Asha Bhosle: The bad girl of playback singing

[Book extract] With 11,000 and counting solo, duet and chorus-backed songs in over twenty Indian languages since 1947, Asha tai shows no signs of stopping even at 83.

 |   Long-form |   22-08-2017
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While recording with the internationally acclaimed band Kronos Quartet in 2015, Asha Bhosle, after “she did a particularly sexy turn of phrase”, looked over at David Harrington from the band – who recalled this in an interview – winked at him and said, “Not bad for a grandma, eh?”

Dressed in one of her signature elegant saris, hair adorned with a gajra, Asha Bhosle seems far removed from the sequined body suits, heaving chests and frenzied dancing of the “sirens” and “vamps” in Hindi movies. Yet it was her voice that reigned supreme in the mandatory cabaret or club songs of seventies’ cinema. She was the bad girl of playback singing; no one could represent the voice of women who lived on their own terms better than Asha tai.

Asha’s smooth, velvet vocals are a milestone in the evolution of Hindi film music. “Dum Maaro Dum”, that hedonistic anthem composed by RD Burman and hummed by Asha for a sensuous Zeenat Aman extolling the virtues of hashish, pushed the established ideas of morality and music.

It didn’t matter that the plot of the movie was anti-drugs; the song was subsequently banned on Air India Radio. With radio networks vying for a slice of the pie, Sri Lanka’s Ceylon Radio aired it and gained an audience of thousands tuning in to get their fix. Asha’s sultry vocals elevated RD’s composition; their musical partnership eventually grew into a romantic relationship – Asha’s second marriage and third long-term relationship.

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Asha was nineteen years old when she first met the thirteen-year-old son of composer SD Burman, where else but in a recording studio. He asked her for an autograph, having heard her Marathi Natya Sangeet on the radio. At their next studio meeting, RD mentioned that he was eager to give up formal education to start working as a composer, an idea that Asha chided him for. Years later, they met again – him a budding composer, she a great singer. Their love for music eventually bound them in a marriage that did not comply with society’s ideal image of the institution but allowed them to grow as creative individuals and be ‘more friends than husband and wife’. This partnership of muse–friend–spouse brought to Indian films some of the most exciting music with influences drawn from across the world.

But neither the fame nor the comfortable partnership came easy.

From falling asleep in dusty studios and being woken up to sing her part in BBC’s annual list of 100 women influencers in 2015, it’s been a gruelling journey. As the sole bread-earner for her family and a single mother for much of her life, Asha’s is a tale of immense talent and sheer grit.

Born in Sangli, Maharashtra, on September 8, 1933, Asha lost her father Pandit Dinanath Mangeshkar – a well-respected Marathi theatre actor and Natya Sangeet musician – when she was just nine years old. He was one of the few artistes who openly performed songs penned by the revolutionary Veer Savarkar, which criticised the British rule in India. In an interview with the Guardian, Asha Bhosle reminisces about her initiation into theatre, when her father’s troupe was invited to perform for the maharajahs in British India: “He had 300 staff, vast wardrobes, costumes, theatrical sets and props. We would stay in each city for months performing plays which went on all night. My whole education was watching actors and singers perform.” 

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During the 1930s, the family suffered financially and her father succumbed to alcoholism. After his death at just forty-one years of age in 1942, her mother Shevanti (Shuddhamati) Mangeshkar moved with her daughters Lata, Uma, Asha, Meena and son Hridaynath to Pune and then to Mumbai. They fell back on their family tradition of theatre and singing to make ends meet. Although Asha trained for classical singing under Navrang Nagpurkar, he asked her to concentrate on popular music as it was financially more viable. The thirteen-year-old girl began not only navigating the lows and highs of a raga but also dealing with rejections that could cripple an adult ego.

One cannot talk about Asha Bhosle without mentioning her elder sister Lata Mangeshkar. Both started out in the Hindi film industry when playback singing was at a nascent stage. The scene having shifted from actors singing their own songs to full-fledged live recordings of music with singers and musicians sometimes numbering a hundred, it was a glorious time for music in India.

Lata didi had already made a place for herself by the 1950s. Her influence in the industry meant that didi, a moniker used by everyone, could have given her younger sister a step up. But the competition was fierce. Much has been said about the dominance of Lata Mangeshkar, the reigning voice of the Hindi playback singing industry for decades. Some of it is conjecture, some truth. The movie Saaz was reportedly inspired by their complex relationship, but the sisters panned this allusion. They live, even today, in neighbouring flats on Peddar Road in Mumbai and maintain that the rivalry was purely professional.

Even so, Asha was inadvertently caught in the undertow of her sister’s success. Only a few veterans recall her first song, “Chala Chala Nav Bala” from the Marathi feature film Majha Bal (1943). It wasn’t until 1948 that Asha got her first break in Hindi films with “Saawan Aaya” for the movie Chunariya. She was only sixteen. It was also around then that she fell in love. The Mangeshkar family strongly disapproved of the thirty-one-year-old Ganpatrao Bhosle, a neighbour. So the young lovers did what is usually done when met with opposition – they eloped. However, this story did not subscribe to the prescribed ending of happily ever after.

In the book In Her Own Voice: Conversations with Lata Mangeshkar, Lata speaks of Asha’s unhappy marriage. “She (Asha) wasn’t allowed to see us or write to us. This was the situation for years. Ganpatrao Bhosle used to take Asha to various music directors and make her audition for them. He believed that she would earn him lots of money and wanted to control her. Asha suffered a lot during those years.”

Ganpatrao was ambitious and he intended to see his young wife succeed, even surpass her elder sister. But Lata’s limelight also drew from the demands of movie scripts of the time.

The “heroine” of the 1950s was an embodiment of the ideal Indian woman – the pining lover, the doting wife, the perky sister, the sacrificing mother and the wise matriarch. Lata’s voice was considered pure and ideal for heroines who sang of nothing but conventional love, longing, hardship, romance and the pain ensuing from them. Meanwhile, composers came to Asha with songs that were not meant for the archetypal “heroine”. They were considered inferior in morality, and by extension in quality. However, this didn’t matter to Asha as long as she got to sing, received a pay cheque and could go home to family. Rather, as some accounts go, she was forced to sing, incredulous as this might seem.

Asha has confessed in interviews that left to her own devices, she would have loved to cook and clean instead. But by 1958, her husband Ganpatrao, a ration inspector, had morphed into Asha’s full-time manager with Asha the sole breadwinner. In the book Asha Bhosle: A Musical Biography, Raju Bharatan records a conversation with music director Naushad Ali: “The first thing Ganpatrao did was to ensure there was no phone at home. Ganpatrao himself moved from studio to studio, fixing Asha’s recordings and her fees.”

This dynamic of the husband looking after his wife’s interests was not unusual in the 1950s, Bharatan notes. It was mostly waved away as a husband protecting a wife in the big bad world of films. The abuse that Asha suffered at the hands of her suspicious husband, though well known, was spoken of only in whispers.

As Asha’s daughter Varsha Bhosle wrote, it was her mother’s “zid (obstinacy)” that kept her going even when it seemed like things were hopeless. “The earliest memory I have of my mother, Mrs Asha Bhosle, is a fleeting montage of doorbells rung very late in the night, a sobbing woman hugging me back to sleep, the strains of strange, repetitive singing emanating from behind a closed door... I bang on the door wanting to go in but am roughly pulled away by a man when the music threatens to cease. Later, I learned that that was a routine day in the life of my father: guarding Aai against all impediments which may have prevented her from singing for their supper.”

At twenty-seven, with two children, Hemant and Varsha, and a third (Anand) on the way, Asha Bhosle walked away from a bad marriage. And with that, she lost her bungalow, car and savings.

Ganpatrao remarried in 1963. Even after he passed away in 1966, Asha continued to support his mother until the latter’s death four years later.

Asha returned to her embittered family in 1960, having established her place in the industry. Her reputation as a singer of cabaret songs had been squashed with “Nanhe Munne Bachche” in Boot Polish (1954). It was common at the time for singers to modulate their voices to match an actor’s pitch, age and tone. For this song, Asha sang in the voices of several children, a feat that required superlative voice control.

Between 1948 and 1956, Asha had sung over 800 songs, more than any singer of the time. She sang three to five songs every day. If it were a numbers’ game, Asha was far ahead of her peers. But it wasn’t, and she continued to struggle to get songs that would establish her versatility.

In 1956-57, music from the films CID and Naya Daur in quick succession gave Asha some much-needed sway. Her voice in the enduring ditty “Leke Pehla Pehla Pyaar” in CID alongside Mohammed Rafi and Shamshad Begum gave her a new lease. Composer OP Nayyar’s breezy style was perfectly suited to Asha’s voice and the collaboration became memorable both professionally and personally, but also gave rise to salacious gossip, arming critics with an excuse to question Asha’s merit.

Many film writers have dwelled on which of the music composers – OP Nayyar, SD Burman and RD Burman – gave wings to her career. But Asha attributes all the love she has received to her fans. In an interview to journalist Kavita Chibber, she said, "Whichever composer gave me work, it was because my voice was suited to his music at that point. No one musician did me any favour by asking me to sing for him."

In the 1950s, music was recorded live at one go. Singers didn’t have the luxury of many takes or splicing bits from different versions. After an entire morning of rehearsals to capture the composer’s vision, there was a final take with the musicians. It was imperative to get it right. Regardless of the gossip about Lata and Asha dominating the scene, calling in favours, blocking talent by refusing to work with composers who used new singers, the Mangeshkar sisters were incomparable when it came to "harkats (improvisation)" and conveying emotion in a song.

Asha’s first Filmfare award for Best Female Playback in 1968 for "Garibon ki Suno" (Dus Lakh) sealed her place as a singer to reckon with. Her low-pitched voice was no longer considered inferior. Asha became first choice with the more experimental composers. OP Nayyar was known for not favouring Lata as her high and thin voice was ill-suited to his compositions. SD Burman’s disagreements with Lata meant he had to rely on Asha, whose voice he had initially considered raw. Their magic in "Eena Meena Deeka" still brings fans to the dance floor.

On her part, with every song, Asha beat down the stereotypes forced on her. She worked hard on her Urdu diction when her Marathi–Hindi accent was pointed out as an impediment. She learned English when she had to sing "Ave Maria" in the UK. While other singers fretted over fee scales, long hours and unfair treatment, Asha tried to remedy the flaws, taking everything that came her way and giving it her best.

The tide turned in Asha’s favour with a change in the music scene in the seventies. Her voice became the only one that could capture the lilts required by the Western-influenced music that had become popular. By now she had also ended her association with OP Nayyar. It came as a shock that the creators of iconic songs like "Aaiye Meherbaan", "Yeh Hai Reshmi Zulfon Ka Andhera" and "Aao Huzoor Tumko" were done with each other professionally and otherwise. Bharatan writes that the breaking point of this tempestuous live-in relationship was Nayyar slapping her daughter. The last song that Asha sang for Nayyar, "Chain Se Humko Kabhi", has gone down in film music lore for being the only song to receive a Filmfare award despite not being featured in a movie.

The association that would change her life and the course of Hindi film music began when Asha started singing for SD Burman. While Lata did not record with the composer from 1957–62 because of differences between them, in that period Asha essayed memorable songs like "Ab Ke Baras" and "Raat Akeli Hai" with him. This was when she met RD again, at a rehearsal for the film Nau Do Gyarah. He was brought in to rehearse a song with Asha and she complained that she needed to rehearse the song with Kishore Kumar, not SD Burman’s "raw young son".

Asha says in an interview, "What I didn’t know then was that Pancham (RD) used to chip in to rehearse the singer only when the original tune idea was his, as obviously 'Aankhon Mein Kya Ji' was. Likewise, I recall Pancham coming in to rehearse me for Dada’s 'Teen Deviyan' duet with Kishore, 'Arre Yaar Meri Tum Bhi Ho Gazab'. However, when we were at such rehearsals, Pancham never let on that the tune was in fact his handiwork. But soon after, when I came to sing for Pancham in Pati Patni (a 1966 film that RD was scoring under his own name), I realised that the solo he wanted me to render, “Maar Dalega Dard-E-Jigar”, was like nothing I had ever heard before."

Talking to another film journalist about her relationship, she said, "For years, he’d send me flowers anonymously. One day the roses were delivered in the presence of (lyricist) Majrooh saab and Pancham. I said, 'Throw them away. Some fool keeps wasting his roses on me.' Pancham’s face fell. That’s when Majrooh saab laughed. 'It’s this fool who’s been sending you the roses.'"

With RD Burman, Asha had a mature partnership; both had been married before and this new relationship, which became a married partnership in 1980, was about companionship and music. RD is quoted as saying: "I did not marry Asha; I married her voice." It was not a marriage easily accepted in society. A mother of three marrying a younger man was unheard of.

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Asha’s penchant for living life openly without disguising her relationships extracted a heavy price. Perhaps it was for this reason that she accepted a marriage proposal – to put an end to wagging tongues. She says, "Music was the basic foundation of our marriage: We could listen to Bismillah Khan, the Beatles, Shirley Bassey...and so many more for hours and hours. Pancham would emerge from his shower in a lungi kurta at 9.30am and till 3pm we’d be humming together to the albums of John Coltrane, Earth, Wind and Fire, Sergio Mendes, Santana, the Rolling Stones, Blood Sweat and Tears, Chick Corea, Osibisa…oh so many. Our taste in music was eclectic, and that was our everlasting bond."

Their collaboration gave listeners classics like "Dum Maaro Dum", "Piya Tu Ab To Aaja", "Duniya Mein" and "Chura Liya Hai Tumne". Variation in word pronunciations and pace, the use of conversation, English words, and line and onomatopoeic sounds were all improvisations from the pioneering RD–Asha duo. Pancham brought in musical influences from electronic to jazz, and his compositions included Western, Latin, Oriental, Arabic and Bengali folk music influences. Musicians still refer to his use of unusual instruments, sound effects created by blowing air into half-filled beer bottles (in "Mehbooba Mehbooba") and drumming on a shirtless musician’s back for secondary percussion (in "Raat Gayi Baat Gayi").

However, as the film industry changed quickly and dramatically, Pancham was unable to adapt to its demands. In the eighties, disco as a music genre, which RD disliked, took over the industry. With the advent of the video cassette era, younger composers began relying on technology to churn out music at a furious pace while he struggled to stay relevant. His battles over issues of musical integrity, financial difficulties and health problems led to heavy drinking and depression. He joked that after his bypass surgery, he was bypassed for several projects. Pancham and Asha’s marriage spanned fourteen years but the couple had to deal with much speculation towards the end. It was a playful, creative and mature relationship even in its complexity, perhaps something the world misunderstood.

Asha was juggling work and two homes, one with Pancham and the other with her children living in her Peddar Road flat. She was a meticulous homemaker and Pancham would dread her cleaning sprees. On one birthday he gave her a broom wrapped in silver foil as a joke. Although towards the end the couple were reportedly estranged, she continued recording the songs he composed in the eighties for movies like Parinda, Ijaazat and 1942: A Love Story. He received a Filmfare award for the last of these, which released only after his death.

RD Burman died on 4 January 1994 after two heart attacks. Asha shared her grief in a public statement: "The world has lost a great music director but I have lost my husband. The world forgets everything but it’s difficult for me to forget." With his death, discussions over the absence of a will, the validity of their marriage and questions about inheritance flooded the news. She took them in her stride, never discussing her side of the story. When she exercised her rights over his music and assets, it was painted as a ruthless takeover. But his bank locker contained only a five-rupee note. To Pancham, this was perhaps his most precious legacy. Years later, a story emerged about Asha moving his mother into an old-age home, insinuating that this was because Pancham’s home was conveniently located near the school where Asha’s grandchildren were enrolled. However, these reports failed to mention that she took care of RD Burman’s mother for thirteen years after his death.

This was not the end of the singer’s trials. Her daughter Varsha Bhosle, battling depression for years, committed suicide on 8 October 2012. Three years later, her son Hemant Bhosle, who had cancer, passed away on 28 September 2015. Through it all, she continued to sing.

With her youngest son Anand in charge, she started touring and performing at live concerts. Asha Bhosle was now bigger than a studio, producer or movie. She had captured all the decades of music hardwired in the Indian milieu. Her fans requested Marathi, Hindi, Bengali film music as well as ghazals, devotional and cabaret songs from her; colliding music tastes combining in one grandmotherly figure: Asha.

She could easily have surfed along on this never-ending nostalgia but the genius of Asha lies in her pushing the envelope. She collaborated with Boy George and Stephen Lauscombe on the song "Bow Down Mister", hummed by every MTV-generation nineties’ kid, whether they knew Asha or not. RD Burman’s music was being remixed in clubs in Germany, England and America when the DJ era of music exploded. South Asian parties were incomplete without Asha’s voice rising like a phoenix in smoky disco clubs.

In 1997, British band Cornershop composed the song "A Brimful of Asha", later remixed by the English musician Fatboy Slim. Asha’s reaction to this adulation was, "My son Anand first heard that song in San Francisco and told me all about it. I was at the immigration counter at Heathrow Airport once and the young officer read the profession listed in my passport as singer. He was intrigued so I told him I was the Asha from 'Brimful of Asha', and he was so excited he left his post and called his friends over to meet me. So I guess at the very least that song helped me clear UK immigration faster than usual."

The founder and artistic director of Kronos Quartet David Harrington, with whom she collaborated in 2005, said, "The first time I met Asha ji, she had diamonds on and was dressed in the most beautiful sari I had ever seen, and she looked very regal. Then I looked down and saw the Queen of Bollywood was wearing tennis shoes. I thought, ‘I love this woman’."

Their album You’ve Stolen My Heart: Songs from RD Burman’s Bollywood was nominated for the Grammy Awards in 2006. Asha became a global phenomenon.

Even today, massive stadiums in the UK, the US and Australia fill up for her concerts. Her voice has floated right through the decades long after the movies she sang for are forgotten. She prevailed through the pre-Independence forties to the post-Independence fifties, the hippie seventies, the disco eighties, the jhankaar beats of the nineties, and the progressive, pop, rap, hip-hop fusions of the new millennium. Her list of accolades reads like an encyclopedic list – Nightingale of Asia (1987), Dadasaheb Phalke Award (2001), Padma Vibhushan (2008), BBC Lifetime Achievement Award (presented by the then UK Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2003), and the formidable Guinness Book of World Records acknowledging her as the most recorded artist in the history of music (2011).

With 11,000 and counting solo, duet and chorus-backed songs in over twenty Indian languages since 1947 and showing no signs of stopping even at age eighty-three, Asha Bhosle does what she thinks she’s good at. However, she continues to believe that her true talent lies in cooking. She has ten restaurants in her name in six countries featuring menus designed by her. She remains down-to-earth, not letting any of this overwhelm who she truly is or wants to be.

Asked by several interviewers what she would like to be remembered for, Asha simply says, "I want people to say she was a good woman."

[Excerpted with permissions of Juggernaut Books from Equal Halves: Famous Indian Wives, a collection of essays edited by Annie Zaidi, available on www.juggernaut.in]

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Sharon Fernandes Sharon Fernandes

Sharon Fernandes experiments with immersive storytelling and draws from her experience in interactive and game writing. She has worked with Man's World, Elle and BBC Travel, and is the author of '111 Places in New Delhi That You Must Not Miss'.

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