief. Burman dada said, “I won’t have Lata sing my songs.’ I said, ‘I won’t sing for you.’ Asha sang all the songs for Burman dada during that period, even for Waheeda Rehman who insisted on me singing for her. Then one day out of the blue, Burman dada phoned me and said he wanted me to sing Mora gora rang lai le and Jogi jab se aaya tu aaya mere dware in Bandini. It was his son RD who brought us together. I remember Burman dada specifically told me that Mora gora rang was written by a promising new poet, Gulzar.
Who was your favourite composer?
I liked singing for Salilda (Salil Chowdhury) because his compositions were very challenging. I also loved singing for Sajjad Husain saab, then definitely SD Burman dada and RD. But in my opinion the biggest achievement was by Shankar-Jaikishan. With Raj Kapoor’s Barsaat they changed the way we looked at playback singing.
At one time you were accused of indulging in a melodious monopoly?
Once I was even asked if I tampered with the equipment during other singers’ recordings. Bataiye main kyon aisa karun? I never bothered with what other singers were doing. When Runa Laila came to India for the first time, I went to her first recording and everybody said I was just indulging in dikhawa, that in fact I had gone to see how she sang. Runa Laila met me with lots of affection. Later she too was poisoned against me. Even some male singers accused me of trying to stop them from singing.
Which heroines did you enjoy singing for?
Nargis, Meena Kumari, Madhubala, Nutan. I’d modulate my voice according to their personality.
Among today’s actresses for whom do you enjoy singing for?
I like Rani Mukerji and Kajol but I miss the camaraderie that I shared with the earlier heroines. I miss that mahaul. I really miss Kishore Kumar, also Rafi saab, Mukesh bhaiyya, Shankar-Jaikishan and Madan bhaiyya who fought with me when I couldn’t be with him for raksha bandhan. That sense of apnapan is gone.
Any unfulfilled dreams?
I wish I had given more time to learning classical singing. Lekin jo hua woh bahut hi achcha hua. What I want is that future generations of Mangeshkars keep my father’s legacy alive. My niece Radha and nephew Baijanth are singing well. I wish they make a name for themselves.
Do you miss having your own children
Not at all. My siblings’ children are mine.
Nov 13, 2009
How do you define the journey?