Play It Back

The face that launched a thousand soundtracks.

Beach Food Market clerk Pratap Chowdhury spends a lot of time focusing on South Beach diplomacy efforts. He practices basic Spanish, learns customers' names, and reaches out with a handshake or fist bop deemed appropriate for each patron's apparent nationality or culture. As such, New Times decided to offer our own diplomatic show of goodwill by telling the recent immigrant we had recently been in e-mail correspondence with legendary Indian Bollywood singer Asha Bhosle. Chowdhury informs us he's Bangladeshi, not Indian, and he speaks Bangla, not Hindi. Oops. No matter, he says — Bangladesh used to be part of India, and Bhosle has sung in many Indo-Aryan tongues. So Chowdhury's reaction is, as hoped, a cultural point for the U.S. team. "She is a goddess," he says, his voice quivering with excitement. "Nobody in the world sings so sweetly."

With some 12,500 song titles to her name over the course of a six-decade career, Bhosle, along with her signature voice — that high, honey-dipped sound recently popularized in the West — has caused much happy quivering. And as a playback singer — the recorded voice of Bollywood musical numbers that actors lip-sync — she boasts more than 950 movie credits. In fact, Bhosle and her late sister, Lata Mangeshkar, are considered two of the most recorded voices on the planet.

The daughters of a singer and a performer for a traveling theater company, the two girls never knew anything but singing. Indeed their voices saved them from disaster when their father passed away and left them and their mother without a decent economic or educational safety net.

"We were kind of like the Von Trapp family as shown in the movie The Sound of Music," Bhosle recalls in an e-mail interview. "Singing was the only thing that came to us naturally, so it was only a matter of time before we were discovered." In 1943, then-13-year-old Mangeshkar got her break as an actress in the film Pahili Mangalagaur. Bhosle followed close behind, debuting the next year in the film Majha Bal at the tender age of 10. By the Fifties, Bhosle was clearly considered the more provocative of the two, often performing fast-paced numbers that most Indians did not consider ladylike.

"Even as a child, I was considered a rebel. I was a tomboy, and I suppose my music and style reflects this inborn natural trait," she says. "The silver lining on the cloud was that the youth loved what I was doing. I was ushering in a new era. I talked their language, and according to them, I was hip and cool. I owe my popularity to these youngsters, without whom I would have been a lost voice in history. I suppose Elvis Presley, too, faced similar challenges in America, but the young turned him into a superstar."

In 1957, just as Elvis was doing his Jailhouse Rock, Bhosle was getting her own shot at the big time with the breakthrough film Naya Daur, in which she sang the entire female repertoire. Similar musical flicks in the Sixties followed, with Bhosle's voice projecting loud and clear throughout the soundtrack of the ever-popular Teesri Manzil. The music for that 1966 movie set the stage for a lifelong collaboration with its composer, Rahul Dev Burman, whom she later married.

"Rahul and I were perfectly matched," she says of a matrimony that came as the result of serendipity, not by arrangement. The two had originally met while Burman was still a child and Bhosle, already a well-established singer, was recording a song for his father, composer Sachin Dev Burman. The lad asked for her autograph, but as the years passed, he also made a name for himself, first as his father's assistant and later as an innovative soundtrack composer in his own right. Mutual respect and attraction blossomed into a lifelong professional and personal companionship that lasted until Burman's death in 1994.

"It was a great pleasure to work with him. I admired him as a composer and a human being," Bhosle says. "His most difficult compositions were reserved for me because he did not think anyone else could sing them. He respected and admired me and often said that without me, his music would have died."

Throughout the decades, Bhosle's emblematic voice endured, both to Burman's credit and Bhosle's own artistic resourcefulness. Experimenting with their native Indian sounds and world music, the couple's 1985 album, Rahul & I, became one of the best-selling Indian pop albums of all time. Meanwhile, Bhosle's formation of the successful UK-based pop group West India Company and its resulting Ave Maria (Om Ganesha) album attracted the attention of Brit popper Boy George, with whom she collaborated on the 1989 song "Bow Down Mister." That same year, Bhosle was nominated for a Grammy for her recording of "Legacy" with sarod master Ali Akbar Khan, and performed for acclaimed Indian composer Allah Rakha Rahman's first Hindi film, Rangeela, which helped lead to Bollywood's worldwide recognition.

In 2000, Bhosle's recording of "Kabhi to Nazar Milao" with British-born Indian-Pakistani composer Adnan Sami remained at the number one spot in her home country for more than a year. And in 2006 in the States, she received a Grammy nomination for the tune "You've Stolen My Heart," which she performed with San Francisco's string-based Kronos Quartet.

"I love taking on new challenges, and to perform with Western pop stars and classic artists was a challenge for me," she says. "Having said that, music is music whether it's Indian or Western. The same seven musical notes in different ways are used in every song and tune, so it was not rocket science to perform with international stars."

Given that attitude, it should come as no surprise that Bhosle has also excelled at one of India's other master arts: cooking. Her international restaurant chain, Asha's, feeds souls and stomachs in Dubai and Kuwait, and will soon be doing the same throughout the United Kingdom.

"There must be something in music that stimulates their taste buds, because if [musicians] don't cook, they certainly appreciate good cooking," she says. "For me, dishing out a fine recipe is almost like singing a great tune." And yes, although most of us wish we could whistle while we work, Bhosle says she really does break out into song as she brews up her curried concoctions.

At age 74 (and a half), Bhosle says she's content to bask in the satisfaction of her Platinum Jubilee year, but what comes next is a matter of divine intervention. "At my age, I don't enjoy the luxury to make future plans. I can only propose and let Him dispose," she says, referring to her Hindi deity. "Having said that, I would like to add that it's been a wonderful life and it's not over yet!"

Back at Beach Food Market, a long line of customers has piled up as Chowdhury waxes rhapsodic over Bhosle. "If she sang more in English, then everybody would know she's actually the best in the whole world," he tells the line, adding he's pretty confident that Bhosle's god will shine in her favor. "I'd say she has at least another 50 years, but I'd really like her to have 75 more."

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