Growing Up in the ’90s Would Have Been No Fun Without Asha Bhosle

Pop Culture

Growing Up in the ’90s Would Have Been No Fun Without Asha Bhosle

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

As a ’90s kid, my earliest memories of Asha Bhosle involve the singer being draped in a resplendent off-white saree wearing delicate jewellery, a deliberately conspicuous flower in the hair bun, and a voice that defied notions of age, expectations, and conventions. 

The ’90s were a strange, complicated, coming-of-age era in music. Bollywood was still recovering from the battering of the disco beats and the gilded, blinding dazzle of Bappi Lahiri. The traditional, classical melodies of the ’60s seemed incompatible with the post-liberalisation modernised Indian taste and the poetry of the ’70s had lost its sheen to the emergence of consumerism and materialistic glamour. Moreover, the emergence of Indie-pop in the ’90s opened the floodgates for an entirely new generation of musicians and composers who were young, dynamic, and didn’t shy away from experimenting experimenting with their sound. The Western influences on our music moved past sampling and Lahiri-esque imitations and evolved into a more synthesised sound that was distinctly modern, even when the core melody was Indian. It was an era of innovation and young blood. 

The past seemed all but gone. But Asha Bhosle, who started her career back in 1943, stayed. At that time, it must have been easy to dismiss an ageing Asha tai; it wouldn’t have been hard to perceive her as nothing more than a relic of the past, desperate to remain relevant in these changing times. And, yet what most people forget is that she was the flagbearer of the Western sound in Indian consciousness long before it even became a thing.

Funnily, I however don’t remember Asha Bhosle as a misfit. I don’t remember her as someone whose relevance was in dispute. Instead, I remember her as the leading force of the ’90s, a 60-something singer who adapted with musicians in their 20s as quickly as she revolutionised the length and breadth of what constituted Indian music. And, she did it on her own terms. 

It was this very decade that witnessed the emergence of Asha Bhosle, the pop star who clearly knew what she was doing. I remember discovering several R D Burman melodies only because Asha Bhosle had remixed and repackaged them, creating versions that were trendier and in sync with the times. Her album “Rahul and I” – criticised at the time by purists for tampering with classic melodies – was in fact a window for many of us into the addictive world of Burman Da’s music. I’m not suggesting that Burman Da needed extra boost of any sort, but sometimes, nostalgia and quality aren’t enough to attract a new generation of audience. Asha tai understood this long before the Bollywood caught on and started an abominable trend of remixes. And unlike Bollywood, Asha tai’s remixes always retained a sense of class, quality, and most importantly the essence of the original. Besides R D Burman, she also reintroduced legends like Mehndi Hasan and Farida Khanum through her modernised renditions, even as she continued to do her bit to keep the traditional ghazals and classical melodies alive. 

It was this very decade that witnessed the emergence of Asha Bhosle, the pop star who clearly knew what she was doing.

Now when I look back, it makes me realise that there is much to remember from Asha tai’s 90s avatar. “Kabhi toh nazar milao” was Adnan Sami’s breakout song, but it was her mesmerising touch, conveying the intensity of pangs of longing, that made it the ultimate love ballad of the early 2000s. It seems almost unbelievable that she he was 76 at the time. Yet, one of my most cherished memories of Asha Bhonsle’s ’90s resurgence was her comeback. She sang “Tanha Tanha” in Ram Gopal Varma’s Rangeela, a song that became more than just a runaway hit. It transformed into a youth anthem that was an impossibly sensuous, peppy, and innocent at the same time.

Come to think of it, Asha Bhosle’s career graph in the ’90s is essentially a microcosm of her oeuvre. In a career that spans over several decades, her biggest achievement is not just that she has a Guinness Book of Record-worthy repertoire of songs. Instead it is the fact that she has consistently charted a trajectory that was as casually rebellious and subversive as it was pathbreaking. Stereotyped as a “cabaret” singer at the very beginning of her career, she had to struggle to break out of a mould that boxed her as the voice of the “bad” girls. 

But the inimitable Asha tai went on to defy every label that tried to box her into predefined categories that were as much about music as they were about patriarchal notions of morality. Take the fact that just when the industry typecast her as someone who could only sing “western” songs, she went on to win a National Award for her classical ghazals in Umrao Jaan. And when the assumptions of her age tried to put her down, she delivered some of the most resounding hits of her career, effectively voicing for younger heroines like Urmila Matondkar, Madhuri Dixit, and Gracy Singh. Even as her personal life remained fraught with adversities and rumours of her presumed affairs and liaisons dominated gossip columns, she remains unwavering committed to reinventing herself as a singer at every chance possible.

It’s been a while since the ’90s but I still continue to groove to “Aaja Aaja” with as much passion as I have spared for adoring the subtle intensity of “Mera Kuch Samaan”. Ask any kid who grew up in the decade and they’ll probably admit to the same. Any game of antakshari is still incomplete without at least a dozen Asha Bhosle numbers being belted out. I suppose, it is easy to resort to clichés and call her a living institution but institutions tend to be static and insular. Asha Bhosle on the other hand, has been a force pulsating with life for over eight decades now. Even in 2019, she remains a constant in our collective consciousness and that perhaps is the biggest homage to any artist.