At 74, you are so versatile that you can actually sing with and for a 20-year-old. You are perpetually young at heart. What is the secret of your amazing versatility?
..........I think the way to stay young is not to delve too much on the past. The past is history. I live for the moment and wonder what the future holds for me. Also, I listen to what young people feel and what they have to say. Their views are interesting and fresh and they keep me young at heart. I have always been like this. It's not a conscious or cultivated habit. I like being around young people. Most of my contemporaries have put up their feet and taken a back seat, whilst I enjoy new challenges and the energy of the young. Perhaps, this is what keeps my music alive amongst today's generation.
Since your dad was a music director and sisters were all singers, what was your introduction into music like? Would you say you inherited it?
.....I was blessed to have been born into music. It's now being proved scientifically, that recognition of the right tone or note is a genetic inheritance and since both my Father and Mother were musicians in their own right, I was fortunate enough to inherit their musical genes from both sides. Thus, we siblings grew up with music all around us and it has brought me great joy, not to mention the fame and fortune. My Father gave me my first lesson in music and I consider him my first Guru.
Who were your musical influences when you were growing up? Could you name an Indian and a foreign musician / singer’s influence you may have had as a teenager.
......I grew up in an atmosphere of Indian Classical Music and my initial influences were from singers of those times. K.L Saigal was the first popular singer that I idolized, as I did Noorjehan later. However, I was a strange child. While my siblings were totally immersed only in Indian music, I used to love to watch the Hollywood musicals of those times. MGM produced some great musicals and I was greatly impressed by Catherine Valentina, Carmen Miranda, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, etc. Later, I became captivated by Elvis Presley. I believe that music, like the deepest ocean has its depth yet to be identified. There is so much to explore and so much to learn. I enjoy world music, as did my husband Rahul Dev Burman. If I like Ghulam Ali on the one hand, then on the other hand I love Michael Jackson equally. I have enjoyed working with musicians like Michael Stipe of REM, Robbie Williams, The Kronos Quartet, Code Red, Boy George, etc.
What did it feel like when you got your first taste of popularity? Who was the person you shared your joy with?
.......It was an exciting time. My first Hindi song was in the film 'Chunaria" released in 1946. Slowly, people started recognizing my voice and later knew me by face. It was a thrill and I enjoyed it immensely. Fame and stardom are intoxicating. I shared my first taste of success with fellow musicians and my immediate family. However, I realized long ago that it's a temporary phase and I should be prepared to step out of the limelight at the right time and because of this self confession, my own popularity stopped bothering me long ago. I have seen many a famous person getting nervous breakdowns when they lose their popularity and I decided long ago that if I call it quits, it wouldn't bother me because I would be too busy looking good.
When did you get your first recognition of serious singing talent – from peppy sexy songs to critical acclaim?
....... Though I was getting a lot of work and was quite busy, the big starrers eluded me. I was being recognized, but slowly. There was, as there is today a tonnne of politics in the entertainment world and as a newcomer I too was it's early victim, but I took the bull by the horns and let my talent speak for itself. I would say Shri. B. R. Chopra (who I have always treated like my older brother) was the first big film producer who launched me as his lead singer in his blockbuster 'Naya Daur'. Music Director O.P. Nayyar was a newcomer too and the success of that film and it's music established me as a premier singer and got me critical acclaim and since then I have never looked back. Later, music directors like Rahul Dev Burman, C. Ramchandra, Ravi, Bappi Lahiri, Khayyam and A.R. Rahman used my musical abilities extensively and it was a great pleasure working with them, amongst other notables.
What was the interaction like when you collaborated with Boy George and other international artistes. Did you find their approach to recording music different from yours?
........ Western style of recording is totally different from ours. They take months and months to complete one album. Since I am used to a much faster pace of working, it was quite frustrating at times to take so long to finish one work, but there's no doubt that their end results are quite amazing. I first met Boy George in the mid '80's in a London night club called 'Taboo'. There were people with coloured hair and weird clothes walking around and I was the only lady in a saree, but George was so kind and loving. I asked him about make-up tips and he asked me about singing tips. He said he was my 'fan', which I didn't expect, but it was nice to hear anyway.
From O. P. Nayyar to Khayyam, from R. D. Barman to Rahman - what have the highlights been like on this musical journey with all these legends?
......O.P. Nayyar bought the folk music of Punjab to Indian cinema and saw unbelievable success. He entered the music world like a high speed locomotive and knocked every one of their tracks. Every established music director started to make at least one song in OP's style. He literally changed musical dimensions overnight and since I was his lead singer, it was an exhilarating experience. Khayyam belongs to the old school. He's a traditionalist and master of perfection. Working with him on Umrao Jaan is one of the highlights of my career and the music of Umrao Jaan is a classic that no one should ever tamper with.
There will never ever be a composer like Rahul Dev Burman. He's the best India has produced and when recently western classical musical group 'Kronos Quartet' compared him to Mozart, I tend to agree whole heartedly with them. No other music director understood the range of my musical abilities like Rahul. It was a pleasure working with him and I miss him dearly. A.R. Rahman is a fantastic producer. He's of international class and deserves the world popularity that he has achieved. I'm happy that he gave me some memorable songs. Almost 50% of his big hits are when we have worked together. I suppose we are lucky for each other.
The very first Indian remix of sorts was on your own Chura Liya by Bali Sagoo. When remixes & pop gained mass appeal, how much guts did it take to break your own traditional mindset and accept the remixes for the benefit of the younger generations?
....... Times were changing and I am not one of those who stands still. I love change and a challenge. I introduced the double album 'Rahul & I' in 1995 and even today it's the most popular re-mix albums ever. If remix is done sensibly, there's no harm in it. I think the music videos ruin the real meaning and lyrics of the song. Video producers forget that we are Indians after all and have Indian sensibilities. We should not be aping the west, but stand our ground. I wear a sari whether I'm in New York accepting the MTV Award or inaugurating a teenage disco and I'm proud of it. I have done remixes on my own terms and the listening audience has accepted it. There are always a few spoilsports who criticize for the sake of criticism, but as it's rightly said - "nothing succeeds like success".
Dancing with Ganesh Hegde to breakdance actions and releasing a Ganpati album in the same time – how does it balance out?
....... I love being multi talented. A western journalist once wrote that I was like Luciano Pavarotti, Barbara Streisand, Diana Ross and Elvis Presley all rolled into one. Another journalist said I was Madonna in a sari. If you can, it's great fun to experiment with all styles of music. I believe in world music and it's different forms. It's like enjoying all the colours in the rainbow.
Amongst the new lot of today's younger singers who do you see potential in - male and female.
......... Several fine singers are around today. I don't want to compare anyone with someone else because each have their own individual style and approach. Shreya Ghosal, Sukhvinder Singh, Roopkumar Rathod are names that come to mind immediately, but there are many other good singers around today. Himesh Reshmiya is composing some fine music too.
How young do you really feel at heart?
....... young enough to run a race with my 5 year old grand kids, but the knees give way.
How do you want to be remembered?
......... Over the years people have given me many names / titles, of which I particularly like "Asha, The Renaissance Woman", but honestly I would like to be remembered as "Asha, You lived thy name"
What's your birthday message to Bombay Times? Any growing up advice for this beautiful and popular teenager?
........ How can one teenager advise another? Just kidding! Asha says: Keep your hopes high and believe in 'asha'!