NMK: I read you went to school for only a day.
LM: I was at nursery first. The teacher used to write ‘Shri Ganeshji’ on the blackboard, and I used to copy it perfectly. I got 10 out of 10. While I was still at nursery, my cousin, Vasanti, was studying in the third standard at Murlidhar School. It was a Marathi medium school, just opposite our house in Sangli. And sometimes I tagged along with her. Whenever she had a music lesson, I used to listen attentively to teacher singing.
One day, the teacher, pointing at me, asked my cousin: ‘Who is she?’ I jumped up saying: ‘I am Master Deenanath’s daughter!’ She said: ‘He is such a great singer. Can you sing? I told her I could sing many raags, and rattled off their names: Malkauns, Hindol, etc. She led me straight off to the staff room where all the teachers were sitting and asked me to sing. So, I sang a classical song based on Hindol. I was four or five.
Then the day came for me to join the same school. Asha was about ten months old. I took her in my arms and off I went. When I entered the class, I sat down with Asha in my lap. The teacher said firmly: ‘Babies aren’t allowed here.’
I was very angry and got up. I took Asha home and never went back.
NMK: How did you learn to read and write?
LM: I must have been about three or four when I asked our servant, Vitthal, who was a teenager at the time, to teach me the Marathi alphabet and how to read and write the basics. I studied Marathi at home.
When we were in Kolhapur, Indira, my cousin sister from Indore taught me Hindi. She was from Madhya Pradesh and spoke Hindi very well and sometimes wrote stories in Hindi magazines. But there was little time to study because we were constantly travelling with Baba’s theatre troupe.
When we finally moved to Bombay, Lekhraj Sharma, who taught Master Vinayak’s children, gave me further lessons in Hindi. Master Vinayak wanted me to learn the language.
A director at Prafulla Pictures, Ram Gabade, taught me English. I like reading in English and it is very necessary to know the language as it is so widely used in India.
I used to read Marathi and Hindi novels when travelling to work by train.
In the 1950s, a Brahmin priest called Hardikar taught me Sanskrit. I was very keen to learn Sanskrit because it improvise your diction and I wanted to read the Bhagvad Gita. For short period in my life, I had different teachers but I am mostly self-taught.
NMK: How many languages do you know?
LM: Marathi, Hindi, Urdu, a little Punjabi, and I can understand Sanskrit. I have also learned Bengali.
Did you know the filmmaker Basu Bhattacharya? He was working as Bimal Roy’s assistant and when I wanted to learn Bengali, Salida [music composer Salil Chowdhury] sent him to me. I tried learning Tamil too. I can read and write a little but speaking Tamil is extremely difficult.
NMK: You are quite a linguist! What triggered your interest in languages?
LM: In 1946, I was working in a film called Subhadra. Santa Apte, the famous Marathi actress who acted in classic films like Kunku, which was called Duniya Na Mane in Hindi, was the star of Subhadra. We sang a song together and she told me she had recorded a song in Tamil. I was very young, maybe fifteen or sixteen, but when I heard her say that, I thought to myself, I must learn other languages too so I can sing in many languages.
NMK: I am sure that you have such an ear for music, and a mastery over words, must have helped you learning other languages. You have an unusual curiosity, a thirst for knowledge and determination to better yourself. How many languages do you now sing in?
LM: Thirty-six. I have sung in every Indian language, but also in Dutch, Russian, Fijian, Swahili and English. I was once performing the famous Canadian singer, and told her I was performing in Canada. She sent me a disc of her song ‘You needed me’ and asked me to sing it on stage. So I did.
NMK: If you had married, you might have led a very different life. I wonder if music would have so consumed you. Do you ever feel lonely?
LM: No, not really. I never feel lonely. Remember, I have always lived with my family. I grew up in my family. When I was young, I had many responsibilities, but I was always made to feel like a protected child. It was Mai who was the eldest in the family and it was she who looked after us all. She was only thirty-six or thirty-seven when my father died. She was a very peaceful person, tolerant and patient.
When she passed away in 1995, I felt her loss deeply. It was then that I became the head of the family. I had to grow up.
NMK: I wonder whether your parents ever appear to you in your dreams?
LM: Sometimes they do. But they don’t say anything. My father passed away in 1942, and I came to Bombay for the first time in 1943 to sing on stage. I was staying at the home of my paternal aunt and her husband. Another uncle was there too. Sometime in the afternoon I started rehearsing for the next day’s performance when both my uncles scolded me harshly saying I didn’t sing well, and what did I think I was doing by performing in public. I listen to them but said nothing.
I went inside my room and cried. I fell asleep with tears in my eyes and dreamt my father was standing on the stage singing ‘Shura mi vandile.’ I woke up later at that evening and told my aunt about my dream. She said: ‘Your music programme will go well. Your father has blessed you.’
At 9 the next morning, I went to the Opera House where the music programme was held. I sang two songs. The audience was thrilled and clapped loudly. I was forced to sing an encore.
Excerpted with permission from Lata Mangeshkar: In Her Own Voice, Nasreen Munni Kabir, Niyogy Books.