Asian Music and Dance

Asha – the Risk-Taking Legend

Asha Bhosle and Shujaat Khan talk to Ken Hunt about their recent project Naina Lagaike studio recording and live performance at the Royal Festival Hall as part of an international tour.

The promise inherent in the pairing of Asha Bhosle and Shujaat Khan for Naina Lagaike – and their subsequent concerts promoting that recording – was mighty. She is one of the world’s most haloed and popular singers – note, the world’s, not the subcontinent’s or the diaspora’s – and he is a sitarist and truly gifted vocalist in his own right. Expectations were doubly raised because, one, both principal musicians come trailing clouds of glory, but very different ones in the popular imagination; and, two, because when they entered the Mumbai studio they had decided to lay the music down live in the studio and bounce off each other.

“Here nothing is fixed. It’s just eye contact, feeling and how you feel.”

“What generally happens is that Ashaji’s used to having everything written down and fixed,” explains Shujaat Khan. “Like, ‘Shujaat sings this line once; Asha sings this line three times; Shujaat sings line number three; Asha sings line four…’ Here nothing is fixed. It’s just eye contact, feeling and how you feel. That’s the whole fun of it.”

Asha Bhosle (the family’s preferred spelling over Bhonsle) is a stalwart of the Indian film industry – and not only the one later nicknamed Bollywood. Born Asha Dinanath Mangeshkar in September 1933, she and her four siblings would recontextualise the Mangeshkar name. Their father Dinanath Mangeshkar worked in Marathi- and sometimes Hindi-language drama. With a view to advancing his professional status, he adopted the gotra (sub-caste) name, a species of Hindu surname, Mangeshkar. It drew on his ancestral village of Mangeshi, to which he added the protective hand (kar) of the family deity Lord Mangesh. He specialised in the Marathi dramatic song-form known as Sangeet Natak. Like many regional drama forms, during performances Marathi drama generally interspersed songs as light relief or employed them to move the action on. Tried and tested, this theatrical convention guided the subcontinent’s film-makers when India went walkies with talkies from 1931.

Filmi sangeet – film song – captured anna-paying audiences’ interest even when they could not understand the language or follow the intertitles. The subcontinent was ‘going multilingual’ and little Asha grew up in the era of pictures, as films were called in Raj-era India. It was a transitional world of Silents, Partial Talkies and One Hundred Per Cent Talkies. Their father’s sudden death in 1942 forced the family to move, finally relocating to Bombay where Asha’s eldest sister Lata established a toehold in its booming film industry as one of the open-secret playback singers who put words in lip-synching actors’ mouths – uncredited in case, as industry moguls feared, audiences were turned off and stayed away.

Asha Mangeshkar made her first cinematic entrance aged 10 in the Marathi film Majha Bal. She liked the singing but not the acting, which nipped acting in the bud very early. Only in 2011 did she give it a second chance for the film Maaee (‘mother’, more colloquially ‘mum’). Days before Maaee’s ‘going on floors’, jargon for shooting, that April, she confides, “It’s a mother’s role. And I’m a mother, so I don’t have to act. I thought now I’ve done playback singing, shows, everything – apart from one area and that was appearing on the big screen.”

“…She has recorded more songs than any musician in history.”

She is a musician who genuinely deserves the title of legend. After all, she has recorded more songs than any musician in history. Musically speaking, she is a risk-taker, a role originally foisted upon her during her early years as one of many low-ranking playback singers in Bombay. With three children to support – her first, Hemant, was born in 1949 – and as the family’s de facto head breadwinner, she took whatever ‘pot-boiler’ singing jobs came up. Bombay’s studios, film-makers and ‘music-directors’ (composers) operated a preferential and hierarchical system. It opened doors so long as the face fit and slammed them shut if it didn’t. It took years for her to be recognised and championed. By then risk-taking was a default disposition hot-wired into her psyche and creativity. It was made most deliciously manifest in her singing for her second husband, music-director Rahul Dev Burman, and her singing for the actress Helen.

“…Risk-taking was… deliciously manifest in her singing for her second husband, music-director Rahul Dev Burman.”

Shujaat Husain Khan is the son of one of the most magisterial sitarists of the twentieth century, Vilayat Khan. He first performed in public in 1966 and on his parents’ separation he lived with his father, who doubled as his guru. Music was in his bloodstream but he attempted to kick against the pricks and get out of music. He considered, he told Deepak Raja in 1996, becoming a manager on an Assamese tea estate – as hand-picked a way to go stir crazy in them thar hills as human brain could devise. But he read his tea leaves, persevered and emerged as arguably the deepest and finest next-generation sitarist of the late twentieth century. With the Iranian kamancheh (stick-fiddle) maestro Kayhan Kalhor, he fronted Ghazal, an ensemble dedicated to finding common ground between the related Persian and Hindustani modal systems and their improvisation-based forms.

But let’s rewind. Before Shujaat made his name in Hindustani classical music, he pounded the Bollywood treadmill, too. People, especially people with regular pay packets can afford to look askance at classical musicians lowering their standards (surtitles: ‘dumbing down’) by taking other musical work. What looks like the allure of the profession from the outside looking in must be balanced by the freelance musician’s need to put food on the plate. Thus, for every piccolo trumpet solo that excited people’s imaginations or got him into obituaries worldwide – the session in question being the Beatles’ Penny Lane – David Mason put in unnumbered hours of rehearsing and bum-numbing trumpet chair work in orchestral settings, sessions and so on. 

India was no different. Top-ranking soloists and musicians starting out alike jumped at the chance of film work. A far from comprehensive bead-roll of classical talent might include Begum Akhtar, Zakir Hussain, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Ali Akbar Khan, Rais Khan, Vilayat Khan, Ravi Shankar, Shivkumar Sharma and Parveen Sultana. Famously, the music-director Naushad Ali (Asha: “A very great musician. He was very disciplined and a very nice person”) after much pleading even enticed the stone-walling purist Bade Ghulam Ali Khan to sing live to screen during the delightfully named ‘feather scene’ between the prince and his beloved Anarkali in K. Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam (1960), the year Shujaat was born.

Shujaat explains, “See, I grew up in a family where my father was a great, big, old legend of his time. I was not star-struck, so, when I finished school and started working with backgrounds in movies, very often I used to go to the studio and they’d give me my piece and we’d wait for the singers to come. Ashaji or Mohd. Rafi or Kishore Kumar used to come, sit in their different room – because we were just musicians. Very often she came, she worked and she went away. There was no connection between her and us.”

 “I have a space, a very small pond but I’m the king of that pond.”

Although he found himself on the same sessions as her on occasion, this dividing line was firmly in place. Trespassing was not an option, so long as he retained his anonymity, rather than admitting to being Vilayat Khansahib’s son. In March 2004 his father died and five years on, he contacted her about celebrating his father’s memory. She agreed to attend and sang. The next day when he went to thank her again and say goodbye, she threw the prospect of doing something together musically into the ring. “I was overjoyed,” he chirrups. “I have a space, a very small pond but I’m the king of that pond. I play classical music and some Sufi and folk and what I do no-one else does. C’mon, she’s twice my age and a legend. Everyone wants to do something with her. I couldn’t’ve had the courage to go up and say that she and I should do something together.”

It gelled, his role becoming one of sourcing and putting together Naina Lagaike’s Hindi-language repertoire and the accompanying musicians. “Naina mean ‘eyes’,” he translates for anyone whose Hindi is rusty, unnuanced or non-existent. “Naina Lagaike would be the locking of the eyes, so the meaning of the song [title] would be, ‘I rue having locked eyes with you’.” The decision was reached to record live in the studio eye-to-eye. 

Shujaat winkled her out of her comfort zone, so to speak. The material he brought to the table included a song that appeared in two versions on his Waiting For Love (1998). Called Aaja Re Piya Mora (‘Come back my love’) there, on Naina Lagaike it is titled Aaja Re Piya (‘Come back love’). In some ways it is the album’s signature song, perhaps even over the title song that appears in three versions for solo singer and duo. His classically inflected sitar part sets the scene before they indulge in a call and response passage. Then nearly a minute in, electric bass re-positions the performance firmly within the ‘modern song’ genre. Step by step other instruments enter. The full team consists of his regular tabla player, Amit Choubey, his son Azaan Khan on guitar, flautist Ajay Prasanna, Bheem Rao on dholak and arranger-orchestrator Upmanyu Bhanot on whatever else was needed to finish the portraits.

“Having worked with Ashaji on three projects, most notably her two Grammy-nominated recordings, she and I know each other some. The first was her and her guru, the sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan’s bandish (fixed composition) classical project Legacy (1996). The second was You’ve Stolen My Heart (2005), her and the Kronos Quartet’s re-interpretations of R.D. Burman’s Hindi and Bengali film industry legacy. Candour is a watchword. She corrects my faulty Hindi pronunciation and I tell her that Naina Lagaike is a grown-up project, reflecting the dignity of the artist she is now. Remixes and retreads of filmi sangeet are not my thing.”

“So, it’s (improvisation) fun and it’s new for me.”

How does she feel about the project? “At first I was not really happy,” she answers frankly. “And a little bit afraid. I didn’t know Shujaat; I didn’t know his musicians. But after one rehearsal, after that I had confidence that it could be good.” In the spirit of the Stage Sound studio sessions, the concerts allow spontaneity. “On stage it’s not rehearsed,” she continues. “We don’t know what they will play. They don’t know what I’m going to do when I’m improvising in a song. So, it’s fun and it’s new for me.” So, is it an adventure? With comic timing, she says, “Sort of!” before bursting into laughter. 

One of the most welcome aspects of the Naina Lagaike experience is their eagerness to take risks on stage. Talking the morning after its public unveiling at London’s Royal Festival Hall in March 2011, Shujaat says, “One of the pieces I started had a completely different pitch. She looks at me and it was, ‘Really, you want me to go that high? OK…’ I don’t know why people are presenting music as if it’s a presentation where everything is absolutely set up and fixed. C’mon man, where’s the element of fun and spontaneity and pleasure gone from our lives? You make a mistake on stage? Laugh!”

With thanks to Anand Bhosle, Atul Churamani, Sareata Gindha and Scheherezade King at Saregama. Photography: Janio Edwards of GDM, courtesy of Saregama.



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