India’s singing superstar Asha Bhosle is 90. Could this be a statement of her age? With a voice that belies it, and a spirit so young, Asha Bhosle 90 is more a statement of the age of all her listeners. We have been listening to her for three decades or over six decades is an indication of how years have added to our lives, and yet, we continue to listen to her.
She sang for a new film, Hari-Om; recently President Draupadi Murmu requested her to sing at a public event. Asha was also at a dance reality show telling all those present how she loved dancing, and that she was a fan of the American dancer Fred Astaire and also did a few Hrithik Roshan steps. She will next be seen on the stage on September 8 (the day she turns 90) in Dubai.
It is hard to capture Asha’s brilliance in a single word. In a British Film Institute documentary Asha (1986, Neville Bolt), even the extremely articulate actor Smita Patil struggles to define her music. She likens her to a goddess who assumes several forms. Asha smoothly floats through several genres of music — from cabaret and romantic to semi-classical and folk.
In a moving essay, Saturday’s Child, Asha’s daughter Varsha finds that one word to describe her mother. “If I could sum up my mother in one word, it would have to be zidd. The more formidable the task, the harder she applies herself to it.”
Collaboration with a pop group
Varsha recalls how she collaborated with the pop-group, The West India Company, which involved interacting with British musicians and technicians. Asha, who had never been to school and couldn’t stitch together a single line in English, woke up early every morning and learnt Spoken English from cassettes. Her song ‘Ave Maria’ as part of this project with the English singer Boy George, topped the charts, she also addressed the British Press with panache. Asha believes in relentless riyaz and hence, most casually, as if it were a norm, she had once said in an interview: “Eight to ten hours are a must.”
Asha and her sisters were groomed solidly in classical music by their legendary father Pt. Dinanath Mangeshkar. Closely associated with the Marathi company theatre, his four daughters listened to some of the greatest masters. Waking up at four in the morning, singing ‘omkar’ with the tanpura for 30 minutes, practicing simple to complex sargams in raag Bilaval, meditating in mandra saptak before moving on to other intense forms of riyaz after sunrise — Asha has done it all.
Focus on riyaz
Having married at the age of 16, she had to do household chores and being a struggling singer, she spent long hours in the studio, yet did not give up on her riyaz. It is easy to put Asha’s versatile musical prowess as talent, but by her own admission, it is grueling work.
In an era that was dominated by popular voices and diverse styles, Asha was determined to find her own space. She listened to western musicians, and was deeply impacted by the western classics she watched. If people called her the queen of cabaret songs, it is because she consciously honed herself in this genre. She wanted to be distinct, not just a sweet voice. With over 10,000 songs to her credit, there are many that haunt you.
Ghazal maestro Ghulam Ali brought out an album Meraj-e-Ghazal in the 1980s with ten ghazals composed by him. Ghulam Ali’s singing is hard to match, considering how his voice can bring to form every contour of his unusual imagination. His ghazals followed the khayal gayaki style. He got Asha to sing with him for this album, which took connoisseurs by storm.
The restraint and sophistication of her singing is evident in ‘Gaye dinon ka suragh lekar’, full of delicate and intricate murkhis.
This is exactly the case with every genre she sings. Her rendition of ‘Yuwati mana’ from Manapman, a 1911 Marathi play, which had both Bal Gandharva and Pt. Dinanath Mangeshkar, is exquisite. The song set to raag Hamsadhwani has complex taans and improvisations.
Asha’s rendition of the natyasangeet, ‘Shura mi vandile’ and ‘Chandrika hi jhanu’ shows her grip over the classical idiom. The way she switches raags and works on different interpretations prove her vocal dexterity.
Bhavgeets such as ‘Ritu hirwa’, ‘Phoolale re kshana majhe’ (music by Sridhar Phadke) have a subtlety and energy that is so distinct to this genre. Asha is very careful not to bring the idiom of one form to the other. A song that has attained a cult status is ‘Jivalagha’ (written by Shantabai Shelke and composed by Pt. Hridayanath Mangeshkar) set to raag Puryadhanashri.
It brims with emotion. A slow-paced composition, it begins in the upper octave, and traverses sharply between the middle and higher realms. Salil Choudhry penned this song in Bengali and Asha sang that too, ‘Jiban gaan gaahi ki je’. The bhajan ‘Tan to mandir hai’ and ‘Ek mantra japte raho’ (music by Nadeem Shravan), the abhang ‘Vithu maza lekurvala’, ‘Pandurang kanti divya tej khalakati’… the list is endless.
The world celebrates Asha for those innumerable film numbers, but her music is a product of deep thought. An extremely astute mind, she made sure her life is a balance of the popular and the classical.