Have you seen Asha Bhosle onstage? She’s not as tall as you might imagine. When she appeared on the last night of Womadelaide in March she looked somehow shorter than all four members of the Kronos Quartet even though they were sitting down and she was standing. If they had stood then she would have looked like a bright stump next to four tall spires, a small, blue-clothed girl in a large, dark wood. She was serene, though, and had the air of a woman in control of her surroundings. She smiled and the radiance of her power went out in all directions, until it seemed that she could have raised and lowered the lights herself, by lifting one small finger, just so. If they ever put her in a film—her body and face, not only her singing voice—then she should be cast as a general who has to face down a terrifying army. She’d look at them, smile serenely to herself, and incline one little finger—just—so. Off they’d go like rabbits. They should have included her in 300. She would have knocked the Persians flat. They could have called it 1.
She sings in The Rough Guide to Bollywood Gold. Of course she does. You couldn’t have a vintage Bollywood compilation without her, any more than you could have one without her sweet-voiced older sister Lata Mangeshkar, or plump-cheeked Mohammed Rafi, or whickering Kishore Kumar, who cultivated a reputation as an entertaining madman by chatting to a group of trees in front of a journalist who came to interview him. Bhosle once had a good line in vamps. She is the woman who, during a song that turns up more than once in Western Bollywood compilations, tries to get the hero stoned. “Dum Maro Dum” doesn’t appear in Bollywood Gold, but that’s no hardship. You can find it in other places easily enough. You could look at the first compilation DJ Ritu put together for this label, The Rough Guide to Bollywood. There it is in all its gaspy loveliness, the very first track.
But they are not the only musicians on this album. There are others too. Their presence is a reminder that the four favorites and the musical juggernaut that was Asha’s husband, the composer Rahul Dev Burman, didn’t manage to keep everyone else out of the game. (“A ‘creative trio’ was formed between Lata, Asha, and Asha’s husband through which they monopolized the industry and quashed most newcomers’ aspirations,” Ritu writes in the liner notes.) Less familiar names struggle to the surface: the singing composer Jolly Mukherjee; the actor Sridevi flirting her way through “Chandni O Mari Chandni” with a slightly flat voice and a demure kitty-pout; the “Golden Voice” Mukesh Chand Mathur who died in the U.S. while on tour with Lata; Mahendra Kapoor; Shailendra Singh. Hemant Kapoor authors the compilation’s solitary instrumental track, a piece of theme music from a 1954 film called “Nagin”. The heroine of “Nagin” falls in love with the hero after overhearing him play the flute. Kapoor’s theme takes the marrowy, down-the-nose guzzle of the flute and makes dreamy swipes with the orchestra over the top.
A few of the songs have a Technicolor old-film brashness; others are simply bright. They all sound as if the crude edges of age have been remastered away, which is a shame. That harshness was part of their charm. At least “Aaja Aaja Main Hoon Pyar Tera” is allowed to keep its blaring 1950s guitars, and in “Kahta Hai Joker” Mukesh gets to try out one of those brilliantly unsubtle Bollywood laughs, the ones that telegraph HA HA HA HA! all the way to the deaf people in the cheap seats.
“Chabi Kho Jaye” suggests that Singh’s attractiveness as a singer lay in his honesty. He doesn’t pull vocal tricks or even honey himself with excess charm to get your attention. If you had to guess the characters of the singers from their voices you might say that he was the most trustworthy one, the one you’d marry without worrying that he might have an affair. Kumar whistles, cowboy-like, in “Yah Shem Mastani”, and yodels in “Zindagi Ek Safar Hai Suhana”. “Chalte Chalte” is the album’s one great nod to Indian classical music. Mangeshkar’s voice snakes gently over a background of sitar and tabla.
Burman himself sings on a live recording of 1975’s “Mehbooba Mehbooba”. His recorded voice was a part of Asha’s show at Womadelaide, and it was an eerie experience listening to this dead man sing, “My darling!” from the back of the stage, and watching his living wife prick up her ears before she sang the response.
The Rough Guide to Bollywood Gold manages to be a solid contribution to a swelling genre without ever feeling like an essential disc. It’s not replacing anything that’s already out there, and there are too many other Bolly compilations around for this one to seem definitive. Nascente’s cut-price Beginner’s Guide to Bollywood is still the most helpful starter pack for an aspiring English-speaking fan, and two of its three discs cover the same decades as Bollywood Gold. The Beginner’s Guide also includes Geeta Dutt, who’s absence from Gold puzzles me. Once well-known in her own right, from the perspective of history she now looks like a proto-Asha. No world tours for her, no collaborations with the Kronos Quartet, no Womadelaide. Dutt had a nervous breakdown after her husband died and drank herself to death at the age of 41.