Turning Bollywood pop into global art

Boston Globe, April 8, 2006

A signature of Bollywood is its music: “Filmi” songs, by turns gaudy and graceful, have dominated Indian pop culture for a half- century. And of the great “playback singers,” so called because actors lip-synch to their songs, few others are as influential and none as adventurous as Asha Bhosle, the 73-year-old doyenne who performs with the Kronos Quartet, tabla master Zakir Hussain, and Chinese pipa player Wu Man tomorrow in a sold-out concert at the Berklee Performance Center.

Bhosle is a national icon who is as comfortable with Indian classical music and the Persian love songs called ghazals as she is working with techno producers or R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe.

Her album with Kronos, “You’ve Stolen My Heart,” features fine East-meets-West renderings of songs by R.D. Burman (nicknamed Pancham), a great Bollywood music director and Bhosle favorite who died in 1994. A new double CD, “Love Supreme,” offers US audiences a sliver of the diva’s reputed 12,000-song catalog. Bhosle answered our questions by e-mail while preparing to perform at Carnegie Hall.

Q. Your collaboration with R.D. Burman is the core of your album with the Kronos Quartet. What was the lasting impact of this collaboration on your work?

A. Rahul [Burman] was interested in all types and forms of music, and this instilled in me the spirit to be more adventurous as well. There can be no more lasting impact than the fact that my collaboration with Kronos was nominated for a Grammy. Rahul wanted his music to be heard all over the world and all this would have made him very happy.

Q. Did working with the Kronos Quartet produce new musical discoveries or challenges?

A. It was excellent working with Kronos. I enjoyed it. They are very professional and wonderful musicians. The music was a reworking of Pancham’s work, so it was not new but was musically satisfying. The challenge was in doing justice to the compositions, which were being re-recorded after such a long time.

Q. It seems that in the past five years or so, American and Western European audiences have “discovered” Bollywood. Were you surprised it took so long?

A. Yes, it is a surprise that it took so long. However, there’s a whole new interest in what’s happening in different parts of the world, and Indian music and culture is getting more recognized. And this interest is not only in music: There seems to be greater interest in Indian fashion, art, cuisine. I do not think it is a passing fancy. It should endure as long as we, on our part, continue to give them good music.

Q. What has globalization done for the Indian musical scene?

A. Music from all over the world is now more accessible, and since a lot of world music has been influenced by Indian music, it has really helped the spread of our music.

Q. The Indian diaspora has come of age in your lifetime. There are now desi (Indian-origin) artists making hybrid music in the US and the UK. Do you listen to some of these artists?

A. I do listen to artists making hybrid music after all, they are moving with the times and you have to respect what they do.

Q. Do you think film songs will remain the principal vehicle for new Indian popular music?

A. Film songs are the pop music of India, so they will continue to play a major role. But there are non-filmi songs like “Kabhi to Nazar Mila,” which stayed on the top of the Indian charts for over a year.