Asha: Her Tears, Her Triumph 

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by MG Radhakrishnan

6 min read
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Asha Bhosle | File Photo: PTI

How much I long to be at the Coca-Cola Arena of Dubai today! On September 8th, the Arena is to witness a historic event. A legendary singer will perform there to celebrate her ninetieth birthday!

How many could even imagine doing such a feat at such an age? But then, haven't Asha Bhosle's entire life and career been an incredible saga of struggle against the most insurmountable obstacles? Deprivation, discrimination, marginalization, condemnation, a divorce that made her a single parent and struggled to bring up three children, broken affairs, her eldest son’s death from cancer, and her only daughter’s suicide. There is nothing Asha hasn’t faced from the hell’s playbook. So, for this formidable lady, age can't be anything but just a number.

Even as she bravely went through these unending misfortunes, Asha sang over 12,000 film songs in 25 languages to hold the Guinness world record for the most recorded singer. Among the innumerable accolades she won are the nation’s second-highest civilian honour -Padma Vibhushan and cinema’s highest honour - Dadasaheb Phalke Award. She is also the first Indian to win a Grammy nomination. She is one of the world’s most versatile singers with an astonishing repertoire. Love or lust, fun or devotion, folk or classical, soprano or falsetto, her songs are unparalleled. She crooned with equal elan as a heartbroken lover, naughty teenager, oomphy cabaret dancer, coquettish temptress, inebriated seductress, or even an ardent devotee.

Asha and her three sisters and brother had a very difficult childhood. Their musician father, Deenanath Mangeshkar, passed away in 1943 when she was only nine, and her sister Latha, 13. The musically talented young girls had to go to work immediately to earn for family. Movie director and family friend, Master Vinayak, helped the girls get to sing for Marathi films. With Vinayak's help, the family soon moved to Mumbai, and Lata began to sing and act in Hindi films.

Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle

Asha gave in to adolescent emotions when she was 16. She fell in love and eloped with her sister Lata's secretary, Ganpatrao Bhosle, who was almost double her age. Lata never forgave her sister for this, who was so dear to her. Lata used to carry Asha to school and even refused to go to class when she wasn't permitted to bring her baby sister.

Asha's marital life turned out to be a nightmare, which affected her career. However, even when Shamshad Begum, Geeta Dutt, Suraiya, and Lata sang for the heroines, Asha also got a few good opportunities. She travelled from her home in the outskirts to city studios by suburban trains after finishing all household chores and sang every song she got. Many frowned at her for singing raunchy numbers, and she hit back who would bring food for her children and in-laws. Her talent and hard work paid off, and she got offers from ace directors like Bimal Roy (Parineeta) or Raj Kapoor (Boot Polish). Kapoor gave her first hit, a duet with Mohammad Rafi's 'Nanhe munne bachche'. This was followed by more hits, composed by OP Nayyar and in films by BR Chopra. By the end of the 1950s, she was singing more than 50 songs a year.

1960 marked a turning point in her life and career. She left her husband and returned to her sister with her three children. Lata took her back, although the rancour remained. Ganpat Bhosle died in 1966. Soon, a strong personal and professional relationship grew between Asha and Nayyar. This threw her relationship with Lata into a new crisis. The headstrong Nayyar had sworn never to work with Lata after she failed to turn up for the recording for his first film. He instead stuck to Shamshad Begum or Geeta Dutt. But soon, Asha became his favourite, resulting in the birth of her most memorable songs, starting with their first hit, 'Maang ke saath tumhara' with Rafi in Naya Daur.

OP Nayyar, Asha Bhosle

They also publicly began living together. Nayyar made Asha dare sing 'lusty and sexy' numbers, distinct from Lata's Sati-Savitri songs. They turned out to be some of the best in Hindi cinema history. Examples abound like the sensual club song, 'Aaiye meharbaan' (Howrah Bridge, 1958) for the bewitching Madhubala or 'Jaiye aap kahan jayenge' for a sensational Asha Parekh or 'Ye hai Reshmi Zulfon' for the stunning Mumtaz (Mere Sanam, 1965), or 'Aao huzoor tum ko' (Kismat, 1968) for an inebriated Sadhna and many romantic duets with Rafi and Kishore Kumar. Naughty numbers sung until then by Geeta Dutt started flowing to Asha. 'Haal kaisa hai janab ka' with Kishore or 'Mud mud ke na dekh', composed by Shankar–Jaikishan, were super hits.

By then, Lata and Asha were not even talking terms. But suddenly, Nayyar broke his relationship with Asha in the early 1970s after Lata encountered the composer and blamed him for her sister's distancing from her. Without even informing Asha, Nayyar simply walked out of their long-ongoing affair, which produced more than 300 songs.

Coincidentally, their last song, the exceptionally heart-rending 'Chein se humko kabhi' for Pran Jaaye Par Vachan Na Jaaye (1974), was metaphoric. The heroine was lamenting about not being allowed to live peacefully or even end her life by poisoning herself. Some observers saw the lines could be about Lata ruining Asha’s love affair. The song won Asha a Filmfare Award, but she refused to receive it. It is said that Nayyar received the trophy for Asha, which he threw away on his way back home. Known for her peppy numbers, this was Asha’s saddest song in all respects. The song was also omitted from the film. Nayyar’s personal and professional fortunes took a nosedive after he broke up with Asha. His affair with Asha had made his family (his wife and four kids) leave him. Though Nayyar occasionally composed after that, his new passion was homeopathy!

But about the same time, destiny took Asha to another big turn. In 1971, she got two cult songs to sing. 'Piya tu', the 'Monica song' from Caravan, and the mind-blowing 'Dum Maro Dum' from Hare Rama Hare Krishna. Both these songs were harbingers of a new world and were composed by the immensely talented Rahul Dev Burman, the 32-year-old son of Sachin Dev Burman. The songs opened a new era not just in Bollywood but in Asha’s life, too. She had first met Pancham (RD Burman) as a pale-looking college student with thick glasses who requested her autograph. He was six years younger than her. But she never knew that the youngster was her diehard admirer all along. Their first big hit was O Haseena Zulfonwalli (Teesri manzil, 1966).

Asha Bhosle, RD Burman

1971 was also the year RD divorced his wife, Rita Patel. Asha and RD duo became a super hit pair that produced unforgettable numbers that fully explored her versatility. They ranged from the raunchy 'Piya tu' or the peppy 'Ek main aur ek tu to' (Khel khel Mein), 'Chura liya' (Yadoon ki Baaraat) or Gulzar’s soul-stirring 'Khali hath sham aai hai' or the purely innovative, national award-winning Mera kuch Samaan (Ijaazat, 1987), the song Asha considered her best. “If Nayyar modernized her music, RD Burman revolutionised it,” her biographer Raju Bharatan wrote.

Though Asha married RD in 1980, it did not last long, allegedly due to his alcoholism. However, they continued to make songs together until he died in 1994. But the 1980s saw Asha turn another wonderful page in her career with her superb Urdu gazals in Muzaffar Ali’s period musical film Umrao Jaan (1981), composed by Khayyam. They included her national award-winning 'Dil Cheez Kya Hai' or 'In Aankhon Ki Masti'.

In 1995, Asha produced an absolute stunner under the emerging superstar composer AR Rahman. 'Yai Re Yai Re' from Rangeela Re was portrayed by an electrifying Urmila Matondkar, which Asha sang when she was 63! Later, she sang another beautiful one -'Radha Kaise Na Jale'- under Rahman for Lagaan. The other South Indian master, Ilayaraja, made her sing many in Tamil and Hindi. Vidyasagar composed her lovely 'Konja neram' duet (Chandramukhi) with Madhu Balakrishnan.

Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, AR Rahman

Asha sang in all South Indian languages, including one in Malayalam. It is 'Swayamvara Subhadina Mangalangal' in Sujata (1977) under Ravindra Jain. Its lyricist, Mankombu Gopalakrishnan, told me it was Yesudas who recommended Jain who gave him many Hindi songs to be engaged. Mankombu, with director Hariharan and producer PV Gangadharan, went to Mumbai to meet Jain at his home. "Jain was so happy and offered to get Ashaji, and we were super excited," Mankombu said. The recording was in RK Studios. "I taught her the pronunciation. She was keen to get every word right, and we were surprised by her dedication. The "zha" in Malayalam was quite tough, but she patiently practiced until she got it right. It was my great fortune to work with such a great artist," he recalled.

Asha suffered unbearable repeated tragedies in 2012 and 2015. Her daughter Varsha Bhosle (55), a singer and journalist, shot and killed herself at Asha's Peddar Road residence. She was suffering from depression. In 2015, Asha's son Hemant Bhosle (66), a Bollywood composer, died of cancer. Her surviving son, Anand, runs Asha's signature restaurants in different countries.

The great lady bore all the tragedies with incredible fortitude and, though with a heavy heart, kept singing for the world around.

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