I had sung my first song in 1943. Just add up the numbers….how many years have you taken before inviting me here? Now I don’t know whether I will be able to come in the future or not, so I’ll try to present my best before you this evening.”
This was Asha Bhosle commencing The Last Empress: Asha Live in Gurgaon programme hosted by our sister concern Radio Nasha. She began the evening with a song by her sister Lata Mangeshkar and an anecdote about her elder sister. She said when she heard about the schedule here, she went to meet her ‘Didi.’ “I told her let both the sisters visit Delhi and do the show,” said Bhosle. While saying this, her voice shook a little, as if the memories of all the ups and downs in her decades-old relationship with her sister had become fresh in her memory.
Those in the know say her elder sister never nurtured her younger sister Asha’s career. For a long time, some composers began pitting one sister against the other like rivals. However, industry insiders also say this rivalry was just make-believe, without the sisters actually harming each other. In this way, they never ceded space for another female singer to emerge.
Before the audience could read any meaning into her voice laced with nostalgia, Bhosle kicked off the concert with Lata’s famous song Lag ja gale, ke phir yeh haseen raat ho na ho.
She surprised fans of her vivacious songs for some time with this serious number but soon came into her element. She called out to famous singer Mika who was seated in the audience: “Will you sing with me, Mika?” Mika joined her on the stage. The gap between generations and values was palpable. Asha was singing barefoot onstage. The appearance of Mika, clad in a suit and shoes and wearing sunglasses, wasn’t lost on Asha. When she admonished him, Mika had to remove his shoes. With this, the celebrated song from Jawani Diwani, Jaane jaan, dhoondta phir raha, filled the venue.
The audience was in raptures. At every note and octave, Asha Tai’s body seemed to be in sync with her singing. It appeared her melodious voice wasn’t emerging just from her throat but from deep within. It was good that Mika continued to be Mika. He didn’t attempt to be Kishore Kumar. Then, Bhosle and he sang another duet. At both the times, it appeared a lioness was playing with her cub.
The event was more than just a musical evening: It was also a long-drawn flashback. In between songs, Asha Bhosle kept reminiscing about the years gone by. Let me share one of her anecdotes with you. Asha recalled an occasion when the late music director R.D. Burman and she were sitting on the banks of the river Hooghly. The sun had set and the stars were twinkling. Cutting through the vast expanse of the water with their oars, the boatmen were returning home. The breeze was blowing and listening to the sound of the oars and the songs of the boatmen were Bhosle and Burman, known in the film industry as Pancham. The entire combination was a heady creative stimulus. The lull was broken by Pancham saying in excitement: “Let’s go Asha, we’ve found our song!”
What had happened was that just before coming to Kolkata, veteran director Shakti Samanta had visited the couple in Mumbai. He told Burman in Bangla that he was making a big film with Amitabh Bachchan and Zeenat Aman. And Burman was composing the music for it. “It is a matter of Amitabh, Zeenat, yours and my prestige. Everything should be a hit,” said Samanta. The vivacious Asha immediately retorted: “Shakti Da, even I am singing in the film. Why didn’t you mention my name?” Since that time, Pancham and Asha had been anxious about the film. That evening spent by the Hooghly riverside had given Burman his tune. If you listen to the song, you’ll feel the oars providing a rhythm and the river singing. The song has been filmed on Amitabh and Zeenat in Venice in The Great Gambler: Do lafzon kee hai dil ki kahani, ya hai mohabbat, ya hai jawani.
Listening to anecdotes from the life and times of Asha Bhosle ensured that the evening went by like a breeze. I don’t know whether I’ll again get an opportunity to listen live to the diva. Still, it doesn’t really matter. More than 11,000 songs recorded by her in 20 Indian languages, seven Filmfare awards, a Padmavibhushan, the Dada Saheb Phalke honour and the numerous encomiums showered on her have made her immortal.
Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan.
His Twitter handle is @shekharkahin.