To mark her 90th birthday on September 8, Asha Bhosle gave the performance of a lifetime at the Coca-Cola arena in Dubai, singing not just her own hits but those of the singers she admires. She still stands straight, hitting the notes accurately. It’s an age-defying triumph.
Determination and discipline have defined her illustrious career. She was singing at the age of 10, got married at 16. Her husband did not earn much and they lived in a village home north of Bombay. She had to draw water from the well, sweep, cook, wash clothes, take care of their two children and learn music, apart from performing. There was no telephone and her husband did the rounds of studios looking for producers and music directors who would give her a song.
She would be up before dawn, practising the notes of Raag Bilawal. For her music lessons, she had to go 50 km south to Charni Road, where her guru, Navarang Nagpurkar, lived. A forgotten name today, he was a highly reputed singer of the Bhendi Bazaar gharana. He later taught Suman Kalyanpuri and Manna Dey. The gharana was noted for open-throated singing right up to the high notes. Singers as diverse as Amir Khan, Kumar Gandharva, Begum Akhtar and Lata Mangeshkar studied with this gharana.
Asha got into the routine of practising ‘sa’ for an hour at a time. She began with low-grade films. As she was new, the music directors taught her how to sing variations on the melody. She has often expressed her gratitude to Lachhiram Dhani Ram, N Datta, Allah Rakha and others.
Hansraj Behl, her first music director, also gave her Punjabi film songs. She found the pronunciation tough and learnt it from Sardul Kawatra, who was very talkative. This was the beginning of her life-long association with regional language films.
By 1953, she had her breakthrough in Bimal Roy’s ‘Parineeta’, where her mehndi song ‘Gore gore hathon pe mehndi racha ke’ became a hit.
She also began singing in Marathi and Bengali. In the Sixties, she added Bhojpuri, Nepali, Gujarati and virtually all the North Indian languages. In the Seventies, she sang in all the languages of the South. She also tried to study regional literature. Asha had a keen interest in western music. Her idol was Brazilian singer Carmen Miranda, a Hollywood star of the ’40s. Asha picked up her ‘la la la’ style of chorus and the use of vibrating notes (vibrato). She used them in her cabaret numbers or ‘hotel songs’, particularly with C Ramchandra. For her Miranda tribute, listen to ‘Mister John ya Baba Khan’ (‘Baarish’, 1957).
Asha also absorbed Elvis Presley! She picked up his exaggerated stress to establish that catchy rock and roll rhythm. C Ramchandra again gave her great rock and roll songs. ‘Eena meena deeka’ in 1956 is the best known, but she was outsinging Mohd Rafi in ‘Sarhad’ (1960). By the time she got her Rafi duet in ‘Teesri Manzil’ in 1966 (‘O haseena zulfon wali’), she’d established herself as the ‘queen of the westernised song’. After ‘Dum maro dum’ (‘Hare Krishna Hare Rama’, 1971), it became a decade of westernised film music, with Asha and old friend Kishore Kumar at the top of the charts.
In addition to her attributes of classical training, exposure to western music and knowledge of regional music, Asha had her own great powers of emotional expression and observation. She did not succeed as an actress, but brought the actress in her to the recording studio. She would carefully observe the voices, gestures and personality of the stars — Nargis, Madhubala, Vyjayanthimala, Nutan, Nimmi, Nanda and Helen. She would then bring something of their personalities to her playback. Hear her song ‘Janu janu re’ (‘Insan Jaag Utha’, 1959) and her version of Madhubala’s light and girlish laugh. In contrast, hear her calculating laugh for Helen in the ‘Jewel Thief’ (1967) number, ‘Baithen hain kya uske paas’.
While her light songs made a clear distinction between her style and that of elder sister Lata Mangeshkar, she had to make a major effort to show a clear difference in the more common serious song.
The film song structure consisted of a ‘mukhda’ or opening verse which acted as a bridge or chorus when repeated, and three stanzas or ‘antaras’ building an emotional climax in the third ‘antara’. It required intense concentration. SD Burman taught her how to tap into her memories. When ‘Abke baras bhej bhaiya ko baba’, her song in ‘Bandini’ (1963), was sounding too flat, he asked her to remember her brother Hridaynath. As Asha began to recall her marriage and her long years of separation from her brother, she broke down. And then she put her pain into the song. SD Burman taught her to keep her throat relaxed so she could reach high notes without being shrill or, worse, singing through her nose.
In contrast to Lata’s soft tone, Asha developed a recognisably sharper, more cutting, tone. This enabled music directors to use wind instruments like a saxophone or a shehnai in her songs without the danger of the singing being drowned out. To illustrate the sharper tone, hear the forgotten song with a memorable shehnai where Asha has to stay on top: ‘Saawan ban gaye nain’, composed by Shankar-Jaikishan for the 1960 film ‘Krorepati’.
In the late 1960s, Rafi brought out an album of ghazals with music by Khayyam; Lata brought out a Ghalib album and Meera bhajans; Manna Dey brought songs of Madhukar Rajasthani; and it became time for Asha to also express her artistic creativity in new forms. She was an accomplished ghazal singer, having sung more of Sahir Ludhianvi than anyone else. But in her album with Jaidev, ‘Asha Bhosle: An Unforgettable Treat’, she sang verses by Jaishankar Prasad too.
It was music director Khayyam who lowered her ‘sa’ in the film ‘Umrao Jaan’, and made the biggest contribution to her ghazal singing. He made her voice mellower and delivery even smoother. Asha and Lata’s high pitch was a result of the industry’s gold standard of the Rafi pitch. Rafi could sing really high. Where he pitched his ‘sa’ determined the key for the orchestra as well as the corresponding ‘sa’ note of the women singers. This high pitch put great strain on Lata and Asha. After Rafi’ s demise in 1980, all film songs moved to a lower pitch.
Throughout the ’80s and the ’90s, Asha came out with one memorable album after another. Her best ghazal album was probably ‘Kashish’, where she had to match notes with the difficult ‘harkats’ of Ghulam Ali.
While Lata became a noted composer of Marathi film music under the name of Anandghan, Asha’s contributions have been hidden. She would suggest melodic changes to composers like Ravi or Usha Khanna but never perhaps to the bigger names. Ilayaraja has pointed out that she can sing three variations for each line of a song and leave it for the composer to then choose. This is something no other singer has done with him. She is probably responsible for the entire tune of one of RD Burman’s hits from ‘Ijaazat’ — ‘Mera kuchh samaan’.
The old system required the orchestra to be present in the studio along with the singer. Both had to be flawless on the same take. Today, all the bits of the song are recorded separately. Off-key notes are corrected by auto tune or other computer software. Asha had taken part of this hi-tech style in the 1990s and pointed out that while it produced catchy stuff, it was emotionally flat and forgotten in a year or so. In particular, Asha has been dismayed at having to record duets without seeing and responding to the duet partner. However, though not enthusiastic, she’s been able to adjust to the new style.
What she finds distressing is the disappearance of the song building up to a climax. All three ‘antaras’ are duplicates of one another. In contrast is an old song written for her where every ‘antara’ has a different tune and actually a different raga: ‘Tere khayalon mein hum’ from V Shantaram’s ‘Geet Gaya Pattharon Ne’. The music director devised a sound for Jeetendra’s chisel cutting stone as well.
Manna Dey often lamented that Asha was seldom given enough classical music-based film songs. After ‘Geet Gaya’, she did a few such classics. The best in my view were ‘Saathi re saathi’ in ‘Kotwal Saab’ (1977), ‘Piya baawri’ in ‘Khubsoorat’ (1980) and ‘Jhoothe naina bole’ under her brother Hridaynath’s music direction in ‘Lekin’ (1990).
Anyone who doubts Asha’s high quality should try and sing these difficult songs. They will always be proof that she is far more than a singer of cabaret, mujra and rock-pop numbers. She is a timeless star and her sheer musicality will always be an inspiration.
Asha Bhosle has been nominated twice for the Grammy Award, once for ‘Legacy’, her album of bandishes given to her by her last guru Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, and the second time for ‘You’ve Stolen My Heart’, her album with the Kronos Quartet. She’s happy that both were for Indian music. She is surprised that western artists can record a hit and then take a break, not for a day but for a year. She surprised Kronos Quartet by wanting to record three or four songs a day!
Recipe for success
Asha Bhosle runs a successful chain of restaurants called Asha’s and markets masalas and pastes. She also takes great care of her diet. She never takes anything cold and never touches dahi. In summer, she uses shahi jeera in place of jeera, which becomes too hot for her. She eats pickles which have been matured for at least a year. As a child, she loved malai and continues to drink a lot of milk. Perhaps that is what made her a great Punjabi singer!
Asha & RD
Asha once gave an autograph to RD Burman when he was a kid at his father’s recordings. When she began working with him in the ’60s, the relationship was strictly professional. One day, when poet Majrooh Sultanpuri was sitting with her, a bouquet was delivered. She complained that some “idiot” sent her roses every day. Majrooh revealed it was Pancham. They were married in 1980. When he found that the films announced with him had been awarded to another music director, Asha had to cope with a depressed husband. In 1988, Pancham suffered a heart attack. They never separated.
— The writer is former Director-General, All India Radio
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