As she prepares for what is being billed as her “Farewell Tour” of Britain, Asha Bhosle has revealed for the first time how she immersed herself in the character of a Lucknow courtesan to prepare for the recording sessions of the iconic 1981 film Umrao Jaan.
Bhosle, currently in Britain for the tour, said she had turned 83 and was unlikely to visit the country again. But she would try to sing “all kinds” of songs to entertain fans during her performances in Birmingham on Saturday and London on Sunday.
Talking about her rendition of the songs composed by Khayyam for Umrao Jaan, particularly Dil cheez kya hai, Bhosle said: “We have only one focus while recording songs – who is singing it on the screen, how does the actor look like. For Dil Cheez Kya Hai, the image of Rekha came to my mind.
“Then I read the book (the Urdu novel Umrao Jaan Ada of 1905). I understood the situation. After imbibing all that, I became Umrao Jaan myself. I could translate her feeling in the situation into my rendition of the song.”
Speaking to a media scrum comprising journalists from India, Pakistan and Britain on Wednesday, Bhosle dwelt on her 72-year career spanning more than 13,000 songs, changes in the music industry over the decades, her love of cooking and her desire to visit Pakistan.
Singers of her generation, Bhosle said, would study the song situation in the film, understand the lyrics, the language (Urdu or Hindi, or a mix of both), improvise and then try to transfer all that was in their mind at the time of recording.
“This is why our songs are still fresh in the hearts and mind of millions. We put our hearts into those songs. Today when people listen to those songs, they are transported to the same situation in which they were sung,” she said.
Recalling the work of contemporaries such as Mohammed Rafi, Kishore Kumar, and her sister Lata Mangeshkar, she said they were leaving behind a legacy for generations of new singers. There is no genre or language in which they had not sung, she added.
“Today, every new singer starts with our old songs, see any song-based shows on television, they all feature old songs. We have left behind this treasure for the coming generations. I feel good that even established new singers now sing two of theirs and eight of our songs.”
Asked repeatedly by London-based journalists of Pakistani channels why she had not visited Pakistan, where she has a huge fan following, Bhosle said she was “very keen” to do so but somehow a trip had not yet materialised.
“I know that people of Pakistan like my songs. I am not a politician. I love every human being, I love the people of Pakistan. Pakistani singers are very good. I don’t consider them to be different from us. They are all ours. We are artistes, we are concerned with art. They are not different from us. Ghar to ek hi hai (the house is the same),” she said.
Bhosle recalled working with Pakistan’s Apa Noor Jehan and Ghulam Ali. She said she considers Atif Aslam’s song in Rustom among the best in recent years, and rates him and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan among the best of Pakistani singers.
Reminiscing about changes in music, Bhosle said songs used to be recorded in one take over two tracks with much feeling and hard work. But now songs had become machine-based, recorded in bits, and errors in tone and rhythm were corrected with computers.
“This is the age of the machine. Now songs don’t last for even three months, our songs are over 50 years old, but still fresh and loved by all. But there are signs that music is changing now, for example, Atif Aslam’s song in Rustom. It will change slowly, it is a cycle, good songs will come back,” she said.
Referring to her love of cooking since childhood, she said she had restaurants called Asha’s at Birmingham and Manchester in the UK and in Gulf countries, but would love to visit Pakistan and learn new dishes from there.
“Khana hai to gana hai. Bhooke pet koyi gaa nahi sakta, koyi sun bhi nahi sakta (Food comes before music. No one can sing or listen to music on an empty stomach),” she remarked with the infectious laugh heard in some of her best songs.