Lata Versus Asha

by Dr. Mandar V. Bichu

Comparisons are odious but they are also inevitable- particularly if you happen to be the two most celebrated Indian singers for more than six decades and who, on top, happen to be sisters in real life! Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle. With thousands of songs and countless awards between them, theirs has been the most productive and popular sibling rivalry world has ever witnessed. As the great singing sisters march on in their eighties, it is the perfect time to take a deep look into intricacies of their fascinating duel for musical supremacy.

The Saaz story

In 1997, film-maker Sai Paranjape came out with a movie – Saaz, a movie that blatantly presented fiction posing as fact about the love-hate relationship between the two singer sisters. After portraying the elder sister as a scheming manipulator sabotaging the younger sister’s career, Paranjape coolly washed her hands off by saying the movie had nothing to do with Lata and Asha’s lives – a statement which was truer than the twisted portrayal in her film, where the elder sister pushed the younger one off the mike and married her off to get her out of the way! All in all, the entire episode smacked of a deliberate attempt to distort history.

The real story of Lata and Asha began a long, long ago.

The family drama

It was 1939 when the untimely death of their father Pt Dinanath Mangeshkar – an acclaimed Marathi stage singer-actor- threw their lives in turmoil. Lata who was barely ten then had to be the breadwinner for the family and for that she started off with bit roles in films. Music was the only thing bequeathed and that was to prove the source of fame and fortune. All the Mangeshkar sibs – Lata, Meena, Asha, Usha and Hridaynath were to become singers and composers of repute but Lata and Asha – first and third in the lineage – were destined be the real chosen ones!

To complicate matters further, Asha – barely fourteen - ran off with a neighbour, into a marriage that turned sour in end. Predictably, the family headed by a stern mother – Mai Mangeshkar- severed ties with this errant sister. These ties were to restore almost after two decades.

Rise and rise of Lata

When Lata and Asha entered the playback singing in the late 40s, they had stiff competition from established singers like Noor Jehan, Amirbai, Rajkumari, Geeta Roy (Dutt) and Suraiya. Before establishing their unique identities, Lata followed in Noor Jehan’s footsteps and Asha in Geeta Dutt’s. But the moment Noor Jehan left for Pakistan, suddenly Lata was off the blocks in a flash leaving the younger sister far behind in the race, becoming the undisputed numero uno with super-hits like Mahel, Barsaat and Andaz.  

To be frank, she deserved that. Lata’s voice in the 50s and 60s was at a totally different plane compared to rest. Her exceptional ability to transform even an ordinary tune into a memorable one made her the proverbial Melody Queen of India. Anarkali, Naagin, Madhumati, Mughal-E-Azam, Amrapali, Woh Kaun Thi? – soundtrack after soundtrack proved her virtuosity, versatility and ability to succeed with any composer.

Soft and sweet; serene and soothing; soulful and spiritual - her voice became the identity of archetypal post-independence idealistic Indian woman. Even connoisseurs and critics hitherto allergic to film music, acknowledged her outstanding contribution in uplifting standards of popular music by her superb portrayal of Indian classical and folk music through her film songs. In an ultimate tribute, legendary classical singer Bade Ghulam Ali Khan praised her as ‘Ustadon ki ustad’ (Master of masters).

Therein lay Lata’s place in history as the singer who made both, masses and classes, realize that quality film songs had infinite musical and cultural worth and they weren’t mere tools for entertainment. She raised the standards of film music to a fine art level, bringing dignity and decorum to a once tainted medium – a feat no other artist in her field could lay a claim to.

Asha comes into her own

While Lata was conquering all that came her way in that golden era of film music, Asha was struggling to make a mark, singing petty songs for B- grade movies, side heroines and character artists. Come 1957 and the picture changed when O.P.Nayyar – the ‘Rhythm king’ composer of that era who never ever worked with Lata, created a sizzling, savvy and sensuous vocal image for Asha and made her the premier singer in his music. Now the categorization was complete. If Lata was ‘Sugar’ then Asha was ‘Spice’. If Lata was epitome of composed restrain, then Asha was a symbol of gay abandon.

Asha’s exuberant cabarets, club songs, Mujras and Qawwalis brought her big success but they also did a great disservice to her talent. By consistently outnumbering and outshining her mellow, melodious songs, they denied her the due critical acclaim and often kept her out of reckoning for more refined, more challenging tunes. Throughout her career, her much appreciated versatility was wasted thanks to this ‘sexy’ vocal image. People just lapped her sensuous numbers but almost always ignored her soulful songs.

Reflection of personalities

Her almost immediate success and her top position made Lata a choosy singer, who selected the songs carefully on the basis of composer, tune and lyrics, becoming a barometer of class and quality. At the same time, she had the guts to pick almost any newcomer composer and ‘make’ his career, just by singing for him. (Ask Laxmikant – Pyarelal, Kalyanji-Anandji, Ram Laxman and Uttam Singh!) In fact, such was her confidence that she never shied to lock horns with industry bigwigs like C.Ramchandra, S.D.Burman, Mohammed Rafi or Raj Kapoor on various issues and almost every time came out the winner. She was an uncrowned empress in a male chauvinistic film industry. But all this also took its toll. Rumour mill never stopped churning nasty stories turning an already introvert Lata into a stoic loner. She became an iron-willed lady of few words and fewer friends.

 Asha’s long drawn battle for survival in early years didn’t leave much scope for choices. She sang whatever came her way, initially just to keep the home fires burning. But sadly this lack of judgment was to become a norm for her entire career, even after she had attained the stature to choose what she should sing. She was an extrovert, ready to share her deepest pains and pleasures with almost any sympathizer. (Read any of her interviews!) Initial lack of success had made her edgy about her own ability. Throughout her career, her best work came about in the company of a proven maestro like O.P.Nayyar, S.D.Burman, R.D.Burman or Khayyam.

70s and later

By the mid-70s, Lata had lost her steam and was sounding jaded. It was a combined effect of aging and an increasingly commercialized attitude of composers that provided little creative impetus for her musical genius. In contrast, Asha – a late bloomer, was singing better than ever. Albums like Umrao Jaan, Meraj-e-Ghazal and Ijaazat had proved beyond doubt that she could do justice to ‘serious’ singing.

If Asha had a chance of surpassing Lata in final analysis, it was here, like Kishore Kumar came back from behind and snatched the throne from Rafi in 70s. Yet she fumbled. It wasn’t as if she did not try but the composers simply lacked enough faith to let her entirely shoulder the responsibility of handling quality soundtracks on a consistent basis. So popular was her exuberant vocal image that soon she was forced back to what she had been doing since years- churning out populist raunchy numbers in films like Sharaabi, Himmatwala and Mawali.

Lata, in spite of losing that ethereal touch and sounding almost ordinary by her own standards, was proving more than a handful – not in artistic or aesthetic sense but certainly in commercial sense. Resounding success of albums like Ek Duuje Ke Liye,  Betaab, Ram Teri Ganga Maili, Maine Pyar Kiya, Hum Aap Ke Hain Kaun, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge, Dil To Paagal Hai and Veer Zara proved that her matchless ability to carry entire soundtracks to success was still intact. Add to that some quality work like Razia Sultan, Lekin, Rudaali and Maachis and she had handled her lean patch with élan.

The Pop Era

Then in the mid-90s, a most sensational turn-around saw Asha Bhosle coming back with a bang. Her brand of flashy, frothy music was in demand and Asha became a hot proposition in music market with successful Indipop albums like Jaanam Samajha Karo and Kabhie To Nazar Milao and bold item numbers like Rangeela Re, Kambakht Ishq and Khallas. In the increasingly funkier post-90s music scene, Asha was perhaps a greater force to reckon with but that was just a minor consolation win for her after losing out in the big picture. One of her biggest regret would be not cashing in on her better ageing vocals to sing enough good quality songs or albums in the 90s and the post-2000 music scene.

Final word

There are many who feel that both the sisters should have quit long back when they were at the top but I don’t entirely agree with them. Singing was the only profession they knew and it was not entirely their doing that they remained in demand and continued to enjoy commercial success as singers even after age started showing in their performances. That continuing professional demand and success in itself was quite something in this fickle film world and even though their latter day songs were no patch on their earlier songs and many a time, were even demeaning to their earlier lofty standards but these very ‘mediocre’ present day songs finally gave the newer generations a reason to venture into the gold-mine of their past music.

That’s why I never try to belittle these two great ladies' sterling careers by lamenting about the undoubtable latter year decline; instead I just salute them for defying time and showing the will to fight, the will to survive and the will to win!

 Quck Fact File : Lata

  • Born on 28th September 1929 at Indore, Madhya Pradesh.
  • She has approximately sung 6500 songs in various languages.
  • Recipient of   highest Indian civilian award Bharat Ratna (2001).
  • Received ‘Dadasaheb Phalke award’ (1989) – for lifetime achievement in Indian cinema.
  • Three states – Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Goa – annually and separately award - ‘Lata Mangeshkar Award’ for lifetime achievement to leading artists in popular music. (Asha has been a recipient, too!)
  • Selected as one of the top four Indians of 20th Century along with Mahatma Gandhi, Swami Vivekanand and Dhirubhai Ambani by Times of India in 2000.
  • Her artistic genius lay in utilizing the simplicity of her medium - film music, to make the common man understand the intricacies of Indian classical and folk music and to prove that good music does sell!
  • Even her non-film songs – especially in Hindi, Marathi and Bengali have been in a class of their own. Aye Mere Watan Ke Logon – her moving patriotic number has become a legend in itself.
  • Deservingly called as the melody queen of India.

Quick Fact File: Asha

  • Born on 8th September 1933 at Saangli, Maharashtra.
  • She has approximately sung 12,000 songs in various languages. (Yes, even more than Lata!)
  •  Received ‘Dadasaheb Phalke award’ in 2001 for lifetime cinematic achievement.
  • Received Padma Vibhushan, the second most important civilian honour in India.
  • Without a doubt, she has been the most versatile Indian singer ever, handling various genres like film songs, ghazals, pop, Indian classical and even western music with aplomb.
  • She has successfully collaborated with international artists like Ghulam Ali, Adnan Sami, Boy George and Code Red.
  • Received a Grammy nomination for her Indian classical album – ‘Legacy’.
  • Her seemingly ageless voice became an eternal symbol of youth, verve and vigour.
About the author
Dr. Mandar V. Bichu

Lata Online’s editor-webmaster-curator Dr. Mandar V. Bichu is a pediatrician based in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, who is also a prolific writer-journalist. His fascination for Lata Mangeshkar’s music has resulted in two books-Gaaye Lata Gaaye Lata and Lata-Voice of the golden era, and many published articles.