A Life Well Lived: Singer Asha Bhosle

Asha Bhosle brings in her 87th birthday with grandchildren Zanai and Ranjai at their Lonavala home.

As a child, Asha Bhosle used to sing the songs she learnt from her father Pandit Deenanath Mangeshkar in the loudest voice possible. When her sister Lata Mangeshkar asked Asha why she was singing so loudly, she would reply cheekily that it was because she wanted it to reach Mangeshkar’s ears.

Bhosle, the ubiquitous voice of the vamp in playback singing, albeit one with a gajra and a silk sari, has lent her ageless voice a times to frenzied dancing sirens and vamps. She has sung in the voices of several children in “Nanhe Munhe Bache” (in the film “Boot Polish”), a feat yet to be equalled. She spun off new trends with songs like “Leke Pehla Pehla Pyaar” (“CID”) with Mohammed Rafi and Shamshad Begum, “O Mere Sona Re” (“Teesri Manzil”), “In Ankhon Ki Masti” (“Umrao Jaan”), “Mera Kuchh Saaman” (“Ijaazat”) and “Dum Maro Dum” (“Hare Rama Hare Krishna”).

Bhosle kept breaking the mold even early in her career, singing about 800 songs between 1948 and 1956, sometimes at the rate of three to five songs a day. Film composers gave her work because they concluded that only her voice had the variety and range to give their music its due. As a result her songs have found their way into more than a thousand Indian films.

In a career spanning nearly eight decades, Bhosle has sung in more than 20 Indian and foreign languages, her repertoire including film music, pop, ghazals, bhajans, traditional Indian classical music, folk, qawwali and Rabindra sangeet.

After lending her voice to over 12,000 songs, the Guinness Book of Records has officially acknowledged her as the most recorded artist in the history of music, and won the BBC Lifetime Achievement Award. 

Her music has earned her many national awards, including the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second-highest civilian award.

As we speak with her, she was still reliving the experience of having the fruit cake with dry fruits she relishes every year on her birthday. At the same time, she was dishing out recipes for her restaurant chefs to watch on video and follow.

Bhosle, at 87, retains the ebullience and effervescence of a 14-year-old. Ask her about her evergreen voice, and she attributes it to riyaaz (practice). She often breaks out in song, or effortless laughter that resonates in the room. Her humor is something that violinist David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet recalls. 

Courtesy of Siddhant Gill

The then 83-year-old Bhosle, after delivering a particularly sexy turn of phrase during the recording, winked at him and said, “Not bad for a grandma, eh?” 

Harrington described her in effusive terms: 

“She wore diamonds, was regal in her sari, and was wearing tennis shoes. I simply love her.” Their album, “You’ve Stolen My Heart: Songs from RD Burman’s Bollywood,” was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2005.

The pandemic has been an eyeopener for Bhosle, who seems to have used it to find a new facet to her personality.

“During the pandemic, I have actually turned hairstylist, makeup woman and designer, besides being a performer in my videos for YouTube, giving life to AshaKiAsha [a talent hunt she manages online]. The videos are strong in content with minimal lighting. I have also composed several tunes, but haven’t penned the lyrics. I would like [lyricists] Javed Akhtar or Prasoon Joshi to do that.”

The chef is another avatar.

“I have cooked, celebrating my birthday with my family, including my grandchildren, thanks to everyone being at home because of the pandemic. I have cooked amazing dishes. These days have been, in fact, quite eventful,” she said.

Her quick, yet graceful shifts from subject, from singing to cooking up a family dinner, makes everything look effortless. But despite the many successes, it was never an easy road for Bhosle. 

When 16, she married Ganpatrao Bhosle, 31, against her family’s wishes, alienating her sister. Bhosle became a single parent with two children when she was 27, losing a husband, a house and her savings in the process. Her husband remarried thereafter.

Asha Bhosle with her late husband Rahul Dev Burman. June 27 marks his birth anniversary and in his memory she talks about one of his iconic songs, Dum Maro Dum, on Asha Bhosle Official on YouTube.

The auguries were bad for a woman abandoned by her husband in what was then a very conservative culture. She still managed to rewrite history with her resilience and  versatility.

Bhosle consciously relied on her unique signature style, despite being known as Lata’s younger sister. She maintained her privacy during that tumultuous time, not letting comparisons with her more famous sister get her down.

Gulzar probably defined Bhosle’s success best when he compared Mangeshkar and Bhosle to Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin. He said just as Neil Armstrong would always be known as the first man to set foot on the moon, Bhosle,  who followed Lata would always be viewed as the younger sister and be compared accordingly.

So yes, life has not been kind to her. The untimely deaths of her muse-friend-spouse RD Burman, with whom she put together many musical classics, and then her two children, Varsha and Hemant, were heart-wrenching. Bhosle also took care of Burman’s mother for 13 years after his death. But then, even after her first husband left her, she had still supported his mother until her death four years later.

As Varsha Bhosle herself had written, it was her mother’s zidd [stubborness] that kept her going even in the bleakest of times. But life, to the singer of “Mud Mud Ke Na Dekh” [“Don’t Look Back”] heads only in one direction: forward.

When she was 79, Bhosle made her debut as an actor, playing the protagonist in the film “Mai,” In it, she was a 65-year-old suffering from Alzheimer’s disease but is abandoned by her children. 

At 87, Bhosle is in fine fettle. She can still manoeuvre a three-octave scale for a young actress with ease 

She also has no complaints if life – or the greengrocer – gives her lemons. If she makes a success of the first, with the second she makes lemonade, lemon achar, and, well, goes on to open her own restaurant chain.

In fact, even in the darkest hour, in the months after her daughter took her own life, Bhosle sought some glimmer of light by touring the world, with her youngest son Anand in charge. She also collaborated with world musicians, including keyboardist Stephen Luscombe, songwriter and keyboardist Vince Clarke, percussionist Pandit Dinesh, and Boy George (in “Bow Down Mister”). Her immortal melodies with RD Burman became and still are explosive numbers of the DJ circuit. British band Corner Shop, in fact, composed “A Brimful of Asha” inspired by her and remixed by Fatboy Slim.

Subhalakshmi Khan, Asha Bhosle and Ustad Amjad Ali Khan at the Master Deenanath Mangeshkar Smruti
Pratishthan Awards

Music has been her savior in many crises.

“Music is my life,” she said simply. “When I step onto the stage and perform, everything else vanishes – even pain, illness or sadness. Music encompasses me.”

It also shaped her values.

“My father, Pandit Deenanath Mangeshkar’s songs taught me to be honest and unpretentious, and that is reflected in my music. Kishoreda [legendary Indian singer Kishore Kumar] inspired me the most. Listening to his songs, watching him perform and the way he infused life in his songs – that was something only Kishoreda could do. There can be no other like him,” says Asha with a faraway look in her eyes.

Speak to her of the era of remixes and quick fixes, and a flash of anger crosses her eyes.

“The energy, effort and dedication during our time has made our music transcend generations,” Bhosle said. “We used to focus on ‘good’ music. There was camaraderie. For a three-minute song, we used to stand for an entire day and used to enjoy the experience as well. There were no machines to do our job. Machines can fix a song sung in parts, but it cannot give it expression, change in tonality. When I sing a line, I sing from my heart. That is something a machine cannot do. Life can be breathed into a song only by those who are alive, not by a lifeless machine,” she says, adding that there can be only one Kishoreda, and there can be only one Latadi.

“If I am ever asked to sing her song, I would probably attempt a chirpy number, but would never touch her classics,” Bhosle said, alluding to her respect for her sister. “They say fools go where the angels fear to tread. Remixes are like that.”

She continued: “Technology has progressed, but the soul is lost. You cannot even identify the singer when you listen to songs today. My favourite music choices are Mehdi Hassan, Pandit Jasraj and Bhimsen Joshi, among others.”

The right words were what imbued the composition with meaning, Bhosle stressed.

“Lyrics are very important in a classical song,” she said. “You can play with alaaps [the melodic introduction to the raga], but in others, the lyrics have to move you. The standards set by lyricists and composers of earlier times are very high. That is why they are classics!”

Back in the present, Bhosle said she has a lot to look forward to.

“I have been blessed that my voice has transcended generations, and that grandparents, parents and grandchildren all enjoy my music,” she said. “The new generation is as inspiring.”

So, with AshaKiAsha, Bhosle has embarked on a challenging voyage to discover unique voices. The idea came after she set up a YouTube channel and then realized that it could also provide a platform for youngsters with talent.

“After listening to over 3,000 voices for my talent show, I have a very difficult task choosing the best,” she said. “Young talents from across the globe have sent their recordings. Some of them are very poor and live in harsh conditions, but are truly God-gifted with divine voices. The children can choose any songs they like, and guess what, they choose a difficult classic number. It is not be an easy task to select one. But this is my chance to share my 70 years of experience with youngsters and to give back to music what I got. I am grateful to God every single day for that.”

Talk of her 18-year-old twin grandchildren Zanai and Ranjai, and Bhosle can hardly hide her pleasure.

“Both the kids are very talented,” she said with grandmotherly pride. “Zanai sings, and in her, I see myself as a child.” It was also Zanai who inspired Asha to start the YouTube channel and then set up AshaKiAsha.

“My grandchildren have infused new energy in me in these trying times,” Bhosle said.Let me share a secret… I actually am growing up observing their net savvy communication skills. You see, a new world has opened up for me. New-age technology is helping me record my experiences of 87 years. May be some of them may entertain people, make them think or just have a good time and laugh. The present and future generations will have some record of the people I have worked with and shared experiences. YouTube is a wonderful medium to chat with all my friends out there in faraway places.”

Bhosle also looks forward to her live concerts, and to cooking and feeding people, both at home and her restaurants that have expansion plans. She also wants to help employ more women this year.

“I want to help hardworking rural women to stand on their own feet,” she said. “It has not been easy for the common man during [the pandemic]. And it has not been easy for the poor women … I have seen during the pandemic. I want to do something concrete for them.”

Another shift, this time back to cooking. Bhosle excitedly describes how she spent her lockdown coming up with exotic recipes.

“I am very fast at what I do, whether it is singing or cooking. So, when I create recipes, others run out of the kitchen, not able to match my speed,” she said with a grin. Post the pandemic, she is looking forward to working on her 24×7 café as well.

Looking back, Bhosle said she has no regrets. 

“I am happy. I have lived and loved,” she said. “Never mind the pain. I have lived an honest life. I am happy that I stood on my own feet as a 10-year-old singing my first song. What more do I wish for?”

But had she not said once, “In my next life, I want a face like Madhuri Dixit, the height of Aishwarya Rai and the figure of Marilyn Monroe”?

Bhosle laughs.

“As if God is waiting for me to express my desires for an afterlife,” she said with a grin before sobering up:

“Like I said, I am truly content today. I have a beautiful family that loves me, and amazing fans who make me feel at home the world over. I can still sing, perform, cook and stand on my own feet at 87. What more could anyone ask for!”