Asha Bhosle: Queen of Bollywood

Merge the old-world authority of Frank Sinatra with the emotional virtuosity of Aretha Franklin and the cultural hysteria of the Beatles, and you’ll start to get a sense of what Asha Bhosle means to her native India. Since age 10, Bhosle has recorded more than 13,000 songs as a Bollywood playback singer, providing the singing voice for characters in hundreds upon hundreds of films; a string of 2008 performances marks the 75th birthday of “the most recorded voice on Earth.” Bhosle’s songs have called for her to inhabit every character type, from the courtesan to the ingénue to the world-weary matriarch, but even more impressive is her range of styles. The new release 75 Years of Asha: A Musical Journey (Times Square) charts Bhosle’s vast catalog as it weaves together every thread of 20th-century music: disco, Latin, jazz, funk, techno. A true professional, Bhosle could pour her soul into a classical ghazal, then turn around and voice the garage rock of “Dum Maro Dum” (translation: “Take Another Toke”) for a psychedelic picture. Bollywood is now well-known for adapting Western music into its frenzied Technicolor fantasies, but it’s hard to imagine those cultural floodgates ever opening if it weren’t for Bhosle’s risk taking. After all, this is the woman who, in 1956 — when Elvis was still an unknown in India — introduced rockabilly to the rajah with “Ina Mina Dika,” her precocious take on Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock.” When it comes to trying something new, Bhosle has never hesitated.

Courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic

(Click to enlarge)

"She's the one who keeps the dream alive . . . "

Though Bollywood has failed to catch on in the United States, Bhosle’s music has maintained a shadowy presence here. Her songs appear in The Darjeeling Limited and Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories, and recent years have seen collaborations with Boy George, Michael Stipe and the Kronos Quartet — not to mention the Black-Eyed Peas’ 2005 hit “Don’t Phunk With My Heart,” which is based on samples from two different Bhosle songs. In 1997, when the British band Cornershop had everyone singing along to their ingratiating hit “Brimful of Asha,” few realized they were sounding a tribute to Bhosle. That this regal grandmother, with her embroidered ivory sari and diamond earrings, is still hip would come as a surprise to everyone except her. Bhosle has said she identifies more with today’s generation than her own, and that her singing “is for them,” while superproducer A.R. Rahman once affirmed that Bhosle is “still 16 at heart.” Bhosle’s presence is a symbol for seven decades of Bollywood allurement made real, but to read her spirit, you have only to look at her face; her undying will to reinvention is written between a beaming smile and a pair of still-flirtatious eyes.

Asha Bhosle performs Sun., April 27, at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

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