Asha Bhosle: The voice of Bollywood

She is the legend who has sung in hundreds of Hindi films, worked with Michael Stipe and Robbie Williams, and been immortalised on a UK No 1 record. Rob Fitzpatrick talks to Asha Bhosle

'In the old days all the movie songs were recorded right there on set," remembers Asha Bhosle, the quintessential Bollywood singer. Now 77, Bhosle was just 11 when she performed her first song on a movie soundtrack, Chala Chala Nav Bala from Majha Bal in 1943. In the 68 years since, she has provided the on-screen singing voice for generations of actresses unable to capture and deliver a song as brilliantly as she could, singing around 20,000 tunes in 14 languages, as well as recording with Robbie Williams, Michael Stipe and the Kronos Quartet, and lending her name to Cornershop's Brimful of Asha, one of the landmark No 1 hits of the 1990s.

"My son Anand first heard that song in San Francisco and told me all about it," she says, via a friend and translator, from Australia where she is appearing in concert. "I was at the immigration counter at Heathrow Airport once and the young officer read the profession listed in my passport as 'singer'. He was intrigued, so I told him I was the Asha from Brimful of Asha, and he was so excited he left his post and called his friends over to meet me. So I guess, at the very least, that song helped me clear UK immigration faster than usual."

When Bhosle thinks back to the start of her career she remembers dusty movie sets, people running around, lights and cameras. "And there was little me," she says, "falling asleep and being woken up to sing my part. I think of that time fondly – it was pre-independence India. Only my sister Lata [Mangeshkar, a hugely popular singer in her own right], Manna Dey [the 91-year old Bengali singer] and I are left from those who began their careers in what was British India."

Bhosle was born in Sangli, in Maharashtra, south-west India. A town of goldsmiths and sugar refineries, it stretches far along the Krishna river. Bhosle's father, Dinanath Mangeshkar, was a hugely successful singer and actor who built up a travelling theatre company that included his four children. India was then divided into kingdoms, and Bhosle recalls how the maharajas would welcome her father and his group whenever he performed in areas under their rule. "He had 300 staff, vast wardrobes, costumes, theatrical sets and props," she says. "We would stay in each city for months performing plays which went on all night. My whole education was watching actors and singers perform."

After her father died, Bhosle studied under Navrang Nagpurkar in Bombay, learning the basics of Indian classical music. "He fine-tuned my voice for the microphone," she says. But soon she had to choose between becoming a classical or popular singer. "And Navrang suggested popular singing as it was more lucrative." Married young, with a son, she was encouraged by her first husband to sing, but he drew the line at her acting. "He came from a traditional family where acting was considered taboo," she says, "so even the faint possibility of me becoming an actress was shot down before it had taken wings."

At movie auditions, Bhosle would come up against household names such as Zohra Bai, Shamshad Begum, Geeta Dutt and her sister, Lata. "I would visit all the recording studios and meet songwriters," she says. "They would ask me to sing a particular song, then they'd decide whether I was good enough or not." Bhosle had the most incredible and individual voice, a perfect, crystalline tone, extraordinary range while carrying an ineffable otherness, like a sense of India itself. Quickly, songwriters and directors began to seek her out.

No room for error

Recording studios were huge places built to accommodate vast numbers of musicians with the singer placed in a separate cabin to minimise any audio overspill. "Right up to the mid 90s we recorded every song live," Bhosle says. "There would be huge orchestras – sometimes 100-strong – and each song was recorded in one single go. There was no dubbing, you worked with the orchestra and if anyone made a mistake, we would start all over again. That's why each song took hours to record."

Bhosle became particularly well known for her ability to change her voice for each role and a huge amount of film work, alongside established male singing stars such as Dey, Kishore Kumar and Mohammad Rafi, followed.

"Rafi was a stickler for perfection," she says of her co-stars. "Manna Dey was the best classically trained singer, while Kishore Kumar was like the wind. You could never pin him down. He and I were well matched because we had similar ideas. We were not afraid to experiment. But all singers are actors – we just act with our voices."

From the mid-60s and throughout the 1970s Kumar and Bhosle were especially prized by the brilliant Calcuttan composer Rahul Dev (known as RD) Burman, who brought elements of western pop and hip-shaking, beat group and hippy dynamism to his music. Bhosle would marry him in 1980.

"Rahul Dev's music was way ahead of its time," she says. "He had so many different styles and rhythms in his music. You can hear jazz, Latin, that John Barry, super-spy sound, some blues, calypso and pop in there; 17 years after he died, he's more popular than ever."

Alongside the hundreds ("perhaps thousands, no one really knows") of film scores Bhosle sang on, there were many other works. She made a handful, "but nothing like enough", of private albums, the Indian term for independent, non movie-related collections.

Boy George and boybands

"Film music is good," she says. "But only private albums give you enough of an outlet for your own creativity." There have been Hindi pop albums that have won many awards, while in the 1980s Bhosle made a move into the European music world at a time when the only widely known Indian musician was Ravi Shankar. Bhosle formed the group West India Company with Stephen Luscombe from Blancmange, Vince Clark and percussionist Pandit Dinesh, and the record was an unexpected success. She went on to have another big hit with Bow Down Mister, a song she recorded with Boy George. Since then there have been records with Nelly Furtado, even with UK boyband Code Red, but it's ghazals, love-lorn Urdu poems and songs, that have given Bhosle most pleasure. "The songs are everlasting," she says. "And the albums keep selling for years."

As she approaches 80, Bhosle is still touring. "As a person and as a singer, I love to try something new. I like challenges," she says. Asked to nominate favourites from her mountainous catalogue, Bhosle laughs, mentioning needles and haystacks, but suggests The Way You Dream, a duet with Michael Stipe on the 1 Giant Leap album, You've Stolen My Heart, her album of Burman songs with the Kronos Quartet and her new record, Naina Lagaike, recorded with master sitar player Shujaat Khan, with whom she is playing three rare UK concerts this week.

"Most of my colleagues have been insulated in Indian music alone – they did not think of the world beyond what they knew, but I always did and still do." Bhosle and her translator pause as the singer searches for the right words. "The truth is I've got a naturally outgoing nature and I still have a great love for experimentation."

• Asha Bhosle and Shujaat Khan play the Southbank Centre, London SE1 (0844 875 0073), tomorrow night, Birmingham Symphony Hall (0121-780 3333) on Friday, and De Montford Hall, Leicester (0116-233 3111) on Saturday. The album Naina Lagaike is out now.

A little brimful: Cornershop's Ben Ayres and Tjinder Singh's beginner's guide to Asha Bhosle

1. Koi Sehri Babu (1973)

From the great Loafer, a film by Madras film-maker A Bhimsingh. This is a crime thriller sort of song. The nearest you are likely to get to a female Curtis Mayfield.

2. Parde Mein Rehne Do (1968)

This is a truly lovely song, from Shikar, a hit murder-mystery. Asha reminisces on what would happen if the veil she is wearing was to be removed.

3. Dil Cheez Kya Hai (1981)

From Muzaffar Ali's film, Umrao Jaan, this is a total beauty on the subject of what a special thing the heart is: all heartstrings and ankle bracelets.

4. Hum Intezar Karenge Tera Qayamat Tak (1967)

M Sadiq's film Bahu Begum is a light comedy focusing on the adored wife of a Muslim family. Featuring brilliant music by Roshan, this one is a romantic explosion.

5. Ek Main Aur Ek Tu (1975)

This song – One Me and One You – is a duet with the great Kishore Kumar. It's a bit like a Trinidadian cricket team meets the Beatles.

Listen on Spotify:


Rob Fitzpatrick

The GuardianTramp

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