Lata Mangeshkar at the office of a news channel in Mumbai, September 2009 (Photo: Getty Images)
What’s my earliest memory of breathing air, my earliest memory of sunlight, that’s my earliest memory of listening to Lata Mangeshkar. She was there, is there and will always be there. When something comes out of one’s vocal chords, it is an echo of God. When the word ‘Om’ is uttered, it vibrates in the airwaves and creates a universe of its own. That was her universe.
It is so organic. What do we do when we are born? We take our first breath, and, at the same time, create a new sound that is unique to us. We reveal ourselves in our voices. She was unique, but much more than her sounds, her songs.
Lata is a feeling. She was part of our collective subconscious, but even within that huge, infinite subconscious which keeps expanding with generations, with those that have been and are yet to come, she is going to resonate. She cannot die. What kind of phenomenon will it take to say that Lata is dead, I wonder? I didn’t meet her every day or have conversations with her too often, but she was with me, with us all the time. How do you explain that?
She has been compared with the Goddess of Learning, or with the nightingale, the beautiful bird that sings, but these are our small attempts at metaphors. When someone makes such an impact and gives life a new meaning altogether, it is something we need to silently bow to.
It’s not enough to have talent, or be gifted, as a storyteller, musician, actor, as a parent. It takes humungous hard work and becomes a way of life to give yourself completely to the path you have chosen in life. That’s what her life teaches us. I was extremely fortunate to witness it firsthand. I remember we were doing the edit of Rang De Basanti (2006) and creating the background track. There was a situation where both the movie composer, AR Rahman, and I felt something was missing. It is a crucial turning point in the film, when the Air Force pilot has lost his life and his mother receives the body wrapped in the Indian flag. Rahman talked about a mother looking for a son who is not there. He sang a tune which later became a song called ‘Lukka Chhupi’. I went to meet Lataji. I felt it gave us an opportunity to create something worthy of her. I needed to have the courage to take something that was very special.
I narrated the script to her, rather than just the song, and told her it would be picturised on Waheeda Rehman. I told her it was a song about loss but also about the courage of a woman who has lost her husband to war as also now her son. She agreed. We were to record on the 15th of the month. On the 7th, she called and asked whether she could go to Chennai on the 9th or 10th. Earlier we thought we would record it in Mumbai. But she said she wanted to be in a space where AR has composed. There is something about the composer’s space, she knew, with all her experience of working with the greatest of the greats.
She came to Chennai on the 11th, and asked to go to the studio straightaway before going to the hotel. She heard the composition, spent a couple of hours, and requested a recording on a cassette player. She was used to that. She rehearsed it for the next three days. Here was Lata Mangeshkar saying she wants to rehearse. It makes your conviction that much stronger. We recorded. I still remember we had kept a chair for her, flowers, a bottle of hot water, the microphone. It was early in the morning. She came in before time. And she said the mike was too low. She said she preferred standing. I think she took seven-eight hours to record the song, and did not sit down, did not eat, just sipped water. Every time she made a mistake, or thought she made a mistake, she began the song all over again. She was among the first people on January 27th, 2006, to call me in the morning to tell me the film was good and would do well critically and commercially. Which makes you believe that when you are serving cinema or art, it is beyond the box office.
There is no mystery to becoming a legend. It is hard work, hard work, hard work. There is no other formula. It is about serving this gift from God. It is not about making a hit song or a hit film.
She was the chosen one. What separates certain performers from others, whether it is sport, politics, education, art or culture, or health, is a greater purpose. That you are not looking at achievements or milestones. They will come and go. But she was always moving, always flowing, beautiful things were passing by, and various landscapes were traversed. She was like a great river which originates from the glacier, goes through rocky mountains, through plains, watering the fields, becomes a huge lake, and then attracts many civilisations. Now, finally, she has merged with a greater ocean, only to evaporate and rain down on us. That’s how I imagine her.
She was much more than the voice of India. She was the voice of humanity, cutting across cultures. On a lighter note, if I were to issue a passport for her, I would call her a citizen of Earth. Now she has a visa to travel through the universe.
Lata Mangeshkar lives forever. Not merely for me, but for the entire world.