Asha and her two key collaborators

Asha Bhosle turns 83 today. Over the last two decades, the appeal of her voice has reached the zenith it truly deserves, thanks to her endeavours to re-create and re-present many of her older songs, especially those sung for R.D. Burman. However, in celebrating her achievements, we somewhat overlook her long, continual struggle in the Bombay film industry to come out of the shadows of her more illustrious elder sister, Lata Mangeshkar. We fail to appreciate that statistics notwithstanding -- Asha-ji has sung many more songs than her sister -- she was treated for a long time, by most music composers, as a stand-in for Lata. She had to be content being a poor man’s Lata, except when needed for songs filled with razzmatazz. One reason for that was that her voice was found wanting, especially when requiring a higher pitch.

Veteran journalist Raju Bharatan’s magisterial chronicling of Asha’s struggles and evolution in the form of Asha Bhosle: A Musical Biography hence, gives a welcome look into her early years. Coming as it does from an authoritative voice -- Bharatan has not just witnessed the rise and rise of Asha-ji over the decades, he has even sat through many of her recordings -- it serves as a guide for rookie film buffs and writers who want to know more about her early days.

Bharatan, though he attempts to divide the book into a detailing of Asha-ji’s association with three music directors — O.P. Nayyar, S.D. Burman and R.D. Burman — throws more light on her creative partnership with the first of the three. The other two musical journeys — especially that of Asha with R.D. Burman — has been quite extensively documented.

Starting from the early 50s, if there was one composer who understood the limitations in Asha-ji’s voice and brought the best out of her within her reach, it was O.P. Nayyar. Bharatan is quite emphatic in stating that no composer, not even perhaps R.D. Burman for whom Lata-ji was the choice for many of the best songs, has played a greater role in giving Asha-ji’s voice her unique identity. For, Nayyar never worked with Lata-ji ever in his career. Asha-ji remained his primary muse for a long time, till their parting of ways in the early 70s.

To quote Bharatan, Asha-ji sang 324 songs in the 60 films in which she collaborated with Nayyar, an average of more than five songs per movie. Many of them were solos, soft romantic numbers that required her to keep her voice low. I have listed five of those solos:

a) >Aankhon se jo utri hai dil mein -- Phir Wohi Dil Laaya Hoon (1963)

One delicious element in this song is the stretching of the phrase kya baaaaat hai at the end of the mukhda. Nasir Hussain, the director, had also collaborated with Nayyar earlier in Tumsa Nahin Dekha.

b) >Aaj Koi Pyaar Se -- Sawan Ki Ghata (1966):

Zaraa haule-haule chalo from this album is more popular. However, the creative use of tabla makes this song equally hummable. This music is somewhat reminiscent of Kashmir Ki Kali’s soundtrack.

c) >Yehi Vo Jagah Hai -- Ye Raat Phir Na Aayegi (1966):

Nayyar compensates for Asha’s inability to achieve the Lata-like Aayega Aayega or Naina Barse depth by bringing in echo effect in this song picturised on Sharmila Tagore. Contrast this with the joyful Mohabbat Cheez Hai Kya solo from the same album to sample the versatility in Asha-ji’s voice within her limited range.

d) >Aao Huzoor Tumko -- Kismat (1968):

A dejected lover, inebriated and in a mood to sing some easily-relatable Urdu poetry. Made for a perfect setting for an Asha number.

e) >Chain Se Humko Kabhi -- Pran Jaaye Par Vachan Na Jaaye (1974):

A slow song whose lyrics signal dejection, despondency and inability to come to terms with the present. Bharatan accords special place to this number in his book -- it marked the culmination of her love-hate relationship with Nayyar, who had used her but also shaped her. She went on to scale greater heights but it was the beginning of the end for Nayyar.

The song has trivia value as well as it won Asha-ji a Filmfare award in 1974, without actually having been used in the movie.

Asha and Pancham: The soulmates:

With Teesri Manzil, R.D. Burman announced his presence in the industry, a full five years after debuting with Chhote Nawab. And he did it without taking help from Lata-ji. And though he was to reserve his most challenging work for the elder Mangeshkar, Asha-ji was his go-to singer for giving expression to the radical elements of his music.

Bharatan says in his book that Asha-ji sang a total of 840 songs from 287 films for R.D. Burman. Their personal and professional camaraderie extended to Pancham choosing Asha’s voice exclusively for some of his albums. These were the ones where he preferred Asha-ji as the sole singer, no other singer taken either male or female. I’ve listed five songs from five such albums:

a) >Haye Re Na Maaro -- Garam Masala (1972):

As told by Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Balaji Vittal in their terrific piece of writing in R.D. Burman: The Man, The Music — a book that I feel gives the best example of how to achieve depth while writing on popular Hindi film music -- this song is written for a situation of loss for the heroine. Someone close to her is being whipped, she has to express pain. However, the pain is presented with a certain style. Hence, even while she says Na Maaro, she says it with panache. The Maaro Na Re Maaro Na Re stretch where the heroine jazzes up even her melancholy, is the highlight of the song.

b) >Humne Kabhi Socha Nahin -- Jeevan Mukt (1977):

Another album where Asha-ji sang all four songs. Conveys the joie de vivre of some of her early-day numbers.

c) >Pucho Nahin Dil Meraa -- Qayamat (1983):

A routine action movie from the big bad 80s. The lyrics have little to write home about but the way the background instrumentation gels with Asha-ji’s vocals make the song passable.

d) >Koi Diya Jale Kahin -- Dil Padosi Hai (!987):

The non-film album was released this day in 1987, on the occasion of Asha-ji’s birthday. It had a total of 12 songs, some of them re-creation of Pancham’s Bangla songs. This track uses the theme motif of Saagar with a synthesis of tabla, guitar, saxophone and other instruments.

The lyrics but Gulzar convey the call of a distant unknown lover, someone who it is impossible to see, let alone meet in a lifetime. The individual gives false hopes and vanishes. The person this side is left with impressions created by lonely summers, filled with empty days and nights borne out of the dry branches of a weak tree. Still a lamp of light flickers in the distant horizon. This song has the spirit of Vaqt Se Pare Agar Mil Gaye Kahin (If We Ever Get To Meet Beyond The Reaches Of Time) from Kinara

e) >Mera Kuch Saamaan - Ijaazat (1987):

The Gulzar-Pancham-Asha trio at their creative peak with Asha-ji singing all four songs. A ruminating Maya (Anuradha Patel) demanding her memories, her moments, her share of the time spent with Mahendar (Naseeruddin Shah) back. Ijaazat came at a time when Pancham’s albums were flopping by the dozen and he was in desperate need for some tangible success. The album did becoming iconic, but after his death and resurrection on online forums and portals.

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