The restiveness of Asha


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WHEN I was growing up in Bombay, Lata’s voice was everywhere. By ‘Lata’, I mean Lata Mangeshkar, though it was enough to use the first name to invoke not only a voice but an ethos, a hegemony, and even the business model of something called ‘playback singing’. By ‘hegemony’ I mean not just dominance: I mean a climate that saturates absolutely, and makes us forget about the possibility of other climates and the life forms they give rise to. ‘Lata’, more than any other singer – film, ‘light’ classical, or classical – was, in the seventies, that climate.

This soon led, in that decade, to (having used ‘climate’, I’m about to mix metaphors) an industrialisation of Lata’s voice; and, by implication, of the female voice in Indian popular music. Lata faced the brunt of this development herself. The voice lost texture. Texture had anyway been a subtle, rather than an overt, presence in it over the forties, fifties, and sixties (though the industrialisation had set in by the end of that period), to be heard especially in the lower registers of songs like ‘dum bhar jo udhar muh phere’. Anyone who wanted richness of tone from the female voice in the Indian popular song would now need to look elsewhere. Or they’d have to acquiesce to discovering Kishori Amonkar or, later, Veena Sahasrabuddhe.

In the Hindi film song, though, and possibly in Bengali and Tamil film music, the metallic, standardised, high female register became normative. It was as if you were playing the guitar or sitar with only one string, the one on the outside, tuned to the upper notes, but, even with that single string, were filtering out juwari, the buzz of impurity that brings warmth and richness to the sitar’s sound. This voice was, to borrow a word from a guitar player’s vocabulary, ‘clean’ – all fuzziness and grain taken out. It was also meant to be perfectly pitched: but perfect tunefulness becomes meaningless (who would have thought?) without the individuality of tone. Since it was the norm, this highly strung, perfectionist, one-dimensional voice began to be mass-produced by younger singers. And so we found ourselves in a new climate.

For women singers who didn’t want to toe this line, the hegemony of the seventies Lata voice would have been oppressive and bewildering. My mother, a singer of Tagore songs whose voice had a unique and beautiful timbre, found it inexplicable. What was inexplicable was also the growing enslavement to it; the implication that there could be no possible alternative to this version of the female voice; the diminishing of engagement with the variety of tone brought by women historically to the Indian popular song; the fear of speaking out against what had become an increasingly dictatorial sound emanating periodically from cinema halls and transistor radios.


What receded from the consciousness then was the nature of the achievement of the early recordings through which Lata had introduced a certain idea of the film song to the world. She’d taken something from Noorjehan’s subtle, understated modulations as well as a tranquillity from the post-Ustad Amir Khan khayal to make, out of a commercial, three-minute form, something that was highly accomplished but unostentatious, controlled and sophisticated but fragile. Who would have thought that the popular song – given that, in Hindi, its roots were partly devotional – could be so contained? Uma Bose had opened the way to this in the early forties with the Bengali song; Lata, whose voice was higher-pitched and, in comparison to Bose’s, bodiless, and whose oeuvre would embrace much of the rest of the century (Uma Bose died at the age of 21), brought that poise to film music: the sound of the modern.

Lata’s interpretative strengths have to do with fidelity to tune and melody. As the voice became normative in the seventies, though, and the fidelity less individual, more a constantly replicated manner, one might have secretly begun to yearn for something different in the film song. The reassessment of her younger sister Asha Bhosle – always deemed a great singer; always given secondary status to Lata ostensibly for the profane air of her singing, and identified often with ‘cabaret’ numbers for probably the same reason – must have actually begun around then.


Of course, Asha was seen to be part of the hegemony too, the junior partner in a duopoly called ‘Lata-Asha’, but there’s more to her than the fact that she was actually a latecomer and relegated at first to accepting the songs that Lata and her contemporary Geeta Dutt had turned down. Her singing, without sacrificing nuance and perfection, comprised an escape from the imprisoning norm.

I’m not going to posit Asha’s putatively profane – and indisputably textured – voice (just as high-pitched as her sister’s) against Lata’s transcendentalism. What interests me is her restiveness, as opposed to the fidelity that characterises not only Lata’s renditions but all the major playback singers in that generation. Kishore Kumar disrupts fidelity by yodelling; moving between octaves and morphing to falsetto to impersonate the female voice (‘aake seedhi lagi’ in Half Ticket); or introducing non-musical sounds or nonsense words in songs like ‘ek chatur naar bade hoshiyar’. But he remains content with joyously adhering to the melody – not, ostensibly, playing with it. His playfulness resides largely outside, or around, the actual notes; not in them.

By restiveness I mean creativity, and by creativity I mean variation from line to line. Asha’s is clear, for instance, in her duets with Rafi. Rafi – like her; like Lata and Manna De – is classically trained. None of these singers, however, will modulate the melody of a song from one couplet or line to another except in a way that feels pre-decided.

Asha arrives at variations instantaneously and unsettlingly, as with her version of the lines ‘sawan ke ghata chhai / yeh dekh ke dil jhuma / li pyar ne angdai’ in the famous ‘diwana hua badal’. Here she elongates the lines slightly to accommodate leisurely inflections on O.P. Nayyar’s peculiar departures from the song’s Manj Khamaj-like outline, ending ‘ghata’ with two surprising murkis; performing a mimetic but deeply expressive undulation on ‘jhuma’ (which, of course, means ‘to sway’); then adding further murkis or small, descending embellishments to ‘pyar’; finally performing a further mimetic meend, or glide, to widen ‘angdai’ (which means ‘stretching your arms’).


The song ends with the great Ram Narayan playing the notes of the sthhayi, the main part of the song, with thumri-like adornments on the sarangi: yet the adornments feel more expected than Asha’s on-the-spot ruminations. It’s as she’d got bored of singing the beautiful melody by the time the song neared its end, and decided it wasn’t enough to sing it – she must remake it. O.P. Nayyar would have given her license to do so.

This restiveness – the inability to be in one place, or do the same thing, over a period of time – is indistinguishable, in Asha, from fecundity of imagination. When she finds herself back in the same place, she begins to invent departures. Listen again to ‘jab chali thandi hawa’ for her versions of ‘hawa’, with, first, the taan-like murkis coming down from the upper sa (sa, sa ni, ni dha pa); second, the deep gamak-like meends her voice produced so subtly (sa, ni, dha ni, pa); third, the jhatka on the second syllable (sa ni dha, dha ni dha pa). Her voice was energised by descending modulations; but then she’d startle us with a cluster of ascending notes, as she does in this song with the little heartfelt sapaat-like burst on ‘yaad’.

Lata’s singing has meends, or glides, too; but Asha’s meends quicken into gamaks, or undulations, and these undulations can become electrifying, as in ‘aaja aaja main hoon pyar tera’ (another duet with Rafi). As Asha Parekh begins to twitch like a malfunctioning doll and stammer ‘A-a-aaja, a-a-a-aaja’, the other Asha begins to introduce a tiny, fast, very-difficult-to-execute gamak to the second stammer: ‘a-a-a’. Talent, training, and courtship of risk informs the incorporation of this detail. Rafi sings the same line for Shammi Kapoor, but slightly simplifies this improvisation; just as, in other songs, he leaves Asha’s embellishments to Asha. In the process, she, almost without the co-singer or music director noticing it, changed the idiom of the film song, bringing to its high spirits innovations one generally doesn’t associate with the genre.

Where did the impulse for variation come from? Partly from classical music, which Asha was trained in, though to what extent it’s hard to know; partly it would have owed something to the complex and virtuosic Maharashtrian genre natya sangeet (‘theatre music’), of which her father Deenanath Mangeshkar was a practitioner, as was she. Here lines are repeated over and over while a metamorphosis occurs with the repetition. But I’m really searching for provenances: while the variations can be explained by referring to other genres, they exemplify a particular kind of Asha Bhosle-type of restiveness when she brings them to the film song.