Beach Food Market clerk Pratap Chowdhury spends a lot of time focusing on South Beach diplomacy efforts. He practices basic Spanish, learns customers' names, and reaches out with the handshake or fist bop deemed appropriate for each customer's apparent nationality or culture. As such, New Times thought we might offer up our own diplomatic show of good will by telling the recent immigrant that we'd just been in e-mail correspondence with legendary Indian Bollywood singer Asha Bhosle. Chowdhury informs New Times he's Bangladeshi, not Indian, and he speaks Bangla, not Hindi. Oops. No matter, he says, Bangladesh used to be part of India, and Bhosle has sung in many Indo-Aryan tongues. So Chowdhury's reaction is, as hoped, a cultural point for the U.S. team. "She is a goddess," he says, his voice quivering with excitement. "Nobody in the world sings so sweetly."
With some 12,500 song titles to her name over the course of a six-decade career, Bhosle's signature voice — that high, honey-dipped sound recently popularized in the West — has caused much happy quivering over the years. As a playback singer, that is, the recorded voice of Bollywood musical numbers (actors lip sync), she also boasts more than 950 movie credits. In fact, Bhosle and her late sister, Lata Mangeshkar, are considered two of the most recorded voices on the planet.
The daughters of a singer and performer for a traveling theater company, the two never knew anything but singing. Those voices saved them from disaster when their father passed away and left them and their mother to fend for themselves without a decent economic or educational safety net.
"We were kind of like the Von Trapp family as shown in the movie The Sound of Music," recalls Bhosle in an e-mail interview. "Singing was the only thing that came to us naturally, so it was only a matter of time before we were discovered." In 1943, then-13-year-old Mangeshkar got her break as an actress in the film Pahili Mangalagaur. Bhosle followed close behind, debuting the next year in the film Majha Bal at the tender age of ten. By the '50s, Bhosle was clearly considered the more provocative of the two, often performing fast-paced numbers which most Indians did not consider ladylike.
"Even as a child I was considered a rebel. I was a tomboy, and I suppose my music and style reflects this inborn natural trait," she says. "The silver lining on the cloud was that the youth loved what I was doing. I was ushering in a new era. I talked their language, and according to them, I was hip and cool. I owe my popularity to these youngsters, without whom I would have been a lost voice in history. I suppose Elvis Presley too faced similar challenges in America, but the young turned him into a superstar."
In 1957, just as Elvis was doing his Jailhouse Rock, Bhosle was getting her own groove onto the big time with her breakthrough film Naya Daur, in which she sang the entire female repertoire. Similar musical flicks in the '60s followed suit, with Bhosle's voice projecting loud and clear throughout the soundtrack of the ever-popular Teesri Manzil. The music for that 1966 film set the stage for a lifelong collaboration with its composer Rahul Dev Burman, whom she later married.
"Rahul and I were perfectly matched," she said of a matrimony that came as the result of serendipitous fate, not by arrangement. The two had originally met while Burman was still a child and Bhosle, already a well-established singer, was recording a song for his father, composer Sachin Dev Burman. The young lad asked for her autograph, but as the years passed, he too made a name for himself, first as his father's assistant, and later as an innovative soundtrack composer in his own right. Mutual respect and attraction blossomed into a professional and personal companionship that lasted until Burman's death in 1994.
"It was a great pleasure to work with him. I admired him as a composer and a human being," Bhosle says. "His most difficult compositions were reserved for me because he did not think anyone else could sing them. He respected and admired me and often said that without me his music would have died."
Throughout the decades, Bhosle's emblematic voice endured, both to Burman's credit and Bhosle's own artistic resourcefulness. Experimenting with their native Indian sounds and world music, the couple's 1985 album Rahul & I became one of the best-selling Indian pop albums of all time. Meanwhile, Bhosle's formation of the successful UK-based pop group West India Company and its resulting Ave Maria (Om Ganesha) album, attracted the attention of Brit popper Boy George, with whom she collaborated on the 1989 song "Bow Down Mister." That same year, Bhosle was nominated for a Grammy for her recording of "Legacy" with sarod master Ali Akbar Khan, and performed for acclaimed Indian composer Allah Rakha Rahman's first Hindi film Rangeela, which helped lead to Bollywood's worldwide recognition.
Jumping forward to 2000, Bhosle's recording of "Kabhi to Nazar Milao" with British-born Indian-Pakistani composer Adnan Sami remained at the number-one spot in her home country for over a year. And in 2006, in the States, she was nominated for a Grammy with the tune "You've Stolen My Heart," which she performed along with San Francisco's string-based Kronos Quartet.
"I love taking on new challenges, and to perform with Western pop stars and classic artistes was a challenge for me," she says. "Having said that, music is music whether it's Indian or Western. The same seven musical notes in different ways are used in every song and tune, so it was not rocket science to perform with international stars."
With that attitude, it should come as no surprise that Bhosle has also excelled at one of India's other master arts: cooking. Her international restaurant chain Asha's feeds souls and stomachs in Dubai and Kuwait, and will soon be doing the same throughout the United Kingdom.
"There must be something in music that simulates their taste buds, because if [musicians] don't cook, they certainly appreciate good cooking," she says. "For me, dishing out a fine recipe is almost like singing a great tune." And yes, while most of us wish we could whistle while we work, Bhosle says she really does break out in song while she brews up her curried concoctions.
At 74 (and a half), Bhosle says she's content to bask in the satisfaction of her Platinum Jubilee Year, but what comes next is a matter of divine intervention. "At my age, I don't enjoy the luxury to make future plans. I can only propose and let HIM dispose," she says, making reference to her Hindi deity. "Having said that, I would like to add that it's been a wonderful life, and it's not over yet!"
Back at Beach Food Market, a long line of customers has now piled up as Chowdhury waxes rhapsodic over Bhosle. "If she sang more in English, then everybody would know she's actually the best in the whole world," he tells the line, adding he's pretty confident that Bhosle's god will shine in her favor. "I'd say she has at least another 50 years, but I'd really like her to have 75 more."