The Vocal Vamp of Bollywood

At 75, Asha Bhosle, the "Queen of Bollywood," is the world's most recorded singer, with 13,000 songs to her credit. Rather than following after her older sister, Lata Mangeshkar, who impersonated the voices of virginal screen heroines, Bhosle, the daring rebel, became the voice of vamps. After playing to huge audiences across North America last month, Bhosle returned home to receive the Padma Vibhushan, India's second highest civilian honor. Before performing at Carnegie Hall in New York on April 17, she talked to NEWSWEEK's Vibhuti Patel about her life and work. Excerpts:

Patel: How did you come to sing in Bollywood films?
Bhosle: My father was a classical singer and actor. He taught me and my sisters to sing. When he died at 40, our family was in financial trouble. My mother encouraged us to sing, gave us confidence and suggested we go into films. In those days, there was tremendous prejudice against middle-class girls as performers. Singers were considered low-class. First Didi [older sister] entered films. Then it was my turn. I got a role as a child actor. Later, Didi sang sad love songs and I sang cabaret. She cornered one genre, I the other. There was no competition.

Was it hard to break in?
Very hard. As child actors it was OK, but then, in '47, with many big artists in films, it was difficult for newcomers. We'd say, "Just audition me …" We sang for the heroine, or the second heroine.

How was it being a young woman then?
I had eloped at 16! My husband gave up his job to chaperone me—a standard practice in Bollywood. By age 26, I had had three children. During my last pregnancy, I walked out of the marriage because my husband was abusive. I worked to support my children. I was criticized for singing cabaret numbers, but I had no choice—as a single mother I had to provide for my kids. I was paid only $12 a song, and they did not pay on time—often it was on credit toward the next film. Ironically, for those hit songs, on which I made no money then, I'm now making a lot in concert.

Did you go back to your family?
No, I refused to move in with my mother. I lived on my own. It was difficult to remain independent. Jobs dried up when I separated, because they thought I'd be too dejected to sing. But I needed the work, so I persevered. I was recording up to six songs a day. There was no dubbing; songs were recorded with live musicians. I encountered hardships because I was young, famous and unprotected. I took the kids to school, spent the day at the studio and stayed home when they were sick.

But you had support from R. D. Burman, your second husband?
He was a good man, an excellent music director. When Burman died in 1990, I got so depressed, people thought I'd give up singing. But my son Anand—who was working in Dubai—returned home to become my backbone. He's my manager; he looks after our restaurants, Asha's, in Kuwait, Dubai, England. They serve my recipes. I'm actively involved—I wear a chef's coat and hat and train our cooks.

You take classical-music lessons and practice daily. Is it frustrating to sing film songs for a living?
In the old days, we enjoyed singing film songs because the music was wonderful. Nowadays the lyrics have no feeling, the tunes are Western, it's all rhythm—it's just boom, boom, boom. For duets, the co-singer isn't present—I'm given the words and music and have to imagine the co-singer, who records separately. It's synchronized later, so there's no interaction. My co-singer and I used to cooperate with each other, make suggestions. Now that's all gone. I still sing for films, but I prefer live shows—one has to be perfect in concert, there are no retakes. For an artist who knows her work, it is more rewarding onstage than in a studio. You're on your toes, it keeps you young, it's fulfilling. It affords interaction with audiences who are delighted to see me singing and dancing at my age. They talk to me—"How are you?" They shout out, "You look well!"

You sang with the famous Western classical group the Kronos Quartet?
Kronos chose eight of my songs that Burman had scored for 100 musicians—we recorded them with just the four of them accompanying me. They are serious musicians, they don't talk or laugh; I laugh and flirt and dance—I made David Harrington [the Kronos's founder-violinist] dance with me onstage! Singing with them was a unique experience—unlike Indian musicians they calculate beats, they sight-read, nothing is memorized. But I improvise.

And how did you happen to sing with Boy George?
I'm a big fan of his, he's beautiful, a sweet person. I went to Taboo Club in London to see him—in my sari and bindi. George came and hugged me. "I'm your fan, I love your song 'Ave Maria, Om Ganeshaya Namah'," he said. "Let's sing together." We sang an ABBA song.

How is your relationship with your famous older sister?
I've sung 90 songs with Didi. I'm very close to her. Mother had said, "When I'm gone, she is your mother." I treat her with respect; we are a traditional family.