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 proceedings in The Last Empress: Asha Live in Gurgaon programme hosted by our sister concern Nasha. She began the evening with a song by Lata Mangeshkar and an anecdote about her elder sister. She said when she heard about the schedule here, she went to meet Didi. “I told her let both the sisters visit Delhi and do the show,” said Asha. While saying this, her voice shook a little, as if the memories of all the ups and downs from her decades-old relationship with Lata had become fresh in her mind.
Those in the know say her elder sister Lata 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-belief without the sisters actually harming each other. In this way they never ceded space for another lady singer to emerge.
Before the audience could read any meaning into her voice laced with nostalgia, Asha kicked off the concert with Lata’s famous song Lag ja gale, ke phir yeh haseen raat ho na ho.
Internalising all the bitterness and spreading sweetness has become second nature to Asha Bhosle.
Asha surprised the connoisseurs of her vivacious voice for some time with this serious song but soon she 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 on the stage. The demeanour 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 the entire body. It was good that Mika continued to be Mika. He didn’t attempt to be Kishore Kumar. Then Asha 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-out 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 RD Burman and she were sitting on the banks of the 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 was the Burman couple. The entire combination was a heady creative stimulus. The lull was broken with Pancham’s voice laden with 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: “Shaktida, 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 get an opportunity again to listen live to the diva. Still it doesn’t really matter. More than 11,000 songs by her in 20 Indian languages, seven Filmfare awards, a Padma Vibhushan, the Dadasaheb Phalke honour (considered the Oscar of Hindi movies) and the numerous encomiums showered on her have made her timeless and immortal. In times to come, whenever somebody experiences her voice filled with the mellifluous depths of the Arabian Sea or the coolness of snow-clad peaks, they’ll spontaneously utter just one name: Asha Bhosle.
Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan