When Asha Bhosle announced on July 31 that she was launching an online singing talent hunt show, she set the prize money at Rs one lakh. Moved by the five performances in the finale that was streamed live on her Facebook page on September 27, Bhosle gave an additional Rs 25,000 to each of the runners-up of Asha Ki Asha,
“No one should go home empty-handed,” the 87-year-old singing legend told the finalists who addressed her as aai – mother in Marathi. “I will probably do a second season as well.”
The roughly 2,500 singers who sent entries to Asha Ki Asha, Bhosle estimated, were not older than 25. The youngest contestant in the finale was Shravani Wagle, aged 11.
Bhosle asked all contestants to sing without a pre-recorded backing track. “Even when I record in the studio, when they play back the song to me with all the instruments, I ask them to only play my raw voice,” Bhosle explained to Scroll.in. “Machines can fix a voice, but can they give emotion?”
Bhosle came off as generous and nurturing towards the young singers in the finale. “You are very sad, you have pain in your voice,” she told Amaan Khan after he rendered the Mohammed Rafi song Aap Ke Pehlu Mein from Mera Saaya (1966). Khan was adjudged the winner by Bhosle and co-judge Shankar Mahadevan. His take on Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s Sun Charkhe Di Mithi Mithi was also praised.
Bhosle launched her YouTube channel in May, on the insistence of granddaughter Zanai Bhosle, who is also a singer. The channel has since become a repository of anecdotes and memories across a career that spans close to seven decades. It has well over 1.6 lakh subscribers and counting.
Although Bhosle has released new original songs on her channel, the tunes that made her a hugely popular playback singer are missing. Associations such as the Indian Performing Right Society are fighting for the rights of singers, Bhosle said, but these things take time.
“In those days we were emotional,” she observed. “We only worked and did not know what royalty was. We were taken advantage of by, what do you call them, businessmen. Only later did we realise they ate up our money.”
Recognised as the most recorded artist of all time by the Guinness Book of World Records, Bhosle has been a central figure in the history of Hindi film music since the 1950s. Her work with OP Nayyar and RD Burman was particularly stellar.
“Whoever’s trained to some degree in classical music should be able to sing any kind of song,” Bhosle said. She was just as adept at “hotel ka gaana”, like the siren songs and vamp anthems she was famous for, as she was with “mandir ka gaana”, she added.
Examples of the latter type of song include the bhajan Tora Mann Darpan Kehlaye from Kaajal (1965). The courtesan’s ghazals Bhosle sang for the Rekha-starrer Umrao Jaan (1981) won her her first National Film Award for Best Female Playback Singer.
For the Kaajal song, she said, she “became” Meena Kumari, who lips-syncs onscreen. For Umrao Jaan, she “became Umrao Jaan”.
Bhosle explained, “Earlier, heroines would come to the studio and sit with us during recordings, noting our singing and the changes in the tune, while we remarked on how they looked and would appear in the film, so we worked our voices as per the actor’s image.”
Among her greatest hits is the Hare Rama Hare Krishna song Dum Maaro Dum, probably the first in Hindi films to celebrate the consumption of marijuana. Today, the Hindi film industry faces an inquisition for allegedly consuming drugs. In the crosshairs of the Narcotics Control Bureau is Deepika Padukone, the face of the song’s remix from the 2011 film of the same name.
“Youngsters loved Dum Maaro Dum,” Bhosle recalled. “I remember we had gone to a show with my children. All the older composers, like Madan Mohan, Shankar-Jaikishan, Kalyanji-Anandji, were performing. But when Pancham [RD Burman] came and began with Dum Maaro Dum, nearly a lakh people stood up and started clapping. They said, this is our song. Even today, it is their song.”
Bhosle’s career slowed down in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when disco and other forms of synthesised music ruled the charts. The composers for whom she and her sister, Lata Mangeshkar, frequently sang had either died or were semi-retired.
Bhosle bounced back with the phenomenal success of AR Rahman’s soundtrack for Rangeela (1995). She went on to sing through the next 25 years with new composers such as Anu Malik, Sandeep Chowta and Lesle Lewis.
Bhosle pointed out how her studio experiments gave Chowta’s grimy Khallas (Company, 2002) its sassitude. Bhosle’s usual singing style would turn her inflection following “khallas” in the hook into an alaap, but the slightly nasal and contorted edge she brought to her voice did the trick.
Bhosle was among the handful of singers who had a monopoly on playback singing for a good 30 years. The success rate wasn’t as great in hindsight, she observed.
“If we sang 1,000 songs back then, a hundred would work, while now whoever feels like it releases something online and it’s immediately a hit,” Bhosle said. “Then, songs would come and go or become popular, but the public wouldn’t know who sang or how we looked. We became somewhat known only after magazines and television.”
Among the stalwarts she worked with was SP Balasubrahmanyam, who died on September 25. Bhosle often sang with Balasubrahmanyam in the 1980s and early 1990s. Of particular note are their duets from the RD Burman-composed Gardish (1993).
“We sang many songs in Hindi, Bengali and Tamil,” Bhosle recalled. “Whenever I was stuck somewhere while singing in Tamil, he [Balasubrahmanyam] graciously explained to me. He was a very good man who never tried to one-up his co-artist.”