The Siren Songs of Asha Bhosle

The legendary singer has worked with some of the most gifted music directors, from Sachin Dev Burman to A.R. Rahman
The Siren Songs of Asha Bhosle

If there’s anyone who should write an autobiography, it’s the legendary singer Asha Bhosle. She was 11 years old when she sang for her first movie soundtrack. She is the first Indian singer to be nominated for a Grammy and has a Guinness World Record for the most studio recordings. She eloped at 16 only to find herself married to an abusive man who later turned her and their two children out of their marital home (she was pregnant with their third child at the time). She would become a working mother, become phenomenally successful and her career would lead her to find love again, this time with a younger man — composer R.D. Burman —  who wrote some of the most beautiful songs for her to sing. Once known only as the great Lata Mangeshkar’s sister, Bhosle carved out her own identity and is a legend. She has not only sung across genres and collaborated with artists like Boy George and Nelly Furtado, she’s even inspired others to write songs about her (remember “Brimful of Asha”?). She’s seen terrible tragedies in her life, like losing a child to suicide; and she’s known incredible success. By every yardstick, hers is a remarkable life. 

However, Bhosle is not interested in people knowing her past. “Why would anyone talk to the world about their personal life, and why would the audience be interested [in it]?” said the singer to Hindustan Times. At one point, she even wrote down “all the true details” of her life, but after finishing the manuscript, Bhosle decided there was no need to publish it. “Other people also must have seen a lot of sadness and tough times in their lives,” she said, by way of explanation for her decision. Instead of stories, Bhosle has always maintained that she would rather share her music — “There’s no need to tell anyone anything else,” she once said — so on her 89th birthday, here are just a few of our favourite songs by Asha Bhosle. 

Kali Ghata Chhaye Mora Jiya Tarsaye 

Although Bhosle’s first solo in Hindi films was in Raat ki Rani (1949), it wasn’t until the Fifties that she got her big break when she caught composer O.P. Nayyar’s eye (and ear). Her vocals in Naya Daur (1957) made both the industry and audiences perk up — so much so that even composer and singer Sachin Dev Burman chose to record songs with Bhosle. (Burman’s favourite was Lata Mangeshkar.) Sujata (1959) remains one of Burman’s best soundtracks and Bhosle is in particularly fine form in “Kali Ghata Chhaye Mora Jiya Tarsaye”. In past interviews, she has described playback singing as acting using the voice, and this song is the perfect example of how skilfully Bhosle could infuse a tune with emotion and drama. 

Kaise Kahoon Main Baat Jiya Ki 

Bhosle’s work with Ravi tends to get overshadowed by her more famous partnerships with Nayyar and Rahul Dev Burman (best known as RD). Ravi considered Bhosle among his favourite singers and their association began with Ravi’s first film, Vachan (1955). Over the years, he composed some fabulous songs for Bhosle, ranging from the cuckoo duet “C.A.T Cat Maane Billi” for Bhosle and Kishore Kumar, to the elegant bhajan, “Tora Mann Darpan Kahlaye”. Bhosle and Ravi delivered many hit songs in soundtracks like Waqt (1965), Chaudhvin Ka Chand (1960), Gumrah (1963) and Hamraaz (1967). “Kaise Kahoon Main Baat Jiya Ki” from Gehra Daag (1963) deserves to be a lot more famous than it is, as much for Ravi’s composition as Bhosle’s rendition, which feels almost like she’s singing a tenderly-kept secret to you. 

Bechara Dil Kya Kare 

RD composed so many amazing songs for Bhosle’s voice that you can make a playlist for every mood out of just their musical collaboration. He first met Bhosle when she was a rising star of playback singing and a single mother of two. He was a teenaged school dropout, working with his legendary father as an assistant. He’d fall head over heels in love with Bhosle and though Bhosle was wary on the personal front, the duo’s professional relationship had no stumbling blocks. The Seventies are lit with RD and Bhosle’s songs, with many of them — like “Chura Liya Hai Tumne Jo Dil Ko” and “Piya Tu Ab Toh Aaja” — achieving iconic status (and being remixed and covered relentlessly). RD often gave Bhosle melodies that demanded a staggering range. Her verses in “Dum Maaro Dum” are a great example of this. The couple would get married in 1980 and the Eighties saw them create some unforgettable songs like “Piya Bawri” and “Katra Katra Milte Hai”. You get a sense of both RD and Bhosle’s genius from the range of genres covered in just the songs mentioned here. 

Chain Se Humko

Listening to Bhosle’s voice soar with grace and ease in songs like the ones above, it’s difficult to believe that until O.P. Nayyar decided to work with her, Bhosle wasn’t the first choice for anyone in the film industry. She invariably got the assignments that Mangeshkar, Shamshad Begum and Geeta Dutt rejected and sang songs that were picturised on the supporting cast.  All this changed after Nayyar asked Bhosle to sing for the soundtrack of C.I.D. (1956). Bhosle blossomed under Nayyar’s guidance and the composer wrote some of his best songs for her. Songs like “Aaiye Meherbaan” and “Aao Huzoor Tumko” introduced a languid sensuality unlike anything heard before in Hindi film music. The fact that Nayyar refused to work with Mangeshkar — he described Mangeshkar’s falsetto as “thin and thread-like” — led to speculation that the singer and composer were having an affair. Bhosle has steadfastly denied this. In the early Seventies, the relationship between Bhosle and Nayyar fell apart. One of the last songs that they did together is the haunting “Chain Se Humko Kabhi”, for which Bhosle won a Filmfare award even though the song wasn’t ever picturised. Bhosle didn’t attend the awards’ function and Nayyar received the award in her stead. Rumour has it that he threw the award out of his car as he left the event.   

Dil Cheez Kya Hai

Although she would in later years become famous for her ghazals, when Umrao Jaan (1981) was being made, Bhosle wasn’t associated with this genre of music at all. It didn’t help that composer Khayyam wanted Bhosle to lower her pitch for his songs. Bhosle did not appreciate this pro tip from him and when she came to record the soundtrack, the mood in the studio was tense. Khayyam knew Bhosle was opposed to singing at the pitch he’d suggested so he offered a compromise — if Bhosle would sing “Dil Cheez Kya Hai” the way he wanted her to, he’d re-arrange the music and record another version in her natural scale. Bhosle agreed, but only after making Khayyam swear on his son’s life that he would record the second version. Back then, re-arranging the music meant rewriting the notation by hand for the musicians. In the time that it took to make these changes, Khayyam had Bhosle listen to the song they’d just recorded. She said nothing while it played and once it had ended, she said, “Is that really my voice? I’ve never heard my voice sound like this.” The second version was never recorded and all the songs in Umrao Jaan have Bhosle singing in that lower register. 

Tanha Tanha

Voices change with age and time. Technically, this should have meant that Bhosle, in her 60s, would sound too old for a 20-year-old Urmila Matondkar, who was the star of Rangeela (1995). Instead, Bhosle’s voice is rich with mischief and sensuality in “Tanha Tanha” composed by A.R. Rahman. Rahman and Bhosle came together to produce a number of hit songs in the Nineties, including “Mujhe Rang De”, “Radha Kaise Na Jale” and “Kahin Aag Lage”. He’s one of the composers who utilised Bhosle’s gift for acting with her voice — so much so that you don’t really need any picturisation for the song. This is true of “Tanha Tanha”. Not to throw shade on either Matondkar’s sinuous dance moves or Jackie Shroff’s dedicated efforts to add to the song’s sensuality, but Bhosle’s voice needs no visual aids.

Janam Samjha Karo

In addition to playback singing, Bhosle has also sang for many non-film albums in different genres, ranging from Hindustani classical to remixes. Khayyam was among those who criticised Bhosle when she decided to release an album with remixed versions of RD’s songs. Bhosle didn’t respond to the criticism. (Possibly because she was enjoying the fact that the album was a hit with listeners and reintroduced RD to a new generation.) Always curious and ready to experiment, Bhosle raised many eyebrows when she announced her Indipop album with singer and composer Leslee Lewis in 1997.  Janam Samjha Karo was everything that you wanted from a pop album and the title song, in particular, remains a worthy earworm.   

This story was originally published on September 8th, 2022.

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