I remember my first meeting with Asha Bhosle on my 35th birthday. I had other fancy plans, but cancelled them. MTV had arranged it as she had won the best singer award for her album Jaanam Samjha Karo. She offered me sweets and coffee.
This was at her Pedder Road residence in south Bombay. She and her sister Lata Mangeshkar stay in opposite flats. She was wearing a blue saree and was well-groomed. After 20 years, that interview is vivid in my mind. I was a rookie in film music journalism.
Asha Tai’s Versatility
Before I continue, let me wish Asha tai a very happy 85th birthday. I have always been a huge admirer, though to be honest, Mangeshkar remains my favourite woman playback singer. Number 2 would be a toss-up between Bhosle and Geeta Dutt, who died prematurely. That's a personal opinion. Everyone, journalist or fan, has one. Yet, among these three, I believe Bhosle tops in terms of versatility. She did 'Jaaiye Aap Kahan Jaayenge' from the film Mere Sanam, 'In Aankhon Ki Masti' from Umrao Jaan and 'Mera Kuchh Samaan' from Ijaazat.
At the other extreme, she did 'Dum Maaro Dum' (Hare Rama Hare Krishna), 'Duniya Mein Logon Ko' (Apna Desh) and 'Aaja Aaja' (Teesri Manzil). At a whole other level she did 'Chura Liya' (Yaadon Ki Baraat), 'Roz Roz Aankhon Taley (Jeeva) and ‘Radha Kaise Na Jaley’ (Lagaan).
Asha Bhosle has sung Marathi natya sangeet songs, popular Bengali songs, Gujarati folk music and ghazals. Her duets with Kishore Kumar and Mohammed Rafi were outstanding.
Bhosle's husband, the late genius RD Burman, played a great role in shaping Indian music in the 1970s. Earlier, there were OP Nayyar and SD Burman. RD chose Mangeshkar for the romantic and melancholic songs, and Bhosle for the peppier ones, at a time when cabaret numbers were fantastic to hear, unlike today's item songs.
All this is probably known. So let me get back on my meetings with Bhosle.
Asha Tai’s Wit & Charm
Some quotable quotes from the first one. I asked her, whether she ever planned to retire. It's not something one asks a legend, but I just wanted hear her response. It was: “For us, singing is like breathing. We sing when we sleep too. Would you ever think of stopping to write?”
I tried to grill her on her so-called rivalry with Mangeshkar. She knew it was coming and handled it charmingly.
Asha tai said, “I am what I am because Didi mentored me and my sisters and brother Hridaynath after my father (Dinanath Mangeshkar) passed away. All this talk of rivalry has been created by your seniors in the media. We love each other.”
The second time I interviewed Asha Bhosle was when she had released a ghazal album based on covers of older classics. It had Farida Khanum's 'Aaj Jaane Ki Zid Na Karo'. I requested her to sing it for me, and she smiled, “Aaj gaane ki zid na karo. Yunhi chai ko peete raho.”
‘Success & Failure a Part of Life’
The third set of meetings was when she was about to release the album You've Stolen My Heart (a translation of 'Chura Liya'). I had quit journalism for some years to experiment around. I had joined EMI Music and was handling the Warner Music repertoire. This album was released by US-based Nonesuch Records, and featured reinterpretations of RD Burman’s songs by this classical string ensemble Kronos Quartet.
I loved the songs but was not confident that the album would sell. My thought was that most Indian film music listeners are not used to violins and cellos. I told my boss Shamir Tandon, who said I had to do my job anyway. The album bombed. We gave more free copies to friends than what we sold. I still have some.
I got the flak, but then dealt with Bhosle diplomatically. I said I tried. She responded, “All my songs or albums are not hits. Success and failure are a part of life. We should move on.”
‘Tum Jiyo Hazaaro Saal’
Many people told me Bhosle could be very temperamental and blunt. But then, she's a creative person, an artiste, constantly with a tune in her head. I have experienced one incident myself. It goes like this. She loves mimicking people, and has a wry but great sense of humour. She has done that with Mangeshkar, Noor Jehan and Suraiya at her concerts.
At my first interview, she mimicked Bappi Lahiri. I found it hilarious and printed it. When the article was published, she called on my landline and fired me, saying it was off the record. I never record my interviews but luckily the MTV person there did so. I reminded her of this incident the next time I met her. She didn't remember. We moved on.
Bhosle has gone through personal tragedies. RD Burman passed away when he was 54. Her daughter Varsha committed suicide and her son Hemant died of cancer.
Today her younger son Anand and daughter-in-law Anuja are with her. She dotes on her grandchildren Ranjay and Zanai. Friends tell me she got frustrated when she thought she wasn't getting her due. But she fought on and still does.
She's been a woman of substance. The real Iron Maiden. On this note, let me quote her own song on today's momentous occasion: "Tum jiyo hazaaro saal ke din ho pachaas hazaar."
That goes out to Lata didi who will turn 89 in another 20 days. Without you sisters, what would Indian music be?
(Narendra Kusnur is a Mumbai-based music critic.)