Asha Bhosle’s 90th birthday: In Umrao Jaan, her ‘naaz’ and ‘nakhra’ made Wajid Ali Shah’s romanticised Lucknow a reality

Some sacred voices are made in heaven, those who can give life to words that touch souls. These voices and words have created history, and the few that I know of, are part of my creative sensibility.

The voices of women in particular evoke feelings that are rare and memorable. I have grown up with these voices in the feminine feudal culture of Awadh, where such talent was exalted to a level that one was always in awe of it. Over time, I have experienced this awe in the voices of Joan Baez, Azam Ali, Abida Parveen, Begum Akhtar, Nayyara Noor, Farida Khanum, Shubha Mudgal, and Asha Bhosle. These voices came from beyond and became sanctified.

Therefore, my world of cinema and music was different. It was evocative of an era that was timeless and nostalgic. As I stepped into Bollywood, I was met with the voice of Asha Bhosle in the words of Shahryar (Akhlaq Mohammed Khan, lyricist). She was not the same person everyone knew and had heard over and over. There was something different about her. Here was a woman always ready to fall in love with herself — very much like Abida Parveen, whom I’d meet later in Raqs-e-Bismil and finally the festival, Jahan-e-Khusrau. In poetry, they saw an image of themselves. Something written for them, something special for the world.

Asha ji, though immersed in Bollywood, was ready to visit the Lucknow of my dreams, the Lucknow of Begum Akhtar, of ghazal and thumri of the romantic era of Wajid Ali Shah, the world of Umrao Jaan. Kathak would add the dimension of the bhaav and nritya to the art of the song. Asha ji, the romantic that she is, was ready to give ghazal the Umrao it needed. She was eager to step into literature and culture to give a new flavour to her song. I could feel she was thirsty. She was adding new sound, and new colour to her singing with both co-singers and composers and stars who would sing on screen.

Her duets had always added fun and frolic to her numbers, which gave Bollywood the naaz, and the nakhra. Singing ‘Aaiye Meherbaan’ to lilting Lavanis in Marathi — she was the muse of cultures, adorning Bengali, Punjabi, Urdu, and Marathi, her mother tongue. She was also the young chulbuli girl of the day who would pair with the yodelling Kishore Kumar.

With Umrao Jaan, she had to walk into Mehboob Studios and Bombay Lab with all that ada and baañkpan to sing under the baton of Khayyam (Mohammed Zahur Khayyam). Little did she know that she was creating history, making Wajid Ali Shah’s Lucknow a reality.

She allowed each word to acquire an emotional dimension. The “yeh”, the “kya”, the “jagah” and “doston”, were never heard before and never to be forgotten. She would give a naughty side glance and a smile as she absorbed what she poured into the microphone dissolve into a melody of a musical score and emerge crystal clear — ready to enter the hearts of millions of souls, for times to come. This was the miracle of an Asha, the wonder of an era.

I had the fortune of working on three films with her. Of these, two have not found their way from the microphone into quarter-inch spools to commercial broadcasts. One was Zooni with Dimple Kapadia and the other was Daaman. Today, with rapid changes in technology, it is necessary to archive both picture and sound.

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When I entered the film industry with Gaman followed by Umrao Jaan, I first chanced upon Jaidev (a music composer in Hindi films) who had captivated me with songs like ‘Abhi na jao chhor kar ke dil abhi bhara nahin.’ The male and female version conjured a unique chemistry of separation hitherto never felt. Asha ji had made a place for herself in my heart — a place where the Yin and Yang of love become sheer magic. I learnt more of this magic with Jaidev in my film Gaman, ‘Aap ki yaad aati rahi raat bhar’, in the voice of singer Chhaya Ganguly.

It was only in Umrao Jaan that I understood the subtle intoxicating blend of Khayyam, Shahryar, and Asha ji woven into a piece of literature from a slice of Awadh culture. I don’t think this combination will ever be repeated. For me, as a director, I had learned the art of blending sound, words, melody, and dance. Somehow Asha ji extended herself to embrace all three aspects of this art just as these arts were ready to absorb her into them. An experience so holistic, so all-encompassing that Bollywood would never have seen it in such purity.

Sound and song have entered a world of new technology, a way of archiving and experiencing music at one’s beck and call. But the world still waits with bated breath for an Asha Bhosle to breathe soul into sounds and words that are meant to touch souls. A new hope of music, where 90 is just a number.

The writer is a filmmaker and fashion designer

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