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The original diva

Thursday, November 08, 2018
Photos: Courtesy of the artiste

Asha Puthli, who receives an Inspirational Achievers award in New York next week, shares her journey from Matunga to the United States with Verus Ferreira

Years before the iconic cone bra Madonna wore for her Blond Ambition tour, it was Indian jazz singer Asha Puthli who made it famous. What about Daft Punk, who wore helmets at the Grammys in 2014? Puthli wore it in her music video Wild Samurai in 1981. With a four-octave range, conquering the East and West, the Indian born American has sung jazz, disco, rock and Indian music like no one ever did before. In a freewheeling chat the pre-disco diva shares her journey from India to the US.

Since a young age, Asha Puthli had always dreamt of making music in a foreign land, after she heard jazz on Voice of America radio broadcasts. She studied in a Catholic school and graduated in BSc from Baroda, while she practiced Hinduism from a very conservative family from Mangalore. Besides her sister and her, no one from the family took to the arts. She pursued Indian classical music and dance too, She was also fascinated by Opera and studied it from a teacher who gave her a European influence that would help her in the future. You bet it did.

With a beautiful voice, Puthli, all of 20, felt she was made for bigger things. “I tried to get a music scholarship from the US, but there were no scholarships available, nor jazz departments in music colleges in the mid-sixties,” states Puthli in an interview at her sister’s apartment in Bandra. “But I wasn’t ready to give up. Through sheer luck, I was offered a job to be a flight attendant for BOAC and with that came two months of training in London and a passport which in those days was very difficult to get. This was my ticket out so I accepted the job with the intention of flying for a year, absorbing different

cultures and music in the course of my job. After a year I took the year-end holiday to the US so that I could audition for a dance scholarship which was available only after an audition. It was a long process but the means to an end I desired. I got accepted by the Martha Graham School, gave in my resignation to the airline and decided to focus my attention on music”.

When Puthli would dine at different restaurants in Mumbai, her friends who accompanied her would cajole her to sing. With her back to the audience, Puthli would sing a song or two. Ved Mehta from The New Yorker once saw her and got to know about her eagerness to go to the US. He later wrote an article on her. “At the same time Merchant-Ivory was filming The Guru, and I was at a friend’s place. It was all silent until I gave one of my operatic laughs and the next thing I knew was Mr. Merchant bursting into the room and asking who it was. While I apologised for it, he in turn told me he wanted my laugh in the film, and to be a part of the shot,” smiles the 70-plus singer. 

After she arrived in the US, she got in touch with Mehta, who asked her to meet John Hammond, a record producer with CBS. Upon meeting her, he noticed her singing style and got her to record two songs with Ornette Coleman for the album Science Fiction. This not only got her a bit of recognition, but it also got her an award for Best Female Jazz Vocalist in Downbeat magazine’s annual jazz critics’ poll. She also met up with her friends Merchant Ivory who cast her in their 1972 film Savages.

But moving to the US wasn’t that easy. The labels there weren’t ready to touch music unfamiliar to them, forget an unfamiliar name, that too from India. While everything was about R & B, and while Puthli made a few inroads, she was helpless when the labels asked her to change her name. “I refused  for some valid reasons, in those days it was not a level playing field, there were no Indians or Asians in mainstream American music, I wanted to crack open that closed door. It had been one-way traffic—English and American artists incorporating Indian music into their songs, but not the other way around. “

While she faced a few problems in the US, she set out for Europe, which accepted her with open arms. It was in Europe that she released her self-titled debut album in 1973 on CBS. Though it created quite a furore all over, it was nevertheless her third solo album, The Devil Is Loose, a full blown spacey disco sound that cemented her career especially the song Space Talk. The song was later sampled by P. Diddy and the Notorious B.I.G. Puthli added her Indian influences in her music with tabla and sitar firmly in place. While her style of singing sounds very Indian, she can surely be said to have been the pioneer of fusion. While many fusion artists today simply mix Eastern and Western instruments, it was Puthli's voice (erotic at times) and singing style that was a fusion between East and West.

With 12 solo albums, films, TV shows, the Florida resident, who took off from Hollywood Gully in Matunga, where she spent her early years, her life and career have been nothing short of legendary.

Always supportive of women’s issues, which can be seen in her rock songs, next week Puthli will be honoured at the TIA award gala in New York City, for the Inspirational Achievers award which benefits raising awareness of young women with autism.

With her work for women, and the #MeToo movement going full power in India, we ask her views on the #MeToo movement and if she has been a victim too? Her quick and affirmative reply doesn’t really come as a surprise, for she tells us that in early in her career she did experience it, but snipped the advances in the bud when a record label head tried to flirt with her. “Fortunately it did not go beyond insinuation, because I never allowed anybody in my professional life to intimidate me; when an artist has confidence in their talent, that strong belief keeps them from compromising in any way,” she states proudly.

Puthli gives logic to the situation on the #MeToo movement when she says that celebrities and educated women, who have jobs, can and must speak out, but what happens to the women in the small towns and villages who may not be able to voice their grievances.  “There’s so much oppression, hopefully the #MeToo movement will help by empowering and educating those women. There is power in numbers”.

Puthli may not be a well-known name in India, as she moved out before anyone could really notice her music. But most importantly, she belongs to India and India is proud of her.

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