Composer OP Nayyar, in an article for Filmfare in August 1957, wrote about Asha Bhosle: “…With each new song she acquires a richer tone and more beautiful expression. If she continues that way—and I am sure she will—one day she will be a prodigy, a voice to be remembered for ages to come.”
Close to 60 years later, Nayyar’s words ring true. For those of the current generation who associate ‘old’ Hindi film music with the music of the 80s and 90s, Nayyar himself may be an unfamiliar name. But Asha Bhosle? She lives forever. A voice, certainly, to be remembered for ages to come.
Raju Bharatan, one of Hindi cinema’s greatest singers, in his ‘musical biography’ pays tribute to Asha, and draws attention to those facets of her career that tend to get overlooked. The fact that Asha owes it to OP Nayyar for honing her voice and helping her develop it. Or the fact that not just OP Nayyar and RD Burman, the two composers most closely associated with Asha, but others too—Ravi, SD Burman, even elder sister and arch-rival Lata Mangeshkar’s so-called ‘brother’, Madan Mohan—are responsible for having given Asha some of her most memorable songs.
Bharatan does not create, in this book, a strictly chronological timeline of Asha’s life and career. Instead, Asha Bhosle—A Musical Biography is a somewhat haphazard reconstruction of her life. The details are there, and given Bharatan’s long association with the Hindi film industry, probably in more detail than is commonly known. Asha’s early elopement and marriage to Bhosle, his helping her in singing (which may well have ground to a halt without his active support); her long affair with OP Nayyar, followed by their falling out and her subsequent marriage to RD Burman.
Interspersed with the facts are Bharatan’s insights into the cinema industry from the 40s through to the 80s and beyond: the politics, the ambition and self-interest. This is where Bharatan is at his most interesting, in his dissection of what drove (and continues to drive) not just singers like Asha, but also other artistes—composers, lyricists, actors—in the industry. He examines the rivalry between Asha and Lata, the singer’s equation with the three main composers who shaped her career (SD Burman, OP Nayyar and RD Burman), her experiences with other singers. He also discusses her post-playback singing period, the 21st century, which has seen Asha become a concert and TV diva.
It is obvious that Bharatan has done his homework: he pinpoints, for example, the exact number of songs Asha has sung for each major composer. He quotes extensively from interviews and informal meetings from years ago. And he manages to successfully steer clear of the tendency of many biographers to eulogise the subject of the biography: Asha is at the receiving end of several of Bharatan’s barbs regarding her views and statements over the years.
And yet, the book is far from flawless. A randomness and lack of structure mark much of it. Some themes (such as Asha’s unfair dismissal of OP Nayyar’s influence on her singing) are visited and revisited so often throughout the book that they become repetitive. Several incidents and anecdotes should ideally have found a place in Bharatan’s own memoirs rather than a biography of Asha Bhosle. This, along with the sloppy editing, can make this a difficult book to read, even for a diehard Asha fan.