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Asha Bhosle: From underdog to queen of versatility

In a career that spans 60 years, Asha Bhosle, who celebrates her 83rd birthday today, has dabbled in a diverse range of songs and genres that continue to belie the myth that she lacks the vocal range as her sister, Lata Mangeshkar. 

Shriram Iyengar

Early this year, the appearance of Amrita Rao as a twin plaited young girl in front of the microphone was plastered across hoardings around the city. The promotion for her television series 'Meri Awaaz Hi Pehchaan Hai', a show about two sisters trying to make their own name in Hindi cinema playback singing. This story, with heavy influences from Sai Paranjype's Saaz, took inspiration from the tale of two of Indian cinema's greatest singers, Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle. Born to the musical pedigree of Mangeshkar, the two sisters proved to be the most talented of a group of four children. Although eventually all four children, Lata, Usha, Meena and Asha, as well as brother Hridaynath, chose to pursue a career in the music industry. It was the first born and the last who proved to be the most talented of the bunch.

In India, Lata Mangeshkar continues to be the gold standard of playback singing in cinema. Her control, range, and longevity have been unmatched in the industry, except by one person. Asha Bhosle. As Bhosle herself said in an interview, "Tell me has there been anyone who is as good as the Mangeshkars? Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle are undoubtedly the best." As the current generation of internet savvy millenials prone to remixes grows up, there is a greater recognition of the versatility of Asha Bhosle, as a singer. It is hard to understand that there was a time when the singer was typecast as the voice of the sultry, seductive, and peppy heroine. This has been general consensus among listeners that Lata Mangeshkar has a better classical range than Asha Bhosle. This is a myth, and disproved by the fact that composers like SD Burman, Ravi, and Khayyam, chose Asha for several numbers with classical bases. Prominent examples would be 'Mann tora darpan' by Ravi from the film Kaajal (1965). The beautiful bhajan is often considered one of the best renditions of Asha Bhosle. 

Bhosle's rise to prominence coincided her sister's tiff with prominent composers like SD Burman, and OP Nayyar, as well as singer Mohammed Rafi. Naturally, these composers veered to the younger sister. This was also the result of some bad blood between the sisters. There were rumours that the elder Mangeshkar would often try to undermine her younger sibling, by spreadig gossip. In an interview, Asha Bhosle herself admitted, "At one time, the relationship was very adversarial and there have been periods of non-communication." This cold war supposedly began during Asha's first marriage. It was one of the most fractious times in the Mangeshkar clan, as the eldest sister opposed the match vehemently. Over the years, the fractures have been patched over, but the story of their rivalry never really stopped. 

If anything, this only furthered the desire in Bhosle to work harder. With Teesri Manzil (1966), she began one of the most successful partnerships with RD Burman. It was RD, who established the superiority of Asha with songs like 'O mere sona re', 'Aaja aaja', 'O haseena zulfonwali' and 'Piya tu ab to aaja'. Till the '90s, Asha Bhosle remained RD Burman's muse. Although many detractors point out that RD saved his songs with classical ragas for Lata Mangeshkar. A case in point is the use of Lata for songs like 'Raina beeti jaaye' and 'Bada natkhat hai' in Amar Prem (1972), or 'Is mod se jaate hain' in Aandhi (1975). By the composer's own admission in an interview to the Times of India, "There is no doubt that Lata-ji is supreme. When she sings, she forgets about herself, her home, and there’s a complete changeover of personality. Though she may not admit this, she becomes a mother, or a sweetheart before the microphone." 

Unlike her sister, Asha had a home to care for. Even as she juggled a strenuous career and recordings, she played the loving mother to her children. As Anand Bhosle, her son, revealed in an interview, "My mother made sure we had a very normal childhood, a life away from the limelight. Her father had been an artiste, and his life had had its ups and downs and she had seen all that. She wanted to protect her children from all that." He revealed further, "She would give us breakfast, drop us to school and go off to the studio. It was only when we were older that we attended recordings sometimes." It is this dedication and professionalism that singles her out from her legendary sister. 

Yet, there was a very different versatility that Bhosle was capable of. Unlike Lata Mangeshkar, who had built up a pristine image of a clean singer, Bhosle dabbled in every format of singing from rock, and cabarets to ghazals. As composer Anil Biswas once said, "Asha's voice has body, Lata's has soul." This barrier between body and soul was soon crossed by the singer. A high point of her career was the soundtrack of Rekha starrer Umrao Jaan (1981). Under the baton of Khayyam, she delivered some memorable ghazals like 'Dil cheez kya hai', 'In aankhon ki masti ke' and 'Ye kya jagah hai'. The songs would go on to become the most popular numbers of the year, and establish Bhosle's mastery over the nuanced ghazal form. It is telling that RD Burman would choose her to deliver the impossible 'Mera kucch samaan' in Ijaazat (1987), which he himself considered the most difficult song he ever composed. 

Over the years, Asha Bhosle has overtaken her elder sister by leaps and jumps. She embraced the 'Pop phenomenon' in India during the '90s, by participating in remixes, private albums. It was these remixes that brought her greater fame among a newer generation of listeners. Songs like 'Kabhi to nazar milao' with Adnan Sami, 'Janam samjha karo' remain popular till date. 

In a career of 70 years, Asha Bhosle has mastered the rap and remix, while being just as comfortable in a bandish by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. She continues to be active while singers of her era struggle to find relevance. As the singer Shaan admitted in an interview, "I find her very knowledgeable about modern singers. She encourages them, and is ready to sing with them. This is something unusual in our music world." Coming from a pedigree of classical musicians, and often struggling under the shadow of her own sister, Asha Bhosle has a versatility that is unrivalled. In her own words, "Any type of art, including music, can stagnate, if it does not adapt itself to changing times." Few have managed this evolution as seamlessly as Asha Bhosle.