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“Youngsters are beginning to understand our music”

June 2003
“Youngsters are beginning to understand our music”

Getting Personal with Asha Bhosle

The legendary Asha Bhosle, one of the famous Mangeshkar sisters, recorded her first studio song at the age of eleven. Trained by many virtuosos and somewhat overshadowed by her superstar elder sister Lata Mangeshkar, Ashaji has sung more than 20,000 songs in over 14 languages including Russian, Malay and English. She even made it to the Grammy's with the nomination of a song she recorded with the famous Boy George. Till today she remains at the cutting edge, lending her carefully trained and preserved voice to many first time actresses in Indian cinema.

I met her a day before the concert, as she was all set to go to lunch with her entire crew and then to visit the Coca-Cola factory with her touring family. There was no way she could spare the quality time I required. But she was gracious enough to pose and take pictures and promised that she would meet me again.

The next day, true to her word, no sooner had she seen me as she was stepping out of the breakfast lounge, she motioned towards the closest seat - a wooden bench basking in the sunlight that permeated through the large clear glass panels of the Marriott central lobby.

Settling down quickly she began humming softly as I was getting ready to pose the first question. Adorned in a beige saree with large colorful floral print she covered herself with a black sweater fighting the mild discomfort she said she was suffering from. She blessed my forehead and spontaneously the ice melted away. I could well have been having a conversation with my favorite aunt.

Over the past sixty years you have performed all types of songs? and lent your voice to almost every actress from Helen to Urmila. How do you remain at the leading edge? (As I am speaking, the mobile rings. It is a relative and she sporadically breaks into Marathi before handing the phone over to Nandu, her son.)

There's nothing really that one needs to do. Since I have been singing for so long, the song just comes to me ? all I pay attention to is who the actress is and some of her traits and draw a mental picture before beginning. The rest follows.

Are you fluent in all the sixteen languages you have sung in?

No! I understand most of them fairly completely, but cannot speak fluently as that requires practice. However I am quite well versed in Bengali and Punjabi apart from Hindi and Marathi. As long as Avinash Vyaas was composing, I sang in Gujarati and until Burmansaab was alive I did a lot of Bengali songs. But presently I have no preferences, as I do not see any spectacular composers on the horizon.

Was there any sibling rivalry, times when you felt a particular song you desired went to Lataji or vice versa? Or during training when you were very young?

No, that never happened. From the outset the one who had to finally do the song would land up with that performer. Till my father was alive we all trained together. But after his demise, we went forward on our own and started singing.

Have you ever felt the urge to compose music? After all, your sixty years of rich musical experience provides a solid foundation.

You need to devote a lot of time, full time to create music. Between recording film music, which is most of the time, non-filmi music, going out, taking care of chores and looking after the home and family, I have never been able to give it serious thought, let alone sparing the time to actually do it. Yet I have composed quite a few songs and recorded some of them. But only for my own personal satisfaction, not for recording and marketing.

Most music performers have one thing in common ? a love for Pancham Da. Was there any song of his that you desired to sing but never got the chance to?

With the number of songs that he gave me, I never felt left out. I didn't need anything more (she smiles a glowing smile). Musicians, singers and others loved him for what he was. He was ahead of his time and created music ahead of his league. It was the music of tomorrow ? that was his genius. He anticipated each new era and was totally prepared for it. Even today his music is repeated ? though perhaps then people wondered what the need for all the adlib sounds in his songs?.ba ba ba, re re re etc was. People your age still swing to them. Besides, he had tremendous variety.

Tell us about your experience with Boy George?

Western music cannot hold a candle to our music. It just can't compare with the degree of difficulty we have. The rise and fall in pitch, the real working of the vocal chords, the complexity of the rhythms and the songs based on foundational ragas? all these make our compositions that much more intricate and difficult to adhere to. On the other hand the English language is spread all over the world and even non-English speaking nations understand it. Its songs become popular fast, far and wide. Our language is not international and thus has its limitations. Hence I never felt anything significantly special about singing those western compositions.

You have sung live with a gallery of musicians at Mehboob Studio and also worked with A. R. Rahman for ?Rangeela' on music tracks created by computer. What is the future of this new type of music? Is technology becoming irreversible?

Music created with help of technology sounds great to listeners today. Doing songs to music tracks already created by musicians and computers, with no problem of standing alone and dubbing and re-dubbing to perfection is easier for us singers. However the emotions that would be aroused during a recording where everyone is playing live and in synchronization are missing today.

Music has become more technical than it used to be ? from the heart and soul, not just the stomach. Then we would keep humming the song the whole day, meditating about the tune, attempting to improvise by adding variations (harkats) to it and then record live. Nowadays we sing what we are asked to and leave. Even the rhythm is fixed bar to bar and sounds no different than a metronome. There is no impulsive roll, break or change ? everything is repetitive. Yet, by the same token almost every composer today is attempting to imitate RD, but Rahman is a stance apart. He is original in what he does.

You have worked with many renowned poets. Whose works do you value most? And what is your most liked raga?

In terms of poetic power, I liked them all, but the one dearest to me was Majroohsahab. I liked him and his shairana Urdu and andaaz. In Hindi I liked Kavi Pradeepji and Kavi Shailender.

As for ragas, I love them all, though since you are insisting, I would say I like ?Bilaskhani' raga the most ? you cannot sing this all the time though.

What made the Gulzar / Asha / R. D. trio so famous?

I believe that all composers who worked with Burmansaab jelled very well. I also believe that the combination of Gulzar / R. D. and Latadidi was superior. What do you think?

(That puts me in a spot and I smile, stating frankly that since I am a die hard fan of Pancham Da and considering the fact that she won her National Award for singing the song ?Mera Kuch Saman' from ?Ijaazat', I would go for a Gulzar / RD / Asha combination.)

(She promptly smiles reassuringly) Maybe that's your personal preference, but the songs from ?Aandhi' and the one from ?Libaas', flourished beyond all genres and ages of music. I liked the combination of Majroohsaab and Burmansaab and loved the songs from ?Yaadon Ki Baraat'.

Any plans to set up a training institute, a sort of Asha Bhosle way of teaching music? What would you recommend to young emerging talent?

I do not think much about these things. Things do not happen just because you think. As far as new talent goes I have no recommendations. Youngsters I believe are beginning more than ever to understand our music and that enthralls me. Most of them are very taiyaar. They are talented, have gained cumulative knowledge, but do not have reverence for anybody. They are of the modern era ? whatever they know and whatever they do is right! To tell these youngsters anything is fizul.

Which do you consider the best concert venue?

I like most to be present and perform wherever good listeners converge. I have performed at Carnegie Hall but there is one place that every performer wants to perform at and that is New York's Radio City Hall.

Tai! What happens when you are not at the studios? What are your hobbies other than music?

I cook. I love meat dishes. There is a restaurant in Dubai with my name to it: Asha's. I have guided the chef Sachin Tedekar and given him some of my recipes, which he prepares and offers there. I have visited that place quite a few times. Not only do I love to cook but I love to feed also.

(So much is her adulation for Majroohsaab that one of her recipes is called Sultanpuri Kabab named after him for a recipe she learnt from Majroohsaab's begum.)

I love to study and read a lot but these days I have no time for much after playing grandma. I have a grandson and granddaughter, one and a half year old twins, and I have to run after them all day long.

Realizing that time had flown and that she was not too well, I chose not to prod her any further. With the formal questioning over, we eased into a casual dialogue. Upon her learning that I trained briefly under Lt. Guru Shri Govindprasad Jaipurwale, she exclaimed, "Phir to hum bhai behen ho gayen. Main bhi unse sikhti thi." (A loving look appeared in her eyes)

"Govindji ka kaunsa gana aapko yaad hai?" I replied ?Taj Mahal' the composition that made him famous ? first sung by Nina and Rajendra Mehta and later by Anup Jalota.

"Koi raga nahi sikha? Kaunsa yaad he aapko?" I replied that Guru Govindprasadji was of the old school and sometimes it took over three months to learn the Yaman progression. Before I had the opportunity to spend a year with him he passed away.

"So you met Guruji quite close to his end ? you missed out on him."

I did wonder whether nature would offer an encore of such a face-to-face session with her. She blessed me again and insisted that Vinod Devlia, the professional star photographer, take one picture of us.

This one will remain engraved in my soul for time immemorial.

[Do you have any comments on the concert, or on this article/interview? Please write to letters@khabar.com]

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