The lights dimmed and the voice, that has for over six decades, enthralled, mesmerized and enchanted generations of music lovers and still retains its sultry sensuality, it freshness, its melodious perfection and pitch, soared from the interiors of the back stage, and strains of the sizzling number “Kambaqht Ishq” from the film Pyar Tune Kya Kiya were welcomed by a roar from the audience.
Resplendent in a gorgeous white ensemble, slim and sexy, oozing a sweetness and sensuality that makes her appear far younger than her soon to be 70 years, Asha Bhosle strode on stage at a sold out concert in Atlanta. Asha has said that she has worked for years to create a voice and a style that was different from her legendary sister Lata Mangeshkar, so that she could carve her own niche and not be banished to live her shadow and went on to show just how well she has succeeded in her efforts, as she enthralled the audience with numbers that showed the ageless quality of her voice.
Even those who love the Mangeshkar sisters, don’t know the long and arduous road they walked to reach the heights that they have, but had life not thrown so many curveballs their way, perhaps they would be content middle class grandmothers in a suburb of Mumbai, humming melodies for a lark to their grandchildren, instead of wowing their fans worldwide.
Anand Bhosle is the youngest of Asha’s three children, and while older sister Varsha is a hard hitting political columnist for The Times of India and older brother Hemant dabbled in music direction and then quit to fulfill his dream of being a pilot, Anand studied business in college and film direction, before mom decided he was to help her manage her career. His creativity came in handy as he directed her in the super successful television show Yeh Hai Asha. In an exclusive interview with Kavita Chhibber both mother and son shared memories and special moments of the musical and personal journey, the grit and the grind that has made Asha the legend and the woman that she is today.
You came from a musical family but the goal was not to become a singing star. Asha: My father was a very gifted man and he left home at a very tender age to learn singing. He formed his own drama company and had almost 200 people working for him before he forayed into films. Music was an intrinsic part of our life, and we all learnt music but the goal was the usual — to marry and have a home and family. It was the death of my father at a very early age that pushed Lata didi who was not yet 14 to go out and sing to make ends meet and I sang my first song at the age of 10. I did get married at a very young age to a man who was 20 years older than I was. It was a love marriage and Lata didi did not speak to me for a long time. She disapproved of the alliance. The family was very conservative and they could not handle a singing star for a daughter in law. There was abuse and ill treatment and I finally was asked to leave when I was expecting my youngest son Anand, and I did go back to my mother, sisters, and brother. I do not blame anyone and have no ill will. I feel if I had not met Mr. Bhosle, I would not have had these three amazing children and life turned out okay.
Anand: My memories of growing up were happy memories. We lived in a joint family with my grandmother, aunts and my uncle and cousins, and I was the baby of the family and my grandmother’s favorite child. As kids, we had no clue that my aunt and mom were these famous singers. It was only when I went to school that people around me told me about it. Even then, I did not believe them. I had never seen them sing at home, only my uncle, and said to them, oh, no you are mistaken, it is my uncle who is a singer. We have this small room, which substitutes for a music room, and uncle would practice there. I think the hours mom and aunt put in at the recording studios, singing so many songs and rehearsing for them, gave them their practice. In fact, to this day we stay away from the glitz. Most celebrities have not been to our house and occasionally when one of them does show up, it is like a pilgrimage!
While it is expected that the children of celebrities will follow the same path, you kept the children deliberately away from the industry. Asha: It is a very tough line. My daughter Varsha is a very talented singer, but realized very early on that she would have to live her life being constantly compared to her aunt and her mother and she was not willing to put up with that kind of nonsense. She was always politically conscious and wanted to study law, but eventually ended up being a journalist. Hemant is very musical, and gave music in films, but saw how frustrating and tough things were and finally decided to become a pilot. In fact, there was a time when R.D. Burman would play a wonderful tune and the producers would yawn, and then he would play another tune and pretend it was by his father and people would say “wah wah” and he would just look at me in disgust. That is how ignorant and fickle the industry is, and I steered Anand towards business and am very happy with that decision as well.
Anand: I think because the singing career was thrust upon them, and not something they really strived for, there was no focus on their kids carrying on the family name. Hemant who did venture into giving music in films and did some quality work discovered the fact that a lot of producers and directors are tone deaf and would disregard a lot of the wonderful tunes he came up with, sometimes settling on mediocre stuff because they did not understand music and rather than compromise on his creativity and what he had to offer he quit the scene, and went on to become a pilot. His older son Chaitanya is part of a very successful boy band, his daughter who is a teenager, has no clue about Hindi music. My uncle’s daughter is in her early 20s and was very good, but she too has no intentions of pursuing this as a career. I had to come into this business in the early 1980s when concert tours were beginning to gain popularity and mom needed someone to handle the business and management end of things for her, otherwise I too would not be around.
How hard was it to carve a niche for yourself and not languish in the shadows of your famous older sister? Asha: Very hard and not just her, there were already some very established stars like Noorjehan, Shamshad Begum, Geeta Dutt and others who were leading the way. Therefore, in the beginning, didi and they would get the cream of the songs and I would get the songs filmed for B and C grade films. I studied many different styles so that I could create a style that was different from didi’s. You can see that if you clone yourself on a star that is alive, you will get nowhere. As long as Kishore Kumar was alive, no one who even remotely sounded like him was anywhere in the running. It was only after he died the clones thrived. I don’t give up easily though. The one gift that my mother gave me was the gift of self-confidence. She always told us we to forget about household chores and just focus on music. She also told me that there was no one more beautiful, or more talented and that we should be so proud of who we were. That self-confidence and a very strong will power have stood me in good stead.
Anand: That is true. Mom has an amazing will power. The more you tell her it cannot be done, the more she will go out and prove that it can. Some time back, she was on this tour, sick, her voice in a mess, she could barely croak and we were in two minds whether to cancel the show or just let Varsha go and fill in for her and let the other singers also sing. When mom was told, she would not hear of such a thing. She went and started singing and unlike other singers, her voice keeps on getting better as time passes. Suddenly in the middle of the show, her voice that had been tired and weak, suddenly soared and then there was no looking back. She brought the house down. At another time, she broke a toe in her foot and went about business. By the time, she saw the physician the fractured had healed by itself, and the physician was shaking his head wondering how she had managed to even walk, in that kind of excruciating pain for so long.
The stories about the rivalry between Lataji and you, and how she tried to be one up on you have done the rounds of gossip mills. The movie “Saaz”, was supposedly based on your life story. How true is the gossip? Asha: Its not true at all. To have two women in long plaits, take a couple of incidents and exaggerate them into a 3-hour film is such a waste of time. We are indeed different people. She thinks with her head and is very image conscious, and even when hurt feels she needs to uphold that image of being reserved and gracious, while I think with my heart, am blunt and say it like it is. In fact, once we were having dinner and someone said something that I could not take, but because Lata didi was on the table, I was biting my tongue. Finally she said, “Asha go ahead, blurt it out, otherwise you won’t be able to digest your food!” Well I did and what a relief it was. I think the reason why I live my life honestly is because truth has a way of coming out and in the end the only person you are trying to fool is yourself. Lata didi is a different person at home. Many people do not know this, but she can be fun and she is a very good dancer, but you will never catch her dancing on stage. While I just go out and have fun, because I think it is necessary to change with the times, to go with the flow and not take life your yourself too seriously.
Anand: Mom and aunt are really like North Pole and South Pole and if you see them on stage together, you will know what I mean. Even as singers, their styles are so different. Mom has to be very careful with her throat, while Lataji can eat anything. Lataji has been quite frail from the time she was a child and is always falling sick. She has had stomach problems, but as a child, she took some homeopathic medicine for diphtheria and for some reason it cured her of any throat problems for life. Mom on the other hand will deprive herself of ice cream that she loves and will have one cone of softie after a tour ends, but she is so strong willed that even if she is sick she won’t bother and it will be business as usual. As sisters, they were the closest. Mom is four years younger than Lataji and was this cute chubby child and Lata ji used to treat her like a doll and carry her all the time, in fact one time she fell down the stairs carrying mom and there is a scar on her forehead that is very visible in pictures. Also they were so inseparable that when Lataji went to school she would take mom with her, but one day the teacher protested and said we can’t have two students on one fee, and Lataji refused to return to school without her and quit her studies. To this day, she teases mom that she is uneducated because of her. Mom is very protective about Lataji. Once a music director was talking about a singer, who had a bachelor’s degree, a real big deal in those days and made a snide comment about how well educated the singer was. Mom just bluntly told him, he may be educated, but he still cannot be Lata Mangeshkar.
So how true are the stories that the Mangeshkar sisters monopolized the music industry and would not let anyone else in? Asha: It’s like the saying “Nach na Jane angan teda” (the dance floor is warped, so I can’t dance well). Okay so we monopolized the industry, but tell me has there been anyone who is as good as the Mangeshkars? The fact is we had no godfather to display our talents and we worked long and hard to be where we are today. There were other singers who were established before us and still we managed to carve a niche for ourselves. In fact, once, for a movie, all the songs had been sung by Sudha Malhotra, but the producer on hearing them had them scrapped and got them re-recorded in Lata didi’s voice. He said only she could do justice to those songs. In the industry, no one will give you a plug even if you are related to them if you don’t have what it takes and people who talk about politics are the ones who either don’t have the talent or are not willing to work hard. The fact is if you have the talent no one can keep you down, but today most people think they can become famous and great artists just by cutting an album. Let me also tell you that there are some wonderful albums that I have sung on, but they have not seen the light of day because of rivalries between the music houses and some other petty politics. Therefore, the Mangeshkar sisters are not that influential.
Anand: It is an unfortunate part of showbiz, and it is true that some wonderful albums that mom has done, one with Hariharan for example, and many others were not even marketed well. I agree with mom that today most people who have never seen wealth or fame can get dizzy, when it is showered on them. Fortunately, it is a temporary phase, because these types usually lose the fame pretty soon and get back to square one. As my Mom very well puts it, “Every artist, when he walks out on stage, must be prepared right in the beginning that the curtain has to come down at the end of the show” I guess the sisters think like this because their father was a huge celebrity in his time and they have seen the difficulties of life. They try to preach their philosophy to new entrants in the music world, but I guess one does not hear much through the din of the audiences’ applause. My mom and aunt had sung for over three decades in films before they ventured out for a concert tour. That is why wherever they perform the show is sold out. Mom tells a lot of these newcomers to slow down and work hard and go on tours after a few years, but today the newcomers have a CD in one hand an a plane ticket in the other. In addition, most people do not realize that mom and aunt stayed at the top because of their dedication and discipline. Look at their career span. There is no substitute for hard work.
Your career has been divided into two main halves: the O.P. Nayyar days, when you came into your own, and the R.D. Burman days when you reached dizzying heights of success.. What has been the contribution of each music director? Asha: O.P. Nayyar felt that my voice sounded better when I sang at a lower pitch and created songs accordingly, but there was no challenge for me, those songs were easy to sing. However, the person who I credit with really having the courage to give me my first big break was B.R.Chopra. He by passed all established singers and gave me, a newcomer who till then had been relegated to B movies the opportunity to sing all the songs in the Dilip Kumar-Vyjanthi Mala starrer Naya Daur, and later songs for Dhool Ka Phool and Waqt. Of course, I did sing for other music directors and they all had their good points. Madan Mohan was a wonderful singer too, but did not like it if you sang the song differently from the way he sang it, but my personal favorite was Salil Chaudhry. His music had the complexities and challenges that makes it exciting for a singer to sing, and I found very few people who could do that for me. My regret is that I did not get to sing that many songs for him, but my all-time favorite of course is S.D. Burman, and of course, it was Pancham (R.D.Burman) who really exploited the full potential of my voice and challenged me to greater heights. I first met him when I was a mother of two and he was in 10th grade having dropped out to pursue music and I scolded him and asked him to not give up on studies. He told me later he was a bit irritated with me because he felt he would be wasting his time in school when music was his passion. When he offered me Aaja Aaja from Teesri Manzil, I was petrified. I had never sung a song with such heavy western influence, but didi said you are a Mangeshkar you can do it. Shammi Kapoor thought I would do an excellent job and kept teasing me do not sing it better than Rafi, I don’t want Asha Parekh to sound better than me! After rehearsing and quaking at the knees for 10 days when I finally sang the song, R.D. was so impressed he handed me a 100-rupee note! Between Lata didi, Kishore Kumar and I, we sang all of Pancham’s songs and Kishore always improvised on the spot, and I think he knew that I was the only one who could keep up with him. A lot of time, we would finalize things and then when we went in front of the mike he would sing something very different, and I would match him with improvisation of my own! Pancham was a genius, and the first musician to blend east and west so beautifully. Today all the musicians do is plagiarize from others and pass it as their own.
Anand: I think the reason why the Burman-Mangeshkar-Kishore partnership worked was because Pancham gave them a free hand to improvise. Often the tune would start as an ordinary one and then these people would start experimenting and improvising and before you knew it, the song would turn into a b blockbuster. There were times that Pancham felt that his talent as a music director and arranger did not get the recognition it deserved and that the singers were the ones who hogged the limelight. Mom said to him that may be true, but try and get someone else to sing your tunes and then see the difference and he agreed that the magic was created because of what these three contributed to his tunes. In fact, mom has made every song come alive. She gave an example in a show recently, when she took the song “Chura liya hai tumne jo dil ko” and showed the audience how she sang it in that very sultry way to make match Zeenat Aman’s personality and make her look like an excellent actress. Had she sung it in a flat voice, all of Zeenat’s oomph could not have redeemed the song. Perhaps it is this allure and ability to incorporate so many different nuances and emotions that has made her cross all barriers of time and language and age.
You must enjoy singing with A.R. Rahman. He is the closest anyone has come to R.D.Burman’s talent and style of mixing east and west? Asha: Yes and he is very talented, but I think Pancham was still in a different league. I think Rahman, is very open-minded and lets me improvise.
Anand: If you check out Rahman’s top 10 hits you will notice that 7 out of 10 songs are sung by mom, and the reason that is so is because he lets her sing and improvise. Mom can sing the same line in 20 different ways. His genius lies in the fact that he can pick the best of each line and put it together. There are several other music directors who will not budge and ask mom to sing a song as they want without her own contribution and both my aunt and mom in spite of being a treasure houses of musical knowledge will graciously do as they are told. Pancham was indeed leagues ahead of anyone. While Rahman is an excellent music arranger, Pancham was both an amazing musician and an arranger, and Rahman has told mom that there is nothing left for him to innovate because Pancham had pretty much done it all in spite of the limited technology at his disposal in those days.
You have experimented with remixes, sung with Boy George, and many other boy bands, and also in English, Russian and Malaysian. I heard you just picked up some English cassettes went for a walk and returned to give a flawless rendition of your hit Ave Maria. How has the entire experience been? Asha: Well after you have sung in Tamil, English, Russian and Malaysian are a cakewalk! When I met some of these very successful artists wearing rags, I thought they were very poor and needed financial help! It was when Anand told me they are rich as anything and this is just the way they dress that enlightenment dawned! It was fun and very easy. I believe in moving with the times and enjoying myself. I think I decided to get into the remix scene because as Lata did said every body is botching things up, at least you will make less of a mess of it. Luckily, Rahul and I was greatly appreciated.
Anand: Mom has a very finely tuned ear for music and languages. She has such a wide range that once when she was being nominated for the Grammies someone asked which category does she qualify for and I said she can sing anything from Pavarotti, all that is in between, to Michael Jackson. She has covered every aspect of music so it is not possible to slot her. In fact, in the song “O meri Jaan maine kaha” she has hit a note that is out side the keyboard!
What do you think of today’s music and singers? Asha: Not much really. In those days apart from having great musicians we had amazing songwriters, that is why those melodies are evergreen. Today for how long are you going to listen to songs like “Kambaqht Ishq” and “Ishq Kamina.” In addition, television has given mediocre music an extended lease on life. A song is aired. you can see it is average, but when it is aired repeatedly, you start accepting it, but it never ceases to amaze me how people with such limited knowledge of music or little talent can go and release albums at the drop of the hat!
What are the things that make Asha Bhosle the person and the singer that she is? Anand: As a singer, I guess no one can touch her in terms of talent and versatility. However, as a person she is a wonderful mother, grandmother and mother-in-law, and very popular with her grandkids, kids and daughters and son-in-law. She has a child-like curiosity about everything and a great ability to pick on things. The other day I was discussing NRI investment and she immediately picked up on the fact that NRIs have contributed very significantly to India’s economy and wanted to incorporate that observation in her show. Then of course, she has had to make a lot of sacrifices and her determination is amazingÖ. In addition, she is such a little girl at heart. We were on tour and reached Los Angeles and she wanted to stay one more day, why, because she wanted to go to Disneyland! In addition, I still remember this incident where we were taking a tour of Versailles and there was this very impressive and tour and a tourist guide waxing eloquent about the palace, the history and what was mom doing? She was totally oblivious to everything but the softie she had finally earned, after the concert tour and was licking it from top to bottom, not letting even a drop fall. My sister and I thought it was really funny and started giggling. Then an American man looked at her and he started chuckling. She looked up when she heard the laughter and asked, “What’s so funny?” She is very honest and thinks with her heart and maybe that is why she has not received her due from so many people.
Asha: I do believe in living life with honesty, and I have taught my children the same thing. The difference is they are more diplomatic, but I just take the liberty to say it as it is. Well it has been a great journey and yes, I think with my heart and won’t change that. I am glad I have the ability to never give up, and to change with the times, to see the positive in the negative. I am looking for new challenges, to build a legacy. I really enjoyed doing the Legacy album with Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, and I am planning a couple of exciting new albums, and working on my autobiography.