This post has been a long time coming. First, it was because I was waiting for an ‘occasion’; then, it was because I didn’t have the time to pick the songs I wanted. Finally, I decided not to wait for that perfect moment, and did some quick research into which songs I didn't want. The rest of it was mostly, 'I like this and this and this... and perhaps, this... so here, help me choose!' to my husband who, muttering under his breath, looked at my list and helped me hone it down to a manageable number.
Like her sister, Asha Bhosle has straddled generations with seeming ease, reinventing herself to stay relevant to modern sensibilities. Having spent her early career in the shadow of her illustrious elder sister, Asha’s rise to the being her sister’s closest rival was certainly not meteoric. Lata Mangeshkar had surged forward like a tidal wave from 1949 onwards, leaving other established singers far behind and had forged a seemingly invincible position for herself at the top. Asha was competing with both established songstress Shamshad Begum, and with Geeta Roy, her contemporary who, having topped the charts with Mera sundar sapna beet gaya from Do Bhai (1947) was carving a niche for herself despite the Lata wave.
Geeta’s position was secured following the release of Baazi (1951). Asha’s career track was not quite so smooth. While she had sung a song in the Marathi film Majha Bal (1943) when she was barely 10, her Hindi debut came a few years later – Sawan aaya (Chunariya/1948), under the baton of Hansraj Behl, where she accompanied Geeta Dutt and Zohrabai Ambalewali. This was followed by songs in minor films, which did not give her the satisfaction she craved. When she did sing for a major film, it was to find that the heroine’s voice was almost always Geeta Dutt and Shamshad Begum, or her sister, Lata. Asha had to be content with singing for the second heroine or the dancing girl / vamp. (Suraiya, fortunately, sang only for herself.)
Asha had once confessed to having spent years honing her voice so it would sound different from her sister’s. It also took her years to come out of Geeta Dutt’s shadow, and it would be OP Nayyar, one of Geeta Dutt’s avowed fans, who would help Asha mould both her voice and her career. He had already worked with Asha in Mangu the previous year, but it was with C.I.D. (1956) that Asha reached a turning point in her career. She was still singing for the ‘vamp’ in this film but the songs became thumping successes and Asha had her feet set firmly on the ladder of success. She became OP Nayyar’s favourite singer, and Naya Daur (1957) the very next year, cemented the popularity of the composer-singer pair. It was one of the most successful musical collaborations in Hindi film music.
Their professional and personal collaboration would extend all the way into the 70s, and their breakup was as cataclysmic, though neither person has ever uttered a word on the subject. Unfortunately, she also denied OP’s role in the trajectory of her successful career until then. After a short-lived but very satisfying professional relationship with SD Burman (following the rift between him and Lata), Asha moved on to a very successful and prolific collaboration with RD Burman.
In her decades' long career, Asha Bhosle has sung every possible genre of songs. From her seductive cabaret numbers to the sensuous mujras, from the romantic ballads to soulful ghazals, from frothy melodies to the deeply poignant numbers, Asha has sung them all. She has sung duets and triads with every major [Hindi film] playback singer worth their name. She has collaborated with international artistes (The Kronos Quartet, Robbie Williams, Michael Stipes, Boy George, etc.), sung in many different languages, and opened restaurants (she’s a very good cook) as well. Unlike most other singers, she was not afraid to experiment with new sounds, new genres, new composers.
Like the other singers I have profiled, it was a very difficult task to sift through Asha’s thousands of songs to come up with a handful to showcase her versatility. As with the others, the difficulty was not just what to choose, but what to leave out. Finally, with some help from my husband, here are my final picks in chronological order.
1. Ae gham-e-dil / Thokar (1953) / Music: Sardar Malik / Lyrics: Majaz Lucknowi
Talat Mehmood had already made a name for himself singing ghazals, and his version is definitely the more popular one. In fact, when I wrote of this song in my post on multi-version songs, I said how I much preferred his version to that of Asha's. However, the more I listen to it, I realise just how well she's sung this song. She was barely twenty then, and her voice hasn't yet matured to its full potential, but her instinctive grasp over the melody is very evident.
Chandni Chowk had a plethora of songs, and while Lata Mangeshkar provided the voice for the heroine, Meena Kumari, Asha had to content herself with singing for Smriti Biswas. However, Tera dil kahan hai was probably the best known of the songs. (Smriti had a meaty role and some scintillating dance numbers.) I really love Rahe na rahe hum, but ever since I heard this song, I've loved this song. There's a strange sweetness about this tune, given that it's sung in an Egyptian tavern. (Of course, S, listening to the song, had this to say: 'She's busy strumming a mandolin, but the instrument in the background is a guitar!')
This is one of those songs that has clones all over the place. If Roshan himself recycled this tune for Rahe na rahe hum, then its origins lay in SD Burman's Thandi hawaayein (Naujawan/1951). That tune was also recycled by RD Burman in Saagar kinare (Saagar).
*The film had a dozen songs, with six lyricists – Raja Mehdi Ali Khan, Shailendra, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Kamil Rashid, Saifuddin Said, Vishwamitr Adil – sharing the credits. Unfortunately, I cannot discover which of them wrote the lyrics for this song.
3. Radha ke pyaare Krishn Kanhaayi / Amar (1954) / Music: Naushad / Lyrics: Shakeel Badayuni
It was a film that was ahead of its time, but like most (all?) of Mehboob Khan's films, this one too collapses towards the end with the 'solution' being worse than the problem itself. Like all his films, this too had some fantastic songs, and this one, a bhajan, is sung at a crucial time in the film. The flawed hero has committed a crime, and is now torn apart by guilt. A freak accident nearly kills him and the woman who loves him, and the woman who has been wronged by him both pray fervently for his life to be saved.
Naushad is on record saying that he had closed his ears to Asha, focusing entirely on Lata Mangeshkar. And this song, picturised on Nimmi, who played the second lead, and Madhubala, the heroine, proves how much he (and we) missed. Asha's voice has such poignancy, such sweetness that one cannot blame the deity for listening to their pleas.
For a music composer who believed that God had stopped making singers after Noor Jehan and Lata Mangeshkar, Sajjad Hussain used Asha only when Lata was not available. Here, for some reason, Lata only recorded one song before she bowed out of the film. This gave Asha her chance, and here she joins with Kishore Kumar, her favourite colleague who was also the hero of Rukhsana, to sing one solo and two duets. Like most of Sajjad's tunes, this was not a simple song to sing.
It's not a film that made big waves, but the musical score is classic Salilda. While Lillian, as the dancer, got two lovely songs, this peppy number is the only song that was picturised on Mala Sinha, despite being the lead. All three female solos in this move were sung by Asha Bhosle. I love everything about this song – the music, the verve with which Asha sings this song, a fresh–faced Mala Sinha who looked to be enjoying herself, a handsome Abhi Bhattacharya who looks alternately embarrassed and amused...
Whatever Asha might have to say (or not) about OP Nayyar, some of her best songs came under his baton. His complete repudiation of Lata Mangeshkar apart, he had self–confessedly ignored both Shamshad Begum (who had sung for him at the beginning of his career) and Geeta Dutt to patronise Asha. By this time, Naya Daur had cemented both Asha's professional equation with OP Nayyar, and given her the confidence she had seemingly lacked until then. So, in Howrah Bridge, there's a different Asha behind the microphone. Armed with OP's music and Qamar Jalalabadi's lyrics, Asha's voice – seductive, sultry, come-hither and innocent, was the perfect foil for Madhubala as she lip-synced on screen. If one believes that a singer also has to 'act' through his voice, then this is one of the best examples. The tone, the mood, the intonation – Asha's smoky sultriness matched Madhubala's expressions on screen.
This song is possibly the classic OP Nayyar-Asha Bhosle combination; it's a collaboration that have given us many, many beautiful melodies. In fact, I dithered between choosing this and Yehi woh jagah hai from Ye Raat Phir Na Aayegi – my other quintessential favourite for both rendition and the air of mystery it evokes. OP Nayyar's music brings out the effect of the 'ghost' song, haunting and melodious, and Asha's voice amplifies that effect.
Lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi had used part of this ghazal earlier in Pyaasa (rendered beautifully by Mohammed Rafi). Or perhaps, he expanded upon the earlier ghazal here. This film, definitely not as well–known or as successful as Pyaasa, had some really good songs composed by under-rated composer N Dutta. Asha acquitted herself gamely, and by now, the tables had turned – former rival Geeta Dutt had one duet to Asha's 3 solos and one duet. (Suman Kalyanpur had another duet.) Asha was now beginning, like her sister, to consistently be the voice of the heroine. It had taken her a decade to get there.
8. Meri jaan o meri jaan / Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (1962) / Music: Hemant Kumar / Lyrics: Shakeel Badayuni
I dithered over a couple of choices before picking this song. I eventually pitched on this one because I loved Asha's rendition in this song. It's playful and coquettish, pitched to appeal to the rich zamindar who thinks his rank and wealth allows him to patronise a nautch girl. Since it was a Guru Dutt film, wife Geeta got to sing for the heroine, Meena Kumari, while Asha sang for both the second lead, Waheeda Rehman, and the two dances songs. The actress – Bimla Kumari – on whom this song was picturised, had another iconic song picturised on her: Hawa mein udta jaaye from Barsaat (1949). Asha liked Hemant Kumar's voice so much that she named her son 'Hemant' after the veteran singer.
Mujhe Jeene Do had both Asha and Lata vying for high honour. If Lata gloried in Raat bhi kuch bheegi and Tere bachpan ko jawani ki dua deti hoon, Asha scaled the high notes of Nadi naare na jaao Shyaam paiyya paru with assured ease. The song is a small note of cheer in a film that dealt with the tragedy of men who had turned to dacoity. Waheeda's Chameli has just begun a new life with the man who abducted her, and amidst the shootouts with the police and despite the uncertainty of this new beginning, has found love and acceptance. Asha's rendition conveys the tremulousness of a new bride's feelings as well as the playfulness of the Radha–Shyam romance.
10. Ye kaun meri zindagi mein aa gaya / Bombay Race Course (1965) / Music: Madan Mohan / Lyrics: Rajinder Krishan
I found this song when I was researching songs for another list. I had never heard this song before, and while I knew Madan Mohan had recorded some really lovely songs with Asha Bhosle, this song was a revelation. From what I can gather, the film starred Ajit and Nalini Jaywant. Like many of the films for which Madan Mohan composed, this film didn't do too well commercially. However, the songs are very, very nice indeed. This composition, a slow, romantic number, has been exquisitely rendered by Asha, and has quickly become a 'new' favourite. One of my other choices was Saba se ye keh do from Bank Manager.
11. Dil lagaakar hum ye / Zindagi aur Maut (1965) / Music: C Ramchandra / Lyrics: Shakeel Badayuni
Another twin–version song (the 'happy' version is sung by Mahendra Kapoor), this lovely number appears in a B–grade (but very enjoyable) 'spy' thriller and was Faryal's debut as heroine. (Of course, watching the movie makes it very clear why she remained a dancer or side lead.)This is one of the songs where I like both male and female versions. For some reason, it reminded me of Hoshwaalon ko khabar kya zindagi kya cheez hai from Sarfarosh. Anyone else?
Like Aayiye meherbaan is probably the touchstone of the OP-Asha combo, to me, the Ravi-Asha combination always brings to mind this lovely song, one that is used so intelligently in the film – there's a crooner at a party (Erika Lall), people are milling around, eating, drinking, socialising. Elsewhere, a murder is being committed, someone is trying to escape, a young man is a witness... there's so much going on. That's the picturisation. From the point of view of the song, it calls out to people to seize the moment; the past is not important, the future has no bearing on the present. What's important is the here and the now. (Which, in context, is delightfully ironical – even as the song is being sung, the future of many of those present at the party is being decided in the here and now.) Asha sings it with such sensuality – her voice is both languid and sultry, giving off a sort of smoky, nightclub vibe that so fits the lyrics of the song. A very 'western' number, as is appropriate to the setting, Asha's voice quietly dominates the song.
13. Paan khaaye saiyyan hamaro / Teesri Kasam (1966) / Music: Shankar-Jaikishan / Lyrics: Shailendra
Another interesting incidence of both Asha and Lata providing playback for the same heroine; while Lata gave voice to the poignant Aa bhi jaa, Asha came in for the spirited, come-hither nautanki-inspired Paan khaaye saiyyan hamaro. The vocal performance was mirrored in Waheeda's spirited acting – it's clear that her character is used to catering to an all-male audience. Also that it doesn't bother her. This must be one of the few films where an SJ score had more Asha solos than Lata solos.
14. Raat akeli hai / Jewel Thief (1967) / Music: SD Burman / Lyrics: Majrooh Sultanpuri
This might seem like such an odd pick for the Asha–SD combination, especially since they had such powerful scores from Kala Pani (Nazar laagi raaja, Dil lagaake kadar gai pyaare) and Bandini (Ab ke baras, O panchhi pyaare). In fact, my initial pick for an Asha–SD Burman combination was Ab ke baras from Bandini. I think that song is one of their best; Asha's voice soars and ebbs with such pathos and longing, and SD keeps the instrumentation down to the minimum. Asha is said to have broken down while recording the song – in an interview, she confessed that in the initial days of her marriage, her husband wouldn't allow her to return to her maaike.
However, I love this song, love how Asha made it her own. It's beautifully sung, and I love the little riffs – how the melody doesn't really follow the rules, it's 'cut' at odd times. I don't know the technical terms for all of these, but if you look at the way the Raat akeli hai bujh gaye diye follows one metre, while Tum aaj mere liye ruk jaao rut bhi hai fursat bhi hai has another, and Tumhe na ho na sahi mujhe tumse muhobath hai, muhobath ki ijaazat hai toh chup kyun rahiye jo bhi chaahe kahiye, yet another. Then the song cuts back abruptly to the short Raat akeli hai – pause – bujh gaye diye. Asha manages the cuts with casually, dropping her voice from the high registers to the lower ones, doing it with such consummate ease. It's a fantastic song, and while Tanuja looked rather too endearing to be seductive, she brought in an exuberance that complemented the joy in Asha's voice.
15. Naina hai pyaase mere / Aavishkar (1973) / Music: Kanu Roy / Lyrics: Kapil Kumar
Part of Basu Bhattacharya's introspective Amar–Mansi trilogy (Anubhav, Aavishkar, Grihpravesh), the film was a hard–hitting exploration of man–woman relationships. It won Rajesh Khanna a well–deserved Filmfare Award for Best Actor. Music director Kanu Roy (who also scored for Anubhav) used Asha to great effect here. Her Naina hai pyaase mere is a quiet remembrance of happier times.
16. Motiyon ki ladi hoon main / Loafer (1973) / Music: Laxmikant-Pyarelal / Lyrics: Anand Bakshi
Like many other music directors in this list, Laxmikant-Pyarelal were also primarily Lata loyalists. More so, in their case, since they were her protégés. However, there were some songs that Asha sang, and sang well, for them, and one of my favourites is this one. I love this song, primarily for Mumu, I must confess! She projects an innocence that is at variance with what she's singing. Asha matches her verve and abandon in this lovely number that explicitly states how desirable she is.
While Dil cheez kya hai won for Asha the National Award that year, and Ye kya jageh hai doston is my personal favourite for a variety of reasons, I love this song – the picturisation, Rekha's expressive performance, the music, lyrics, the singing.... Asha has narrated how Khayyam had shocked her by saying he didn't want Asha in the movie. He wanted Umrao. So every composition was set to a lower register than Asha was used to. She almost refused to sing. But Khayyam promised to record the songs in her usual 'voice' if she wasn't happy with how she sounded. That didn't happen.
18. Jawani jaaneman / Namak Halal (1982) / Music: Bappi Lahiri / Lyrics: Anjaan
The 80s were the days of the Disco. And Bappi Lahiri was admittedly the king when it came to disco beats. Here, he makes full use of the technology available to him then, but the composition is really quite good despite the electronics. Asha, fighting to stay relevant then, a full four decades after she had first begun singing, proved she had what it takes to be the voice of the heroine.
As an aside, Bappi Lahiri must have loved the sets!
As with SD, the RD-Asha combination has thrown up many, many beautiful songs, and I'm sure we all have our own favourites. If I ask my son, he'll probably say Piya tu ab toh aa jaa... For me, 'favourites' is pretty much a fluid term; they keep changing, and it's always difficult to choose just a handful of songs at any point. Some songs, of course, keep popping up again and again, but while I'm making lists, I usually go through a mental list of my 'favourite' songs and pick the one I feel like picking at that moment. There's no science to this. I must confess, however, that I love Mera kuch samaan very, very much, even if RD thought it was like composing for a newspaper article. I love the song, the feelings evoked by the lyrics, the way the music ebbs and flows, and the quiet poignancy with which Asha Bhosle sings it. What part of yourself do you leave behind when a relationship ends? Beautiful.
20. Dhuaan dhuaan / Meenaxi (2005) / Music: AR Rehman / Lyrics: Rahat Indori
Asha's 'reinvention' didn't end with the 80s and the disco generation. When that period ended (happily!), she picked herself up and moved on, experimenting with newer genres, younger musicians and composers. So when Rehman burst onto the Hindi music scene with Roja and Rangeela, Asha was there to be part of this new wave. She would collaborate with Rehman in many projects; once again, while the songs of Rangeela are lovely, it is this song from the new millennium that I choose to showcase her oeuvre. My husband reminded me of it when I was making this list and dithering between a couple of other songs. Once again, song, music, picturisation and rendition – all come together to form a perfect whole. Asha's voice had begun to lose its timbre by now, but she sang this beautifully.
This list is just a glimpse into the sheer talent that is Asha’s, and is an attempt to showcase her range across genres. As with my other posts on singers, I have tried to pick one song per music director; this list is not the complete list of music directors that this talented singer worked with, nor the ‘best’ of their collaboration. These songs are my favourites, but not necessarily my only favourites. What songs would you choose?
(Photo credits: most of these photographs have been sourced from the Internet. I have found multiple sites for some of them, so here are the sites I think they are from: indianexpress.com, quint.com, hamaraphotos.com, rediff.com, wikipedia.com, cineplot.com, asha-bhonsle.com. If there are any specific photographs for which specific credit must be given, please do contact me via this blog.)