Cocktail! Yes, that would be an apt description of Asha Bhosle’s voice. A heady cocktail with a touch of Lata’s moving expressiveness, a dash of Geeta Dutt’s playful sensuality, a splash of Shamshad’s raw robustness and a tinge of Usha’s stinging nasality. Just add to this a pinch of Dinanath Mangeshkar’s bold aggression, Sudhir Phadke’s sweet softness, O.P. Nayyar’s pungent Punjabiyat, R.D. Burman’s zingy Westernism and the recipe is almost complete- you only have to add that extra special bubbly ingredient called Asha Bhosle!
I still remember our first meeting vividly. She was wearing a gorgeous white sari and a glittering diamond set. She just took my breath away-not only by her regal appearance but more by the way she sang those immortal songs O panchhi pyaare, Chain se hum ho kabhie and Piya tu ab to aaja. Oh, and I forgot to mention one trivial detail. That time I was sitting in my drawing room and she was away performing miles away on TV for her show ‘Yeh hai Asha’.
Over the years I have never got to meet her personally. Well, you can’t call those one line pleasantries in the midst of a hundred fans as ‘meetings’, can you? But I still kept meeting her and getting to know her through her songs, interviews, articles on TV, on radio, in magazines etc.
Born in Sangli, Maharashtra, on Sep. 8, 1933, this fourth-born child in the Mangeshkar family- the proverbial ‘First Family’ of Indian light music- grew up in an atmosphere steeped in music. She fondly recounts how she used to watch through the cozy comfort of her bed and blanket her illustrious singer-father Dinanath Mangeshkar teach her Lata didi through early hours of the day.
Unfortunately the premature demise of her father changed the scenario. Her didi had to bear the burden of holding the family together by working and singing in films from a young and tender age. The family had to endure really hard times. It was the constant coaxing and cajoling of her mother Maai which really paved the way for all the Mangeshkar sibs- Lata, Asha, Usha, Meena and Hridaynath- in those trying circumstances. Constantly Maai would remind the kids of the great musical legacy left for them by their father whose musical genius was only appreciated after his death.
Asha’s life plunged into further crisis when at the age of just 14 she eloped and married a rationing inspector in the neighbourhood. Family ties were severed for years. Even the marriage didn’t work out well. The only craft she knew was singing. The only job she could do to win bread and shelter for herself and her kids was singing. So she gave it her all. She sang and she sang and she sang!
The first-ever opportunity she got to sing in Hindi was for a movie Andhon ki Duniya (1947). But when the composer asked to sing the song Garibon ke daata, garibon ke waali, she literally froze in front of the mike, not able to strike a single note. Ultimately she had to stand in the chorus watching that song being sung by another singer- Johrabai Ambalewali. Her transition from a chorus-singer to a solo-singer didn’t take long, but to establish herself as the premier singer was not easy.
The first decade of her career was pretty lacklustre. She was the just one of the singers in the fray mostly singing for second leads, vamps and character actresses. Lata, Geeta, Shamshad and Asha. That was the order of the day. But Asha never gave up. She kept listening to good singers and trained with ustads like Navrang Nagpurkar and Govindprasad Jaipurwale. She kept honing her skills, adding new facets to her singing and relentlessly pursued new goals. In spite of having a voice in the Lata-mould she cleverly avoided toeing the Lata line. Instead she followed Geeta Dutt’s style of rendition. This Geeta-influence is apparent in many of her songs in that era and sometimes even after that. Just listen to Asha’s ‘Laajwanti’ and ‘Sujata’ songs and you will know what I mean.
Aaiye meherbaan, baithiye jaanejaan shauq se leejiye ishq ka imtihaan!
The sultry svelte Madhubala sighed sexily in Asha’s voice in Howrah Bridge and that was it! Asha had arrived. The year was 1958. It had taken her almost a decade but the wait was worth it. From then it was a relentless march to the top.
If one man could claim the credit for Asha’s singing success then it would definitely be O.P. Nayyar. Whatever may be the reason for his musical non-association with Lata, it really proved to be a boon in disguise for Asha. It gave her the confidence of successfully carrying a soundtrack of her own. OP’s rhythmic Punjabi compositions were perfectly suited for Asha’s lively, exuberant style and in the later years he even showed tremendous depth of emotions for her. Their chemistry was so apparent in countless fabulous songs like Yeh Hai Reshmi Zulfon Ka Andhera, Main Shayad Tumhare Liye, Aankhon Se Jo Utari Hai Dil Mein and Yehi Woh Jagah Hai. Asha’s breakup with O.P. Nayyar in 1973 was one of the cruelest blows for Hindi film music.
Sachin Dev Burman was another maestro who made a significant impact on her career. Asha remembers how he told her to give her own colour to each song while rehearsing for the Taxi Driver song Jeeyo aur jeene do. The soft sweetness in Kali ghata chhaye, the subtle seduction in Nazar laagi raaja, the searing pain in Abke baras bhej, the soaring happiness in Sach huye sapne tere and the sizzling sensuality in Raat akeli hai- Sachinda’s repertoire for Asha is just too good!
Till the seventies Asha could rarely get the prime compositions from the premier music directors. To use Sachinda’s expression: ‘Asha was like Tennis’s second serve for them. Only when Lata was unavailable or unwilling, would they consider Asha for their premier tunes. Otherwise, only the typical mujra, cabaret and qawwali numbers were considered as her domain.
Sachinda had used her as the premier singer only when he had a misunderstanding with Lata for a few years. C.Ramchandra and Shankar only turned to her after developing some differences with Lata and that too in their declining phase. So did Naushad. Despite this situation, some composers like Ravi (Tora Man Darpan Kahlaye, Yeh Raaste Hain Pyar Ke, Jab Chali Thandi Hawa), Jaidev (Dukh Aur Sukh Ke Raaste, Maang Mein Bhar Le Rang, Nadi Naare Na Jao), N.Dutta (Main Jab Bhi Akeli, Kis Jagah Jaaye, Tang Aa Chuke Hain) and Khayyam (Do Sakhiyan Bachpan Ki) were some composers who tried their best to correct the balance but they couldn’t turn the tide as most of them were commercially non-viable.
The 70s and later
The seventies brought a new dawn. R.D.Burman proved to be one composer who did full justice to Asha’s unmatched versatility even while using Lata’s vocals regularly. Pancham’s compositions for Asha are in a class of their own. If he could use the sex-appeal of her voice so enticingly through Piya Tu Ab To Aaja, Sharmana Yuun and Aao Na Gale Lagao Na; then he also could explore the classicism of her voice through songs like Piya Bawari, Roz Roz Daali Daali and Phir Se Aaiyo Badra Bidesi. Their perfect tuning later extended into real life, too and that blossoming relationship culminated in marriage in 1980.
The 1980s saw Asha’s vocal best. Khayyam’s Umraojaan (1981) and Pancham’s Ijaazat (1987) brought National Awards for her. Non-film albums like Meraje Ghazal, Kashish, Aabshare Ghazal and Dil Padosi Hai won critical acclaim. Unfortunately at this peak of career, the film-music had reached its nadir giving her little opportunity to show her real worth. So as always it was the same old story for her-of not getting big breaks consistently!
The early half of 1990s brought a sea-change in Hindi film music scenario with a number of new singers, composers and music companies appearing on the scene. Asha- so shaken up by the turn of events which also included the decline and death of Pancham- couldn’t cope with the situation initially. But another musical phenomenon masterminded her revival. A.R.Rahman’s Rangeela (1995) featured Asha in Yaai Re Yaai Re and Tanha Tanha and again she was there-back at her best!
With successful pop-albums like Jaanam Samjha Karo, Rahul And I and Kabhi To Nazar Milao and a spate of sizzling item numbers like Kambakht Ishq, Khallas and Sharara Sharara, Asha won over one more generation of listeners.
The diva par excellence
How can one analyse a career spanning over six decades? She has sung in almost all Indian languages and genres- film-music, pop, remixes, ghazals, bhajan, natya-geet, bhaavgeet, classical music. She has collaborated with artists from all over the world like Ghulam Ali, Adnan Sami, Boy George and Code Red. Her versatility has been her strength and it has also proved to be her Achilles heel. Her classier songs have always been overshadowed by her flashy, ‘fleshy’ songs. Her choice of songs with not so subtle, not so sober lyrics might have brought her not so insignificant success commercially but critically that’s what has taken the sheen off her peerless performance.
Asha’s is a tremendous tale of talent and toil over troubles in personal and professional life. It’s a stimulating saga of survival and success achieved through sheer will-power. It’s an astonishing example of perseverance and pursuit of perfection transforming an ‘also ran’ into an ‘all-time great’.
That is Asha for you, an eternal enchantress!
1967 - Garibon ki suno (Dus Lakh 1966)
1968 - Parde mein rahne do (Shikar 1968)
1971 - Piya Tu Ab To Aaja (Caravan 1971)
1972 - Dum Maro Dum (Hare Rama Hare Krishna 1971)
1973 - Hone Lagi Hain Raat (Naina 1973)
1974 - Chain se Humko Kabhi (Pran Jaaye Par Vachan Na Jaaye 1974)
1977 - Yeh Mera Dil (Don 1978)
1981 - Dil Cheez Kya Hai (Umrao Jaan)
1986 - Mera Kuch Samaan (Ijazat)
2000 - Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award