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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Book review: Asha Bhosle: A Musical Biography by Raju Bharatan
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Book review: Asha Bhosle: A Musical Biography by Raju Bharatan

In writing Asha Bhosle's story, Raju Bharatan tells a tale of pettiness between two sisters, and backbiting in the music industry

Asha Bhosle and Kishore Kumar. Photo: Hindustan TimesPremium
Asha Bhosle and Kishore Kumar. Photo: Hindustan Times

Asha Bhosle has been singing playback in Hindi films for over seven decades and has a place in the Guinness World Book of Records for the highest number of songs sung. At 83, she is still seen as “cool", mainly because many of the songs she sung later in her career strike a chord with the young. Though her sister is considered the pre-eminent female voice of India, Bhosle has held her own, with her unique brand of spiciness. And yet, there has been no book analysing her amazing career.

Raju Bharatan’s new book, Asha Bhosle: A Musical Biography, attempts to fill that gap. It sets out to explore her musical, and personal, journey as a singer who was perennially doomed to remain in the shadow of Lata Mangeshkar. Bharatan says the sisters have been rivals since childhood and nothing has changed between them, though they have together warded off other rivals or challengers.

Asha Bhosle—A Musical Biography: By Raju Bharatan, Hay House, 332 pages, Rs599.
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Asha Bhosle—A Musical Biography: By Raju Bharatan, Hay House, 332 pages, Rs599.

Bharatan is arguably one of the best-informed journalists on Hindi film music, especially of the golden era, as it is called. Not only can he rattle off songs and their provenance, he can discuss the ragas they are based on. Most likely, he would even have spoken to the music director about the song. This encyclopaedic knowledge and institutional memory, so to speak, gives him a unique place among writers.

His writing style, though, can be eccentric: “Such a dimension of failure—alongside O.P. Nayyar—did Asha Bhosle prove that to be, in Chham Chhama Chham, that that down-and-out composer could have let slip from the memory the name of this yet-to-arrive singer."

However, Bhosle’s life comes alive in the book. Caught in a difficult marriage, she had to sing to bring in an income. Work did come her way, but success did not. By 1950, Lata Mangeshkar had become a much-in-demand singer—she got Rs500 per song, a huge sum at the time—and every music director wanted her. Noor Jehan had left for Pakistan and those who could not get Mangeshkar went to Geeta Dutt or Shamshad Begum. There was no place for anyone else. This continued for most of Bhosle’s professional life, even in the 1970s, and even with some terrific songs to her name, writes Bharatan, “she was ‘singer number two’ in the camp of each of our top-bracket composers, not least R.D. Burman", chosen for cabaret numbers rather than the heroine’s songs. Often she found herself edged out of songs that were to come her way. Bharatan reveals that the famous Aye Mere Watan Ke Logon was to be a duet with the sisters; in the end, only Lata Mangeshkar sang it solo at the Ramlila Maidan in Delhi in 1963.

Success came when Nayyar, who had sworn never to use Lata Mangeshkar for any of his compositions, turned to Bhosle. Nayyar was initially given the cold shoulder by other music directors, but as he grew successful, producers wanted him. In 1954, Bharatan writes, one such producer sacked Roshan after getting four songs recorded by him and replaced him with Nayyar. This angered Lata Mangeshkar, who “ingeniously manipulated things" to ensure that Dutt, Bhosle and she would never sing for the “upstart". Nayyar had to fall back on Shamshad Begum, who herself was piqued by Mangeshkar ’s high and mighty ways. Eventually, Dutt and Bhosle came around and Nayyar swore he would groom Bhosle to match up to her sister.

In Nayyar’s music for Naya Daur, Bhosle truly arrived as a salable singer and the composer-singer duo turned out hit after hit. In addition, they were involved personally, which became a major scandal at the time. Bharatan recalls his conversations with Nayyar’s wife Saroj, who comes across in the book as being sober and dignified, despite the pain she must have gone through. Nayyar, on the other hand, is arrogant. Bharatan says Nayyar worked hard to turn Bhosle into a top singer.

Bhosle finally left Nayyar and was back to square one, raising a family and trying to keep her foothold in a capricious industry. She later found another love, R.D. Burman, six years younger than her, who set her off on a dizzying upward climb with the songs of Teesri Manzil. Bharatan rightly points out that for the generations that came after that, she is associated only with his music, in films as diverse as Caravan, Hare Rama Hare Krishna and Ijaazat. Personally too, Bhosle now tends to talk more of Burman rather than Nayyar, something that irks Bharatan.

The third composer Bharatan writes about is S.D. Burman, who had turned to Bhosle when he got into a fight with Lata Mangeshkar, tuning some great songs for her in films such as Nau Do Gyarah. Once that squabble was resolved, he went back to Mangeshkar.

Along with the backstories of many well-known songs, Bharatan offers many anecdotes of pettiness, backbiting and intrigue, not just of the two sisters but also of other industry stalwarts.

Today, Lata Mangeshkar has cut back on her singing, but Asha Bhosle is still going strong, her twinkly naughtiness and pizzazz not dimmed one bit. Ever younger listeners have discovered her songs and remixed them. She is the coolest 83-year-old around today.

Sidharth Bhatia is a founding editor of The Wire.

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Published: 07 Oct 2016, 11:34 AM IST
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