She is last of the Mohicans, belonging to a golden era of music, and is the only flag bearer left perhaps in whole of the world who has seen music evolve from basic instruments, to melodies, to synthetic instruments, to club music and what not! You name any new adaptation in music, and Asha Bhonsle’s association with that genre will immediately pop up.
But whatever be the genre in which she is going to render her vocal prowess, one thing is for sure, her voice will not falter to a node. This is perhaps one of the reasons why when Naushad, who had a wonderful sojourn with Asha Bhonsle in the black and white era and till the sixties, when he came back to give music in Dharamkanta (1982) chose Asha Bhonsle to give voice over to his Tawaif song. Naushad who hailed from Lucknow, had said that his choice of Asha Bhonsle was because her voice still carried the bazaaroopan or the voice associated with the kothas and tawaifs.
Remember the scene in Chandni (1989) where Sri Devi had uttered the dialogue that “Cognac sharaab nahi hotee”, but she becomes intoxicated on the screen after consuming 2-3 drinks!. Same is the case with the voice of Asha Bhonsle which is synonymous with Cognac. Any song of Asha Bhonsle you listen to, after hearing it two-three times you would be bewitched by its rendition or rather intoxicated by its ebbs and flows.
When Asha Bhonsle was trying to make her mark in the world of playback singing, she had a furious competition from the likes of Geeta Dutt, Shamshad Begum, Suraiya and her elder sister Lata Mangeshkar. She really came into her own when owing to Geeta Dutt’s personal problems in her life, she became erratic towards her professional commitments. Asha Bhonsle was helped to a great extent by the advent of O P Nayyar when he gave her a chance to sing under his baton through CID (1956), and ‘leke pehla pehla pyar, bhar ke aankhon mein khumar’ became an all-time hit. Bottom line was CID also had playbacks by Geeta Dutt as also Shamshad Begum, but Asha Bhonsle held her own and came out with shinning colours. The challenge for Asha Bhonsle was that she was not the voice of the heroine, but that of the commoner but she held her forte. Asha Bhonsle, when she did get a chance in Kashmir Ki Kali (1964) to become a playback voice of Sharmila Tagore, she just grabbed the opportunity with both the hands and never looked back.
While O P Nayyar had given her career a direction, the real blossoming and carving of niche came when she started singing with her husband, Pancham, aka Rahul Dev Burman. ‘60s and ‘70s really belonged to her as far as the songs that connoted a rebel of a generation was concerned, and the swan song of this period was ‘Dum Maro Dum’ from Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971), first of the Woodstock category of Indian Hindi film songs, and established herself as the first choice as a voice for western instrument based songs. But before that with ‘O Haseena Julfo wali’ (Teesri Manzil, 1966) Asha Bhonsle gave ample hints that her time is coming and nobody could stop it.
The ability of Asha Bhonsle to ooze out sensuality through her renditions was her USP which no other singer has been able to emulate. Starting from the Howrah Bridge (1958) song – Aaye meherbaan, to ‘Ye mera dil‘ from Don (1978), or Piya tu ab to aaja from Caravan (1971) or for that matter aao na gale lag jao na from Mere Jeewan Sathi (1972), or Kya gajab karte ho ji from Love Story (1981), all these songs have sensuality written over it. One could argue with confidence that were it not for Asha Bhonsle, Helen or Aruna Irani would not have got such a long lease to their careers as singing and dancing co-actors.
When the whole nation was ridiculing the remix, Asha Bhonsle came out and stood in its support by giving it her own interpretation in her own manner, and though the songs where a remix majorly of the compositions made by Pancham, it never appeared as if there was an attempt to remix. It was her towering presence that gave recognition to this new genre of Hindi film music and provided a much needed legitimacy. However, she also has a suggestion for the new generation that they should listen to the original songs as well and not be content with the remixes.
Even though Pancham had utilized her voice for all the songs of effervescence but when it came to soulful songs his first choice was Lata, especially the songs that were written by Gulzar. However, Asha scaled this frontier as well, when Pancham came out with his first non-films album DIL PADOSI HAI, which was a new vista to the diversified profile of Asha Bhonsle. And with Ijajat (1987), she announced to the world that she has carved a niche in the world in this genre as well. The way the interludes of the songs were broken, especially in “Katra katra milti hai, where one voice followed the other without a break, was a new summit for Asha Bhonsle, who now with respect is called as Asha Tai.
This rendition was known as overlap and it was Pancham, the first music director who introduced the overlap of sound in a song as he did in the song “baithe hain kya Uske paas“, from the film Jewel Thief (1967), but perfected it with in Ijazat (1987) with the songs “choti si kahani se and Katra Katra milti hai“, Gulzar penning the lyrics and Asha Bhonsle displaying her vocal prowess to make them legendary songs.
It is not that Asha Bhonsle was a perfectionist in songs with a Western touch, her classical wizadry was also exquisite as she displayed in Bandini (1963) with the song “Abki Baras Bhejo Bhaiya ko Babul…” Anecdotal evidences inform that hearing the rendition even Sachin Da, who had given music, burst out into tears.
Who could forget the jugalbandi in Utsav (1984) where the two sisters matched each other note for note- man kyu mehka set to musical score by Laxmikant Pyarelal? It was the culmination or rather the acme of the dual singing by the sisters which started with.
Till the time Lata Mangeshkar was singing, she had reinvented herself with each decade but her metamorphosis with A R Rahman in Rangeela (1995) stands out as a point of departure in her musical career. Fortuitous as it was, Rangeela fetched for Rahman the Filmfare Award as the best musician on debut- R D Burman Award which incidentally was established in 1995 in memory of Pancham after he passed away.
She has been singing from the age of 10, and today when she is 90, she is planned to celebrate it with a Broadway style musical, and she could be first such musical Diva anywhere in the world to have achieved this milestone. However, there is a pang of sadness as well that the film industry who was given international recognition has been slightly or rather hesitant to celebrate this occasion. After all, where would you find legends like her in this lifetime, not on this planet, not even on the moon? But does Asha Bhonsle care? Not at all, her life has been all about giving spunk performances, and she is going to do the same in Dubai as well. May she live to celebrate the century!