By celebrating her 90th birthday with a live performance in Dubai on September 8, Asha Bhosle will be proving yet again that she not only has a tremendous zest for life, but also an ebullience that has enabled her to rule Hindi film music across many genres, from classical to cabaret numbers, sing for generations of composers and audiences, and bring home every award that counts, barring the Bharat Ratna, which she rightfully deserves.
I first met Asha Bhosle after the release of 'Hare Krishna Hare Ram' (1971), where I was assisting Dev Anand, and met her last as recently as in 2019 at a music festival in Jaipur, where she was surrounded by friends and admirers, and yet she mentioned to all those present how long our association has been.
I have had the good fortune of writing the lyrics of two of her ageless hit numbers -- 'Jab Chhaye Mera Jadoo' ('Lootmaar'; 1980) and 'Suniye, Kahiye, Kahate, Sunate Baaton Baaton Mein Pyaar' (with Kishore Kumar in 'Baton Baton Mein'; 1976). Over these years, I have viewed her as a warm and affectionate person, and a thorough professional. And I have never seen her sloppily dressed, even during rehearsals.
She had this magical quality of hearing the words of a song and start singing it. She would of course follow the music composer and yet, wherever necessary, not hesitate to lend her own touch. She brought spontaneity to her singing, but it was the way she grasped her songs that would take us by surprise. In the 1950s and 1960s, songs used to be recorded over multiple takes, but Asha Bhosle, unlike many others, never complained.
Not surprisingly, having spent her opening decade in the film industry being completely overshadowed by the established greats of her time -- notably Shamshad Begum, Noorjehan and Geeta Dutt -- she went on to be sought after by composers spanning generations.
She can look back to working with composers from Hansraj Behl and Sardul Kwatra, to Shankar-Jaikishan, who were behind her first brush with national fame with the 'Boot Polish' (1953) song, 'Nanhe Munne Bachche Teri Mutthi Mein', to O.P. Nayyar, who made her the lead female voice of B.R. Chopra's 'Naya Daur' (1957), to the southern masters Ilaiyaraaja and A.R. Rahman.
What was wonderful about her was that even if she was singing for a young composer, say, an Anu Malik, an Anand-Milind, or a Jatin-Lalit, she would sing with the same passion as she would for a Rajesh Roshan, or a Bappi Lahiri.
In her crowded life, Asha Bhosle suffered a lot personally -- she had to end her abusive marriage with Ganpat Rao Bhosle, with whom she had eloped when she was 16; she was the single mother of three children, two of whom -- music composer Hemant Bhosle and Varsha Bhosle, a singer and journalist who committed suicide -- died when they were young and showed promise; and even her best years with Rahul Dev Burman, whom the world knew as 'Pancham' but she lovingly called 'Bubs', after their marriage in 1980, was terminated by fate because of his death in 1994.
In between, she was romantically linked with O.P. Nayyar, but they parted ways in the 1970s, by when Pancham had become very much a part of her life. Pancham enabled Asha Bhosle to foray into multiple genres of music, with 'Teesri Manzil' being the turning point, which went on to define her career. Interestingly, Pancham's father, the great Sachin Dev Barman, once had a fight with Asha's sister, Lata Mangeshkar, and started giving the younger sibling all the songs that had been assigned for the elder one!
It was Asha Bhosle's joie de vivre that helped not to let the tragedies in her life diminish her. At work, she could come across as quite cut and dried, but at home, she exuded sweetness and warm hospitality. I remember one Diwali, when we were at Pancham's house playing cards (Shakti Samanta and Rajesh Khanna were among those who were at the table), and we had the most memorable prawn curry cooked by Asha Bhosle.
On another occasion, it was Saraswati Puja, and in the Bengali tradition, she insisted on serving us 'khichuri' and 'baigan bhaja'. It was this hospitality and good food that she was able to introduce in Dubai, which she would visit frequently, when she launched her restaurant Asha. She did not join the venture as just another investor, but she was very much a part of the menu planning and food trials.
Talking about her hospitality, I remember the time I had to pick up Javed Akhtar from the airport. Asha Bhosle was also returning to Mumbai by the same flight, but her driver did not show up. So, I gave her a ride to her house and when we reached there, she wouldn't leave us without serving us tea.
The only time I saw her being slightly socially awkward was when I went for lunch with a producer friend of mine and Rekha -- the two were in a relationship then -- to the Juhu Hotel, which is still around in Mumbai.
As we were having lunch, Asha Bhosle, dressed uncharacteristically in bell bottoms and a top, walked in with Pancham, but seeing us, she did not exude her usual warmth.
The two sat at a corner table and quietly left in a short while. Maybe, she did not want industry people like us to start talking about them at a time when Pancham was still married and in the process of getting a divorce.
As Asha Bhosle prepares for her 90th birthday concert, which may be another world record in a career studded with many, one can wonder how many artistes would be able to pull off a live show of this magnitude in the eighth decade of their singing career? Having sung more than 20,000 songs in 25-odd languages, without anyone ever complaining about her diction or pronunciation, Asha Bhosle, I am certain, must be unfazed.