BANGALORE: ‘The earliest memory I have of my mother, Asha Bhosle, is a fleeting montage of doorbells ringing very late in the night, a sobbing woman hugging me back to sleep, the strains of strange, repetitive singing emanating from behind a closed door... I bang on the door wanting to get in, but am roughly pulled away by a man when the music threatens to cease. Later, I learned that that was a routine day in the life of my father: guarding Aai against all impediments which may have prevented her from singing for their supper. One day it struck her that her third and advanced state of pregnancy may not be able to sustain the daily dose of bashing that was her lot. The next day, she left behind every single paisa she had earned, her bungalow, her car, even her clothes, and sought refuge with Mai Mangeshkar, the grand old materfamilias.”
This excerpt is from a magazine article written by Varsha Bhosle in the 90s. She often recalled the resilience of her mother who rose above the greatest of odds including labels like “bai-ji, gaayika, gaanewali, kothewali, devdasi, fallen woman” to become a legend.
The biggest blow to this idolised mother and iconic singer, however, came from Varsha herself when she shot herself in the head in 2012. She had been suffering from chronic depression. Post the tragedy, Asha tai, the voice of eternal hope, said on camera something to the effect of, “His justice..his will..He knows why.”
Maybe that is how she has coped with all the stuff life has thrown at her since the time she was 16. That is how young she was when she eloped with a man almost a decade and a half older than her. Everyone knows the rest of the story. She walked out of a broken marriage and then gnawed her way back into life and music even when the Hindi film industry did not know what to do with a voice like hers.
She however sang everything that came her way. Songs in regional languages, the rejects of Lata Mangeshkar and songs for secondary female characters because all leading ladies wanted only Lata. Hers was the voice of temptation, danger, rebellion, seduction and none of the female actors were ready to embrace it. Her first big break as a lead singer came in B R Chopra’s Naya Daur. She then went beyond her club songstress image to sing qawalis like Saaqiya aaj mujhe neend nahin aayegi in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam and Nigahen milane ko jee chahta hai in Dil Hi To Hai. She stirred fathomless pathos in Bandini’s jailhouse lament Ab ke baras, was as pure as the morning light in Kaajal’s memorable Sahir bhajan, Tora mann darpan kehlaye, effortlessly went down the classical trail in Dil Diya Dard Liya’s Sawan aaye ya na aaye and matched Lata note for note in Jahan Aara’s Jab jab tumhe bhulaya. She went on to prove decisively that she could echo passion and peace, prayer and poetry, unmaad and bhakti. At some point in music history, she was anointed as the most recorded voice in the world.
From being O P Nayyar’s muse in the 60s, she turned into the voice of freedom-drunk young India jiving to R D Burman in the 70s to Muzafar Ali, Khayyam and Shehryaar’s Umrao Jaan in the 80s to A R Rehman’s signature tune in Rangeela in the 90s. Along the way, she raised her children, cut records with Mehdi Hassan , Boy George and Code Red, won a Grammy nomination, heaps of awards, opened restaurants named after her and remained unforgettable.
Varsha recalled her mother’s zid and how “the woman who had never been to school, let alone spoken a complete English sentence, entered the Top-20 charts with her song Ave Maria, appeared on British and German television, spoke lucidly on radio interviews, addressed the British press — all with her usual unfazed panache.” And how despite a fever and colitis, she pulled off an entire sold out concert abroad because Asha Bhosle never makes excuses and always delivers what is required of her.
Stray critics have accused her of opportunism, of abandoning R D Burman in his final years but her own struggles with life and death have taken more from her than has been given to her.
As Varsha had astutely observed, “It’s accepted that one needs to humanise a hero in order to understand and truly appreciate him; the corollary to which may be that an idol admitting to be made entirely of clay, as they all must be, is soon relegated to the tar-pits.”
Her success and triumphs and the thousands of songs she has sung in the end cannot replace the daughter who killed herself in a fit of depression.
In an interview she gave after this loss, Asha tai had said that in this hour of unrelenting pain, her brother gave her a tanpura and asked her to go back to music for healing. And she did. No one knows what it has taken her to pull herself back together but she is still whole. Still singing.
September 8 was Asha tai’s birthday and the compelling song of her life plays on.