Choral riffs: A Wknd interview with jazz icon Asha Puthli - Hindustan Times
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Choral riffs: A Wknd interview with jazz icon Asha Puthli

Mar 29, 2024 02:36 PM IST

Her songs inspired Donna Summer; her fashion is said to have inspired Madonna's. She’s performing, after 44 years, in a tour that includes a gig at Glastonbury.

In 1966, at the restaurant Venice at Hotel Astoria in Bombay, writer Ved Mehta, artist Vivan Sundaram and Asha Puthli turned up to listen to saxophonist Braz Gonsalves’s jazz quintet perform.

‘I was always the outsider, in India and in the US,’ Puthli says. ‘But I’ve always done whatever the hell I wanted. I still do.’ (Photo by Alan Mercer) PREMIUM
‘I was always the outsider, in India and in the US,’ Puthli says. ‘But I’ve always done whatever the hell I wanted. I still do.’ (Photo by Alan Mercer)

Mehta, a MacArthur Fellow and member of the British Royal Society, would later write the book Portrait of India (1970), about his return to the country after decades in the US. In his chapter Jazz in Bombay, he would say: “As the musicians play, they throw glances at Asha, who blows kisses to them.” Braz Gonsalves called out to Asha to take to the stage and she did, facing the musicians, her back to the audience. “The state of jazz in India is such that when musicians really play and sing, it is only for themselves,” Mehta wrote.

Puthli, then 21, joined the quintet to sing My Funny Valentine, riffing and improvising, Mehta writes, to the delight of the musicians and the audience.

Puthli has always made music for herself, refusing to be boxed in as a performer.

A still from the photoshoot for her self-titled debut album, released in 1973. (Photo by Mick Rock)
A still from the photoshoot for her self-titled debut album, released in 1973. (Photo by Mick Rock)

From beginnings in jazz, disco and rock, to music that is said to have influenced Donna Summer, and a sense of style that found later echoes in the sartorial choices of Madonna, she was an icon of the 1970s. When she stepped away towards the end of that decade to raise her son (Jannu Goldschmidt, now a TV producer and director), her music didn’t entirely fade away. Her 1976 track Space Talk was sampled by Notorious BIG in 1997. In 2022, American singer-songwriter Raveena paid homage to her in the title of her acclaimed second album, Asha’s Awakening.

Puthli released a few albums too, over the decades. And last year, an album of remixes titled Disco Mystic was released by the California-based Naya Beat Records. In recent years, with the resurgence of vinyl, and of classics on music-streaming platforms, her music has seen a resurgence too.

2024 will mark a full circle, she says. That’s because Puthli will be back on stage for the first time in 44 years this year, with a solo tour that begins in Los Angeles and includes a performance at Glastonbury in June.

She revels in the fact that, at 79, she will be one of the oldest artists to ever perform at that music festival. “I might even dance on stage, who knows,” she says.

***

Puthli was born in Bombay to parents who owned Bombay Woollen Mills, which they sold to set up a printing press called Usha Printers. “My parents never wanted me to do anything artistic for money, just for educational purposes,” she says. “I learnt Bharatanatyam and Odissi as a teenager, but jazz drew me in on the radio.”

Her world opened up further at MS University, Baroda, where she enrolled to study Home Economics but met the artists Vivan Sundaram and Bhupen Khakhar, who introduced her to new worlds of art, literature and intellectual discourse. She returned to Bombay and continued to study classical dance and music, but something had shifted.

At 21, she left for New York, determined to make a career in jazz, armed with just a name she had heard on the radio. She was hoping to find and impress John P Hammond, the music producer responsible for giving Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin their big breaks.

Luckily for her, Hammond remembered Puthli from Mehta’s book. They eventually met in New York. Hammond passed her demo tape on to the avant-garde jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman, and Puthli became the first vocalist to record on Coleman’s seminal 1971 work, Science Fiction.

This album, with its Afro-futurist, free-jazz, almost disco-ball sound, was a celebration of Coleman’s resistance to defined musical structures, and Puthli fit right in, with her voice a rare mix of Indian classical modulation and multi-octave, erotic, disordered vocals.

“I would meditate as a young girl, and with Ornette’s compositions, that focus helped. It helped me fit into a frame of improvisation with everyone else on that album,” Puthli says.

***

She has always been the outsider, she adds. In India, her unique vocal style set her apart. In America, she was an artist of colour from an exoticised land.

There were efforts to pin her down. The record company CBS, for instance, signed her on, but wanted her to stick to jazz. Puthli’s self-titled debut album, released in 1973, instead offered a sound that was space-disco, funk and ballad combined, with a fantastic cover of the reclusive JJ Cale’s Right Down Here thrown in.

By this time, she was a talent to reckon with on the alternative jazz scene in New York, in a time when this meant one could bump into Andy Warhol at a bookstore and become fast friends. (Warhol photographed her at his studio, and Puthli would later get the legendary fashion photographer Richard Avedon to shoot the cover of her second CBS album, She Loves to Hear the Music; 1975.)

“Trying to carve my own space and keeping the genre of my music fluid was never easy,” she says. “Big recording labels wanted the more commercial styles. But I’ve always done whatever the hell I wanted. I still do.”

A still from the 1978 video for Mister Moonlight.
A still from the 1978 video for Mister Moonlight.

Doing whatever the hell she wanted involved, at one point, dancing in staccato movements while wearing a gold bustier, in the 1978 video for Mister Moonlight. Her outfit would later be echoed in the gold Jean Paul Gaultier corset Madonna wore on her 1990 Blonde Ambition tour. (Scan the QR code alongside to watch the Mister Moonlight video.)

“Madonna worked at the NYC club Danceteria, when I performed there. The designer for my costume was Larry LeGaspi, who famously designed for the punk group KISS. I was told that my hand movements while performing might’ve inspired Madonna too,” Puthli says, grinning.

There is a lot more to her music. Her songs have echoed her times, and her humanitarian concerns. Chipko Chipko (1990) was an ode to Sunderlal Bahuguna and his women-centric anti-deforestation movement. She riffed on the risks of going nuclear, and sang against anti-Asian violence in the UK, on her 1982 album Only the Headaches Remain. “Asha’s music remains impactful. She owns the rights to a lot of her songs, and her fluid musical style lends itself to a contemporary retelling,” says Raghav Mani, co-founder of Naya Beat.

“I want to come to India soon,” says the artist, who now lives in Palm Beach, Florida. “Even if I’m in a wheelchair when I get there, I’ll perform.”

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