Although Asha recorded a variety of material, from Indian classical music to pop, she is best known as a playback singer for Bollywood films.
(For those not familiar with the term, a playback singer provides the pre-recorded voice for the actors to lip sync too. Although it’s frowned on in the West, this practice carries no stigma in India; everyone is well aware that the on-screen beauty or hero is not actually singing the songs and it’s accepted as part of the illusion.)
The video below features 70s sexpot Helen miming to Asha’s souring vocal while dancing like a lunatic with a chocolate statue.
Asha’s older sister, Lata Mangeshkar, was also a playback singer and by the time Asha arrived on the scene Lata was at the top of the tree, only singing for the biggest names in the biggest movies.
Essentially cut off from her family following a scandalous marriage, Asha started at the bottom, singing hundreds of songs in low-rent productions and taking the roles in A-list pictures that the big leaguers didn’t want, all in a bid to stay afloat and provide for her kids.
Gradually Bollywood composers recognised Asha’s talent, and from the late 50s onwards she was a permanent feature of A-list movies. Her collaborations with R.D Burman, the funky son of a bitch responsible for the song below, helped breath new life into Bollywood music in the 70s by incorporating Western styles. The pairs were later married in 1980.
The song title, Dum Maro Dum, translates as “Take a Toke,” and it’s from the smash-hit film Hare Rama Hare Krishna. The film was a rather moralistic venture, dealing with pot smoking hippies and all their evil decadence.
While Lata’s voice was as pure and beautiful as the virtuous Bollywood heroines she sang for, Asha’s was versatile, energetic, and above all, sexy (breathy giggles and moans a speciality). Although she occasionally sang for the heroine, Asha really made her name singing for a variety of supporting roles, from night club dancers to vampy bad girls.
Even now Asha continues to shine, and although in her eighties she is still recording and touring at a rate that would shame many a young pop pretender. Her voice is one of the most recognisable and exciting in world music history, remarkable for its enormous range (well over two-and-a-half octaves.)
Although her sister may lay a claim ( she was thought to be the most recorded artist for a long time), Asha is Bollywood’s true Playback Queen.
I’d like to end this post with O Saathi Re, a personal favourite, and one of the funkiest, most soulful Bollywood songs ever written (courtesy of the Kalyanji brothers from Rajasthan). It also features one of Asha’s very best performances.
Simply put, if this doesn’t make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, you must be completely bald.