In conversation: The diva of playback singing speaks to Chitra Swaminathan about the highs and lows of her seven-decade long musical journey
Asha Bhosle heightens happiness, plumbs emotional depths, lends tenderness to love and sounds coquettish and ethereal in just a switch of a tune. With a whopping 12,000 songs to her credit, Guinness World Records has acknowledged her as the ‘most recorded artiste in the history of music’.
Folk, ghazal, classical, bhajan, pop…the high priestess of playback singing has given them all a unique makeover and resonance with her versatile and warm-as-cocoa vocals. Hers is a voice that embodies many emotions and brings out beautifully the persona of the character she croons for on screen.
Asha took to singing as a means of survival. Out of a bad marriage with a much-older Ganpatrao Bhosle, she had to fend for her three children. While elder sister Lata Mangeshkar was a star crooner, Asha struggled to get assignments. But with the 1957 release Naya Daur the dark clouds parted and O.P. Nayyar’s compositions such as ‘Maang ke saath tumhara’ and ‘Uden jab jab zulfen teri’ hurtled her into the big league. She was hailed as an Indi-pop icon when she hit the high note in ‘Piya tu ab to aaja’ from Caravan. The song also brought Asha close to its maverick-composer R.D. Burman, whom she went on to marry later. The stylistic songstress won a National award for her heartrending ghazals in Umrao Jaan, even as she made headlines globally for her musical outings with Boy George, Code Red, Michael Stipe, Kronos Quartet and cricketer Brett Lee.
On the cusp of 80, Asha continues her tryst with sur and taal as a judge on Indian Idol (Sony TV). She takes a break from her frenetic schedule for this telephone interview and urges the questions to be different. “I don’t like to sound like a worn out record,” she laughs.
From 1948 to 2012, you have been singing without a pause, recording for films and several private albums. How did you mould yourself to the demands of the changing times?
You can call it the story of the great survivor! I have lent my voice to a range of films — mythologicals, action-adventures, family dramas and romantic musicals. It’s challenging as much as it is exciting to adapt to different genres and composing styles. You cannot enter a studio and just start crooning before the mike. It is essential to understand the mind of the composer, mood of the song and meter of the tune.
You should make music directors trust your abilities by rising to their expectations and demands of the composition. When Khayyam offered Umrao Jaan to a ghazal novice like me, he must have been convinced I could do it. I was a Nayyar-staple because he found my voice complemented his music. I have loved working with Ilaiyaraaja. His dedication moves me. He notates the composition through the night and by early next morning is in the studio in crisp white clothes. Good music is about discipline too.
How easy is it to do things differently in formula-ridden Bollywood?
I was too naïve when I started out. It was hard to understand the workings of the industry. But rejection and ridicule pushed me to discover my individuality. I wanted success on my terms.
How much is a song about composition and how much is it about improvisation?
Before you hear the final version of a song now, it goes through many levels. Earlier, once the composer set the tune, it was the singer’s job to embellish it. Nayyar, Khayyam and Pancham were extremely benevolent when it came to freedom of expression.
When remixes were being condemned you came up with Rahul and I, a remix of Pancham’s numbers. You collaborated with international boy bands. Were all these a conscious effort to find acceptance with Gen Y?
One doesn’t have to make an effort to connect through music. It has the inherent power to bridge the divides of caste, culture and age. Anyway, you cannot forever hold on to the past. I have flaunted with pride the labels of a ‘trendsetter’ and a ‘non-conformist’. Songs for me are notes from the heart. There can be no technique or formula for creativity.
But it’s the musical gems of the past that are the mainstay of live shows and musical stores.
Undeniably! Even today when I am sitting in the studio I think Rafi and Kishore are somewhere around. The standards they and Latadi set are too high for anybody to reach. Lyrics then were not random words put together. They were meaningful poetic verses that conveyed the philosophy of life and love. Even if it was a westernised tune, music oozed melody.
Do you think reality shows are a good way to spot talent?
Even though I am a judge in one of the most popular shows I wonder how many of these winners actually become successful singers. There is no dearth of talent but music is about long-term commitment.
Besides gana, khana is the spice of your life and your restaurants Asha’s in West Asia are said to be a gourmet’s delight.
As with tunes, I love experimenting with flavours and ingredients. I find cooking de-stressing. But my knowledge is limited to Indian cuisine, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian, which is also the strength of Asha’s.
How have you not let age catch up with you?
Where is the time for it to catch up with me? You are as old as you think.