Asha Bhosle is the voice of Bollywood
In the old days all the movie songs were recorded right there on the film sets," recalls Asha Bhosle, the quintessential Bollywood singer. Now 77, Bhosle was just ten when she performed her first song for a movie soundtrack, Chala Chala Nav Bala from Majha Bal in 1943.
In the 68 years since, she has provided the on-screen musical voice for generations of actresses, sung about 20,000 tunes in 14 languages, recorded with Robbie Williams, Michael Stipe and the Kronos Quartet, and lent her name to Cornershop's Brimful of Asha, a landmark hit of the 1990s.
"My son Anand first heard that song in San Francisco and told me all about it," she says, via a friend and translator, from Australia where she is appearing in concert.
"I was at the immigration counter at Heathrow Airport once and the young officer read the profession listed in my passport as ‘singer'. He was intrigued, so I told him I was Asha from Brimful of Asha, and he was so excited he left his post and called his friends over to meet me. So I guess, at the very least, that song helped me clear UK immigration faster than usual!"
When Bhosle thinks back to the start of her career, she remembers dusty movie sets, people running around, lights and cameras. "And there was little me... falling asleep and being woken up to sing my part. I think of that time fondly... it was pre-independence India. Only my sister Lata [Mangeshkar, a hugely popular singer in her own right], Manna Dey [the 91-year-old Bengali singer] and I are left from those who began their careers in what was British India."
Bhosle was born in Sangli, in the Indian state of Maharashtra. Her father Dinanath Mangeshkar was a successful singer and actor who built up a travelling theatre company that included his four children. Back then India was divided into kingdoms, and Bhosle recalls how the Maharajas (kings) would welcome her father and his group whenever he performed in areas under their rule. "He had 300 staff, vast wardrobes, theatrical sets and props. We would stay in each city for months performing plays throughout the night. My education consisted of watching actors and singers perform."
After her father died, Bhosle studied under Indian classical music maestro Navrang Nagpurkar in Bombay (now called Mumbai). "He fine-tuned my voice for the microphone." But soon she had to choose between pursuing classical or film music. "And Navrang suggested film music as it was more lucrative."
Married young, with a son, her first husband encouraged her to sing, but he drew the line at her acting. "He came from a traditional family where acting was considered taboo. So even the faint possibility of me becoming an actress was shot down before it had taken wings."
At movie auditions, Bhosle would come up against household names such as Zohra Bai, Shamshad Begum, Geeta Dutt and her own sister Lata. "I would visit all the recording studios and meet songwriters. They'd ask me to sing a particular song, then they'd decide whether I was good enough or not."
Bhosle had the most incredible and individual voice - a perfect crystalline tone and an extraordinary range. Soon, songwriters and directors began to seek her out.
During her initiation into the music world, the recording studios were built in such a way that they placed the singer in a separate cabin, away from the musicians, in order to minimise audio overspill. "Right up to the mid-1990s we recorded every song live. There would be huge orchestras... sometimes 100-strong and each song was recorded in one go. There was no dubbing... you worked with the orchestra and if anyone made a mistake, we'd start all over again. That's why each song took hours to record."
Bhosle became particularly well-known for her ability to change her voice for each role and a huge amount of film work, alongside established male singing stars like Manna Dey, Kishore Kumar and Mohammad Rafi followed.
"Rafi was a stickler for perfection (while) Dey was the best classically trained singer. Kishore Kumar was like the wind - you could never pin him down. He and I were well matched because we had similar ideas. We were not afraid to experiment."
From the mid-1960s and throughout the 1970s, Kumar and Bhosle were especially prized by the brilliant Calcuttan composer R.D. Burman, who brought elements of Western pop and hippy dynamism to his music. Bhosle later married him in 1980. "(R.D.) Rahul Dev's music was way ahead of its time. He had so many different styles and rhythms in his music. You can hear jazz, Latin, some blues, calypso and pop in there; he's more popular 17 years after his death."
Alongside the hundreds ("perhaps thousands, no one really knows") of film scores Bhosle lent her voice to, she made a handful, "but nothing like enough" of private albums. "Film music is good but only private albums give you enough of an outlet for your creativity."
In the 1980s, Bhosle made a move into the European music world at a time when the only widely known Indian musician was sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar. Bhosle formed the group West India Company with Stephen Luscombe from Blancmange, Vince Clark and percussionist Pandit Dinesh, and the record was an unexpected success. She went on to secure another big hit with Bow Down Mister, a song she recorded with Boy George. Since then there have been records with Nelly Furtado and UK boyband Code Red, but it's the ghazals (lovelorn Urdu poems and songs) that give Bhosle the most pleasure. "The songs are everlasting. And the albums keep selling for years."
As she approaches 80, Bhosle is still touring. "As a person and a singer, I love to try something new. I like challenges."
Asked to nominate favourites from her mountainous catalogue, Bhosle laughs, mentioning needles and haystacks, but suggests The Way You Dream, a duet with Michael Stipe on the 1 Giant Leap album, You've Stolen My Heart, her album of Burman songs with the Kronos Quartet and her new record Naina Lagaike (with master sitar player Shujaat Khan, with whom she is playing three UK concerts).
"Most of my colleagues have been insulated in Indian music alone. They did not think of the world beyond what they knew, but I always did and still do." Bhosle and her translator pause as the singer searches for the right words. "The truth is I've got a naturally outgoing nature and I still have great love for experimentation."
Beginner's guide to Asha Bhosle
1. Koi Sehri Babu (1973)
From Loafer, a movie by film-maker A. Bhimsingh. This song is about a woman who is overwhelmed by feelings of love.
2. Parde Mein Rehne Do (1968)
This is a truly lovely song, from Shikar, a hit murder-mystery. Asha wonders what would happen if the veil she is wearing were to be removed.
3. Dil Cheez Kya Hai (1981)
From Muzaffar Ali's film Umrao Jaan, this is a beautiful song on the subject of what a special thing the heart is.
4. Hum Intezar Karenge Tera Qayamat Tak (1967)
M. Sadiq's film Bahu Begum is a light comedy focusing on the adored wife of a Muslim family. Featuring brilliant music by Roshan, this song is a true romantic explosion.
5. Ek Main Aur Ek Tu (1975)
This song [One Me and One You] is a duet with the great Kishore Kumar. It's a bit like a Trinidadian cricket team meets The Beatles.