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An indefatigable Asha

Mar 10, 2024 07:46 AM IST

At 90, Asha Bhosle continues to captivate audiences with her timeless songs, crossing cultures and generations. A musical icon, she remains India's biggest sensation.

MUMBAI: Asha Bhosle is a song on the nation’s lips. Ninety she is, but for the ‘Chura liya hai tumne joh dil ko’ girl age is mere numbers.

Asha Bhosle performance during India`s biggest concert Asha @90 who phir Nahi Aate at Jio garden at BKC in Mumbai. (Raju Shinde/HT Photo)
Asha Bhosle performance during India`s biggest concert Asha @90 who phir Nahi Aate at Jio garden at BKC in Mumbai. (Raju Shinde/HT Photo)

Last week Bhosle sang, impromptu and minus accompanists (which for vocalists is a tough task), ‘Abhi naa jaao chhodkar’, the heart-achingly beautiful ‘Hum Dono’ duet, for Amit Shah after the union home minister, who took time off prolonged political parleys, to release a compilation of her rare photographs at an exclusive do held in Mumbai.

On Saturday, Bhosle, vivacious as ever, performed at a concert at Jio World Garden, BKC, leaving none in doubt that she is India’s biggest music sensation. Period.

Crossing cultures

Bhosle has enthralled five generations of India, cutting a swathe across communities, creeds and cultures, and teaming up with five generations of composers with refreshingly diverse socio-cultural credentials: Naushad Ali and A R Rahman, Hansraj Behl and Hridayanath Mangeshkar, Ravi and Rajesh Roshan, Khayyam and Kalyanji-Anandji, Iqbal Qureshi and Ilayaraja.

Connoisseurs say Bhosle’s oeuvre is incredible, her vocal range, unimaginable. While purists swear by her vintage numbers such as ‘Tang aa chuke hain kashm-e-kash-e-zindagi sey hum’ (‘Light House’) and ‘Ab ke baras bhej bhaiyya koh babul’, the feather-soft ‘Bandini’ song, the post-globalisation generation continues to sway to ‘Yaai re, yaai re, zor lagaa ke naache re’, the feet-tapping duet (with Udit Narayan) from ‘Rangeela’, the 1995 flick.

Still others recall the soul-stirring ghazals she sang for Jaidev and Khayyam. Or her pop numbers. Or her sonorous Marathi ‘natya pad’ laced with dazzling ‘taans’ or her Marathi, Bengali and Gujarati songs. “Asha-ji sounds ‘sau takka’ (hundred per cent) Gujarati when she sings a Gujarati ‘garba’. Her diction is impeccable,” said Lina Engineer, a school teacher.

“Ashatai can sing ‘Jhumka gira re’ (‘Mera Saya’) and ‘Mera kuchch samaan tumhare paas pada hai’ (‘Ijaazat’) with equal ease. For all you know she may have recorded a bhajan, a sad song, a lullaby and a ghazal, all in a single day,” she added.

Early challenges

However, heady success was preceded by hard struggle. Weaned on classical music, Bhosle took a cue from her sister Lata and sang in ‘Maajha Baal’, a Marathi film when she was a toddler.

Bhosle’s ties with the Mangeshkar clan were strained after she married, at age 16, Ganpatrao Bhosale, a transport operator, and moved to a two-room tenement in Borivli, then an idyllic suburb.

Years later, Bhosle was pleasantly surprised when she received a ‘happy birthday’ card from the Borivli maternity where Hemant was born in 1949. The card reminded her that her first born had turned 16. Bhosle promptly called on the ageing doctor who headed the maternity home.

She often reminisces how she would do the morning chores—filling water, cooking and washing clothes—and leave for work, travelling by tram or train, hopping from one studio to another in search of a song which brought her 100 at the end of the day. Ganpatrao and she would often eat ‘rice plate’, a modestly priced ‘thaali’, at an eatery near Kabutarkhana, Dadar, in central Mumbai.

While Lata, Geeta Dutt and Shamshad Begum took away a larger chunk of cut-glass film ditties, Bhosle had to do with dance numbers for, say, Minoo Mumtaz or Helen, and set to tune by talented, but lesser known composers such as Shardul Kwatra, Sajjad Hussain and Lachchiram.

“One shouldn’t forget that Bhosle’s mujra and cabaret numbers have stood her in good stead. First, they kept her going in a fiercely competitive world of cinema. Second, she carved her own identity over a period of time,” said Hindi film music buff Prakash Joshi.

“By giving voice to vamps, the so-called ‘fallen’ woman, Bhosle blended oomph with grit to offer a counter-point to the film’s female protagonist, who was supposed to uphold patriarchal values. This was much before women’s empowerment came into vogue,” Joshi pointed out.

Stating that Bhosle’s bubbly romantic numbers — ‘Yeh hai reshami zulfon kaa andhera naa ghabraieeye’ (‘Mere Sanam’) and ‘Baag mein kali khili’ (‘Chand Aur Suraj’) — de-mystified love and made the laity feel that it was accessible to them, Joshi said, “Ashatai made seduction look respectable.”

Striking the right chord

Trade pundits said O P Nayyar and S D Burman put Bhosle’s fledgeling career on a firm footing in the 1950s. Burman didn’t think twice before opting for Bhosle after Lata stopped singing for him following a tiff over the re-take of a song.

Burman saddled Bhosle with timeless duets: ‘Achcha jee main haari’ (‘Kala Pani’), ‘Chchod do aanchal zamana kya kahega’ (‘Paying Guest’), ‘Haal kaisa hai janaab ka’ and ‘Paanch rupaiyya baara aana’ (both from ‘Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi’), to name a few.

However, it was Nayyar who brought Bhosle into mainstream cinema, offering her songs for Madhubala, Vyjayantimala, Sadhana, Mala Sinha and Sharmila Tagore, and helping her create her own style distinct from her illustrious sister.

“My songs needed a focussed voice. Although a great singer, Mangeshkar’s voice was a tad too thin for my kind of compositions, while Ashaji’s voice oozed certain raw energy,” Nayyar had once told this correspondent.

Nayyar chose Bhosle over Geeta Dutt and Shamshad Begum, his favourite singers in earlier times. Ravi and N Dutta too have contributed to Bhosle’s popularity with their scintillating numbers.

For Bhosle Nayyar crafted a slew of melodies: ‘Maang key saath tumhara’, ‘Zara holle holle chalo more sajana’, ‘Yehi woh jagah hai’, ‘Main shayad tumhaare liye ajnabi hoon’, ‘Chhotasa balama ankhiyan neend churay le gayo’, ‘Jaayiye aap kahaan jaayenge’ and ‘Koiee kaha de zamaane se jaake’.

The Nayyar-Bhosle alliance, which was as creative as it was chaotic, ended in 1972. ‘Chain sey hum ko kabhi aap ne jeene naa diya’, Nayyar’s gem from ‘Pran Jaaye Par Vachan Na Jaaye’, is seen as an epitaph to a great era and a failed relationship.

However, Bhosle buried the past and geared herself up for the sizzling 1970s which she knew belonged to her and R D Burman. ‘Teesri Manzil’ altered the concept of film music. Not that RD junked the good, old melody— he tweaked it a bit, introducing fresh musical phrases and sounds, and blending Indian ‘raagdaari’ with Blues and Bossa Nova, while dovetailing robust African beats with the traditional Urdu dholak. Bhosle lost no time in upgrading her vocal skills to keep pace with the changing times and technology.

Not that she was unknown to western music. She sang ‘Eena Meena Deeka’ with the inimitable Kishore Kumar for ‘Asha’ (1957). Experts say the song marks the debut of Rock-n-Roll into Hindi cinema.

Said Joshi, “Ashatai adapted herself to the fast-changing pattern of Hindi film music. Her humming skills are exceptionally good. For example, in ‘Pyaar par bas toh nahin’, the Asha-Talat duet from ‘Sone Ki Chidiya’, her humming enhances the song’s beauty. In some of R D’s songs she sounds like a soprano, holding the high pitch ‘sur’ with restraint and strength.”

Bhosle’s ‘Dum maro dum’, which gave, so goes the story, Dev Anand a few sleepless nights as he feared a stern rebuke from the censor board, became a rage as it celebrated the angst of young India.

“The ‘Jawani Diwani’, ‘Caravan’ and ‘Yaadon Ki Baraat’ songs, for instance, show that under RD’s baton Ashatai’s voice began to wear psychedelic colours. Both teamed up to give filmdom a modern song, unencumbered by the black-and-white era,” said theatre person Vishwas Sohoni, an ardent Bhosle admirer.

Gulzar, RD and Bhosle created an entirely new idiom which while retaining its link with ‘raagdari’ felt bold to take an unorthodox view of popular music. “‘Mera kuchh samaan tumhare paas pada hai’ (‘Ijaazat’) and ‘Bechara dil kyaa kare’ (‘Khushboo’) are the best examples of the troika’s urge to employ music as means of communication within cinema’s framework, minus glamour and glitz,” he added.

After Umrao Jaan

A brief lull in RD’s career in the 1980s might have left Bhosle worried. However, cineastes say ‘Umrao Jaan’, Muzaffar Ali’s 1981 classic, came to her rescue. Bhosle bagged the national award for her evocative ghazals set to tune by Khayyam.

Joshi recalled how the maestro requested Bhosle to whittle down her pitch by a note or two to enhance the lingering effect of ghazals. “Although initially hesitant, the singer acquiesced and look what great songs she gave us,” Joshi said.

After ‘Umrao Jaan’ there was no looking back for the diva. She did private albums and went globe-trotting, and staged concerts in US, Canada, UK and Dubai. In the early 1990s she teamed up with Boy George and Stephen Lauscombe; she has had the distinction of being one of the few Indian artists to have been nominated at the Grammy Awards. ‘Brimful Of Asha’, the British band Cornershop’s tribute to the celebrated singer, became an international hit. She collaborated with Ustad Ali Akbar Khan for ‘Legacy’, a private album which brought them the Grammy nomination. Bhosle turned entrepreneur and set up ‘Asha’s’, a chain of restaurants, in Dubai, Kuwait, Doha, Bahrain and Abu Dhabi. Many such restaurants are likely to open in parts of Europe.

Awards and accolades

Bhosle may have been loaded with honours and titles—Padma Vibhushan; the Dadasaheb Phalke award; the Madhya Pradesh government’s Lata Mangeshkar award; the Maharashtra Bhushan award and the BBC Lifetime award, among many others. However, she still thinks that the film world treated her as someone who has finished second. “The world remembers Neil Armstrong who was the first human to reach the moon. But there was pilot Buzz Aldrin as well. Noone remembers him,” Bhosle once exclaimed at a public event.

Adversity and personal bereavements have hardly dimmed Bhosle’s lust for life and music. “Ashatai knows that life is unpredictable and that fame is transitory. She takes each day as it comes,” said Prasad Mahadkar, who heads a music group and has a good rapport with Bhosle. A sensational cook, Bhosle, although a frugal eater herself, loves to feed friends, artists and her grandchildren, he added.

“Ashatai makes great ‘paya’ soup and machchi biryani. Even ‘poha’ tastes yummy if made by her,” said Mahadkar.

A year before Covid19 Bhosle developed a cyst in her right eye. Medication hardly helped and the singer was wary of operation. One fine morning Mahadkar took her to the state-run J Hospital. Noted opthalmologist Dr Tatyarao Lahane advised her to go under the knife without further delay.

“Ashatai agreed and as Dr Lahane began to scan his diary for a suitable date, she said the surgery should be done ‘atta aani ithe’ (here and now). A rebel in the true sense of the term, she lives by her own rules, and races ahead leaving the world behind her,” he added.

Hasn’t the legendary vocalist said this in one of her favourite songs? ‘Main toh aage badh gayee, peechhe zamana rah gaya…’

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