Book Review: Yatindra Mishra’s ‘Lata Mangeshkar: A Life in Music’

Over a period of about four years, from 2010 to 2014, Lata Mangeshkar was interviewed by the biographer Yatindra Mishra, the interviews coming together in the form of a Hindi book, Lata: Sur Gatha. The biography won a National Award, and was published in its English translation (Lata Mangeshkar: A Life in Music, translated by Ira Pande) earlier this year.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part, The Episodes, consist of brief snippets, most only a few paragraphs long (though some are slightly longer) about Lata, written from Yatindra Mishra’s point of view. Here, he covers a wide range of subjects related to Lata: her early life, her training by her father Dinanath Mangeshkar, how she was taken under the wing of Master Vinayak (Nanda’s father) and how she found a break in cinema: as an actress, and later moving full-time into playback singing.

There are Mishra’s opinions here about specific characteristics of Lata’s singing, the songs she sang for different composers or alongside other playback singers (including lists of especially stellar songs), as well as the occasional insight into something relatively personal—for example, her favourite foods (keema samosas among them).

The second part of the book, The Interview, consists of selected excerpts from the series of interviews that Mishra conducted with Lata. Here too there’s a range of topics being discussed, such as Lata’s work with various composers, lyricists, singers and classical musicians. Her opinions of these people, whom she rates as the top, as well as other ‘favourites’ lists—favourite Western singers, favourite Western composers, top songs by her contemporaries, her own favourites from among her songs, which Western actress she would have liked to sing playback for (Ingrid Bergman), thoughts on music and religion, spirituality, family, and so on. There are also questions here on other aspects: for instance, Lata’s penchant for white or pale-coloured saris, her photography, her interest in cricket, and her taste in jewellery.

I liked the way Lata comes through in this book: the interviews, in particular, offer a glimpse of her up close, and more than that, they show us what the Hindi cinema industry was like back in the good old days. Lata’s memories of the hard work that went into recording songs was, especially, an eye-opener for me. She talks, for instance, of how there were very limited recording studios, and one of them was actually a film studio that was converted, after the day’s shoot was over, into a recording studio: the heat from the blazing lights, the lack of furniture (which meant artistes ended up sitting on the floor), and the fact that they could record only at night, when the set was not needed for filming: it made me marvel at the perseverance and passion of the people who still managed to turn out songs that often outstripped the films they were part of.

Besides that, you get an idea of the people around Lata: Kishore Kumar, such a madcap; Dilip Kumar, who (though his hurtful comment about Lata’s pronunciation reeking of dal-bhaat led to her learning Urdu) was also a proper gentleman; Madan Mohan, not just a fine composer but also adept at cooking mutton curry.

True, there’s not that much here that isn’t already known. Kishore’s antics, Madan Mohan’s culinary skills, Dilip Kumar’s comment about the Maharashtrian flavour to Lata’s Urdu: these are all common knowledge among those conversant with the lore of Hindi cinema through the 50s and 60s. But there are bits and pieces here (a touching anecdote about Dilip Kumar, for instance) that are memorable.

While this is, on the whole, an interesting and insightful book, I had some issues with it. For one, the fact that it doesn’t seem to have been proof-read. Ira Pande’s English, fortunately, is impeccable, so the common gripe I have about wonky grammar doesn’t apply; but there are other problems, in particular related to the transliteration of Hindi songs and film names. Dulhan Ek Raat Ki becomes Dulhan ki ek raat, Miss Mary becomes Miss Merry, Black Cat becomes Black Coat… and there are innumerable inconsistencies in casing and spelling. In one annoying case of sheer carelessness, a poem written by a Pakistani poet in praise of Lata (written with diacritical marks, not a standard used anywhere else in the book) is shown in verse form, before being repeated all over again, this time in paragraph form rather than verse.

I will admit, though, that I tend to nit-pick about such things, so this is probably not going to be an obstacle for most other people.

What I found otherwise irritating about Lata Mangeshkar: A Life in Music generally revolves around two aspects:

1. The lack of structure.

This is apparent both in the interviews and in the episodes, but because the interviews come through as more chatty and personal, it’s not quite so jarring. The Episodes, however, I found annoying in this respect: in one episode, for instance, Mishra discusses a particular song; then in the next episode, he suddenly moves to talking about Lata’s favourite foods. Then there’s a brief paragraph comparing Lata to something Rabindranath Tagore wrote of… there’s a disconcerting habit of skipping from one topic to another, with no connect between the two. This also means that it’s impossible to just refer to this book to find a piece of information. You’ll have to read through it all.

If Mishra had grouped these episodes into specific topics (Lata’s songs, Lata’s interactions with different composers, Lata’s personal life, etc), they might have been a little more useful.

2. The eulogization.

Yatindra Mishra writes, at one point:

An astonishing fact about Lata ji’s voice is that it has never lost its freshness and youthful sweetness through all the six-odd decades of her career…

This, to me, is enough evidence that Mishra is an utterly biased fan of Lata’s. He goes on and on, the superlatives never ceasing, never tempered by balance, or by anything that is even vaguely negative. The Episodes part is especially hagiographical, but it becomes obvious even in The Interview, where many of his questions have a distinctly laudatory tone to them. Lata, as is probably natural, basks in all that adulation, to the extent that one wonders at the honesty (or not) of much of this interview.

As it is, Mishra rarely asks her any uncomfortable questions. Her differences, sometimes long-standing, sometimes brief, with people like OP Nayyar, Mohammad Rafi, and SD Burman; her supposed elbowing out of talent that might prove competition; her right-wing leanings, and so on. These are touched upon in passing, and Lata either skirts the issue, or is vague in her answer, or simply denies what she calls a rumour. (As it is, that bit about the right-wing leanings is only my grouse; I don’t think Lata thought this a negative thing at all).

On the whole, while this book was a quick, fairly engrossing read (especially The Interview), I would recommend it primarily to those who want an insight into Lata Mangeshkar. Not a balanced, unbiased view, and not something you can refer to unless you have the patience to go through most of the book looking for the information you need. Also, the fact that what Mishra gathers in the Interview is reflected in The Episodes, means that there’s some repetition here, and sometimes quite pointless (for instance, in The Episodes, Mishra touches upon Lata’s differences with Jaidev, and says that they were resolved—but how, he does not explain, only saying that even Lata does not explain. Which is repeated all over again in The Interview).


21 thoughts on “Book Review: Yatindra Mishra’s ‘Lata Mangeshkar: A Life in Music’

  1. That Lata was a product of her times is evident in more ways than one.
    She had the same caste prejudices and feudal outlook which made her accept and then follow certain practises which ensured a vice like control in her sphere.
    She invariably referred to Shamshad Begum as Shamshad Bai.
    This form of address could have many connotations.
    She was backed to the hilt by the Marathi Maoos syndrome and politicians like Thackeray made her very powerful.
    Leading producers, Directors, Music Directors, Journalists….. were really wary of her.
    A realistic assessment of her impact has therefore eluded many critics

    Liked by 1 person

    • As Nitin mentions in his second comment (below) the ‘Bai’ epithet is not, as far as I know too, derogatory – like, say, Savitribai Phule.

      But I tend to agree with you that the Marathi Manoos ideal probably ruled her a fair bit, and her political links might have helped strengthen her position. At any rate, from what I’ve heard, she did make things very difficult for aspiring competition.


      • Lata came up the hard way. Her career was helped by the MD Ghulam Haider. Not a ‘Marathi Manus’ by a long way. Savarkar was not connected in any way with the Hindi film industry. Bal Thackeray was a mere cartoonist in the Free Press Journal in those days. You yourself have mentioned that she was ridiculed due to her ‘Varan Bhat’ accent. So how could her so called political links help her in strengthening her position. As far as other female singers not being allowed to come up, could it not have been that Music Directors preferred her as she was more versatile and talented?

        Liked by 1 person

        • No, no. I did not mean that she used political power (or actually, her own standing) to initially make her way to the top. Definitely not. I completely agree that she made her way to the top because of her own merit; but from what I’ve heard, in later years – was it the 80s, 90s? – when people like Anuradha Paudwal were trying to make a place for themselves in Hindi film music – Lata used her standing to keep them out.


  2. I doubt that Lata had any caste prejudices. She was a follower of Savarkar, who may have his detractors, but never practised caste discrimination. Lata is entitled to her “right wing” views. That does not make her a lesser singer!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. As a matter of fact Lata and Asha were often referred to (by Film personalities) with the suffix -bai. That really does not have any pejorative connotations. BTW, Lata was actually half Goan.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Lata for all her great singing , besmirched her image by picking up a needless fight with that saintly man Rafi. Whatever may be her right wing(Hindutva?) prejudices she was fulsome in her praise for Mohammed Rafi-both as a singer & as a human

    Liked by 1 person

  5. The author of this book may not have been (fully) honest in penning it but you have been utterly honest in reviewing it. What an objective assessment it is (despite yourself being a great Lata fan in your own right)! Take a bow.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I think this is a common fault in any Indian biographer, Madhu. It is impossible to find one biography that is not biased towards its subject. One could argue that a person only writes a biography of someone whom they admire/respect/adulate. Which is fine. The problem arises when the subject of the biography is placed on a pedestal and burnished with a halo. :(
    I was going to pick this up based on the initial paragraphs of your review, but since you quickly tempered that view, I think I will skip buying this one. :)

    p.s. I agree with Nitin that ‘bai’ here has no negative connotations; in fact, the Mangeshkar sisters were always referred to as Lata bai and Asha tai. I’m surprised, however, that Lata referred to Shamshad as ‘Shamshad Bai’; in Nasreen Munni Kabir’s book, and in other interviews I have read/watched, she has always referred to Shamshad very fondly as ‘Shamshad aapa’.

    p.p.s – Lata also didn’t need political patronage to make it big. As Nitin points out, Bal Thackeray was just a cartoonist when Lata ruled the airwaves. And it demeans Lata’s immense talent to say that she needed political patronage to cement her position on the top. She worked hard to get where she did – her commitment to her craft was exemplary, and no one has ever accused her of unprofessionalism. To some extent, the stories of her (and Asha’s) so-called transgressions were also because women with ambition are always demonized.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I agree about that PS. (I wasn’t the one who anyway said ‘bai’ was in any way derogatory).

      And about the PPS, too. As I’ve explained to Nitin as well, I do not mean that Lata made her way to the top with political help (or any underhand means, for that matter). My indication was more towards her later career, in the 80s or 90s, when other singers, like Anuradha Paudwal, found their way blocked because Lata ruled. Seriously, by then, anybody listening to Lata’s voice (unless you’re blindly in love with her) can hear the shrillness and the loss of that dulcet quality) – I find it impossible to believe that so many composers would have insisted on her continuing to sing their songs when there were more fresh young voices, not utterly lacking talent either. This, about her keeping out the competition, is something I have read elsewhere too, so this is not all total surmise.

      To some extent, the stories of her (and Asha’s) so-called transgressions were also because women with ambition are always demonized.

      I am sure there must be some truth to that! Not surprised.

      Give this a miss, Anu. There’s really not that much here that hasn’t already been said and written before.


  7. I’ll pass over the book. One of the reasons I don’t like the 80s decade is Lata’s ageing voice which people (the music ‘reviewers’ of the time) tried to force on us as being sweet.
    The eulogization reminds me. I have never been able to understand the thought process of any common Indian (and Pakistani) film music listeners to put any singer above composers of the songs they render. They might be equal at best sometimes when they enhance weak tunes by their singing but will never above any composers and to some extent lyricists. When I don’t blame any singer for the plagiarism done by the musicians, I also would not put the singers on a pedestal for singing great original songs.
    the point is so many songs are known by who sang them rather than the one who composed those.
    ps. I had mentioned somewhere only singer I’m a ‘fan’ of is Asha but I’m not a blind fan. would even condemn her blanking out OP Nayyar’s name whenever her career is mentioned. whatever the issues between them were, he will always be her best composer. the man who made her. Ravi and RD come behind him.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I so completely agree with you, Chris. Both on how Lata should have stopped singing long before she did, and on how a singer is only one element of the song. True, a rendition can make or break a song, but without a good composer (especially) and lyricist, there’s no song. Your rendition may be fantastic, but if the music is forgettable, the song will eventually fall flat.

      Regarding your PS, you reminded me of just how most Indians regard celebrities they like: as if they were literally gods, capable of no wrong. Why on earth? Everybody’s human, and it’s human nature to go wrong now and then.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. oh! thankyou for review of this unique book.
    Yatindra mishra is an admired author. I am familiar with him through the columns he wrote in hindi dailies frequently , pre-lockdown times. And he is known for his classic book on begum akhtar, Akhtari. you have highlighted logical loopholes,but his endeavors deserve a plause. Do review the book “AKHTARI” by him, as well.
    thanks madhulika liddle.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I have very high regard for Lata for her singing talent. Most experts consider her the best female playback singer along with Noorjehan in the Indian subcontinent. But there are stories of her fights with singers, music composers and suppression of upcoming talents when she held dominant position. There were other play back singers like Rafi who was more versatile in playback singing then her but she was awarded Bharat Ratna. The reason is quite obvious: Her right wing connections helped her secure the award while right wing government was in power in the center.


  10. Thank you for this well written review, lately I have been purchasing & downloading Kindle versions of several Indian Film Industry related books, and due to this review I shall skip this one.
    There exists a large amount of literature, anecdotes, youtube videos etc. about Lata Mangeshkar, and I am not going to add to it. Suffice to say, and understandable, the ones written in Marathi probably contain more information & do more justice.

    I cannot resist adding to the “Marathi Manoos & Varan Bhaat” issue.
    While I do not know the background & circumstances & intentions behind Yusuf Khan’s well known comment about Lata M’s accent; it is worth adding these:
    1) The original “Marathi Manoos” and great warrior & leader was fluent in both Marathi & Persian
    2) Applying the same criteria to Yusuf Khan, it is clear that he himself became fluent in Marathi, just as Lata M improved her accent. Hence, I for one would point this to not only complete the often-mentioned incident, but also to congratulate the participants, and to highlight the cosmopolitanism & professionalism of the Bombay Film Industry of the 50’s & 60’s.
    3) I am quite aware that having mentioned “Bombay Film Industry cosmopolitanism & professionalism”, several people shall point out instances against it :)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for an interesting and insightful comment! Incidentally, talking about the Marathi Manoos being fluent in Persian, I must mention how, while doing some research into medieval Indian history recently, I’ve been coming across numerous instances of similar things. For example, Hemu – now seeing a resurgence as the beacon of Hindu hope against the Mughals, the one bright spot in a period of unremitting Muslim dominance – had an army composed in large part of Afghans. :-)


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