Sibling rivalry takes many forms. When the eldest is extraordinarily gifted, the middle child may realize that she cannot beat the eldest at what she does best. So being No. 2, she not only tries harder, but takes more chances and strikes out in new directions. When Asha Bhosle became a film playback singer, she could not escape the fact that her sister Lata Mangeshkar had become the standard by which all other filmi singers were judged. But that did not stop Bhosle from carving out a place for herself that was both similar to and different from that of her sister.
Not that Mangeshkar’s ascent to stardom had been quick or easy. When their father died, she became (at age 13) the breadwinner for a family of five. She played child roles in films, but it was clear that her natural talent was for singing. She had a uniquely sweet and rich voice, a three-octave range, superb control of tone and intonation, and could quickly learn both melodies and new languages. But in the ’40s, heavier Punjabi-style voices were in vogue, and producers thought her voice was too thin. When film composer Ghulam Haider was told that he couldn’t hire her, he arranged an audition that got her playback jobs in four other films instead. Her songs in all of these films became runaway hits, and changed the shape of filmi music forever.
Bombay films had originally tried to hide the playback singers, using the names of the screen actresses on the record labels. But Mangeshkar’s singing was so popular that radio stations released her name, and for the first time the public began to see a playback singer as a star. The demand for her voice became overwhelming, both from the public and from actresses who knew that her voice would give them a charisma they couldn’t get any other way. Eventually, a female playback singer either had to be Lata Mangeshkar or sound like her in order to find work in Bombay. Mangeshkar met most of the demand herself, usually recording five or six songs a day for several different films. But her little sister Asha was waiting in the wings to take any jobs that were left, as she slowly refined her artistry and her reputation.
Initially, although there was plenty of work, it was usually parts in grade B films, or supporting roles in major films, or duets with her sister. But Bhosle also tackled projects that were considered too radical for her more established sister. Even when accompanied by a Western symphony orchestra, Mangeshkar’s voice always sounded deeply Indian. Consequently, the melodies offered her were always reminiscent of some Indian folk or classical style, and she usually did the voices for actresses who played the Good Indian Girl who was devoted to her parents and family.
There were, however, also plenty of parts for the Wild and Westernized Woman, who would sing songs influenced by jazz, salsa, tango, or rock ’n’ roll. How does one adapt Indian meend and sruti to song styles that would ordinarily have lyrics in English or Spanish? A trained Indian singer, no matter how accomplished, would have a real challenge singing songs of this sort in Hindi (or the dozen other Indian languages Bhosle was required to sing in). In many ways it resembled the challenge faced by singers like Elvis Presley or Frank Sinatra, who had to develop Anglo-American vocal styles that would fit with African-American music. Bhosle embraced this challenge, but to some degree it was also forced upon her by unfortunate circumstances in her life.
In 1950s India, (as in most of the world throughout history) the usual response to a woman who escaped from an abusive marriage was to blame the victim. When Asha Bhosle left the man she had married at 16, and whose last name she still bears, it was her reputation that suffered, not his. But ironically, this “bad” reputation made her the public’s choice to play the flirt, the vamp, the courtesan, or the nightclub hostess. She trained her gifted ear and voice to create Indian versions of jazz and rock vocals, mixed with numerous seductive sounds: sighs, breathless Marilyn Monroe moans, girlish laughter, English exclamations like “Hi, Handsome!” Sometimes, when other playback singers were hired for the song itself, she would be brought in just to do her distinctive laugh.
The on-screen actresses who specialized in “bad girl” roles realized that she was co-creating the characters with them and soon a symbiotic process evolved that enabled their performances to inspire each other. The actress Helen would make a point of attending Bhosle’s recording sessions, making suggestions for the vocal that she would eventually lip-sync.
To some degree, this typecasting still endures. In the film Lagaan, when they both did playback for actress Gracy Singh, it was Bhosle who sang the saucy thumri and Mangeshkar who sang the devout bhajan. But Bhosle and Mangeshkar have each recorded around 20,000 songs, (they have both been in the Guinness Book of World Records), many of which don’t fit their respective stereotypes. And more importantly, these stereotypes should not be uncritically identified with the artists who portray them. Mangeshkar’s refusal to marry could be seen as a form of devotion to the Goddess of Music. But it probably also reflects the fact that she was too shrewd to let a man take control of her life, particularly when one remembers that she lead the fight for royalties to playback singers. And Varsha Bhosle’s articles about her mother reveal that Asha’s motivation for leaving her husband was not hedonism, but the need to protect her children. The roles that these two great singers have separately embodied in the popular consciousness, although fine for the movies, are each incomplete without the other.
Sisirkana Dhar Chowdhury
In last month’s article on violinist Sisirkana Dhar Chowdhury, I neglected to mention an absolutely essential fact: She has been a disciple of Ali Akbar Khan since 1956. One of the factors that gives her playing such unique power is that she has been learning from Khansahib and transcribing his lessons for decades. Her devotion to him (as an artist and a person) is an inspiration to all who know her. I could have written an entire article on the many ways she has adapted Khansahib’s music to her instrument, and thus helped to pass on his tradition to new realms. My brief description of the influence of other violinists on her playing was not meant to be a complete description of her musical lineage.
Teed Rockwell has studied Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan and other great Indian musicians. He is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.