Early last year, a Google alert popped up on a laptop in Palm Beach, Florida. Asha Puthli clicked on it and found her name in a news report from India. A young musician, Imaad Shah, had mentioned her as one of his “greatest inspirations” along with Jimi Hendrix in an interview. She recalls being shocked. “I thought no one really remembered me back home now,” says Puthli, 74, in a phone conversation from the US.
The internet eventually did its thing — dragged her out of semi-retirement. Puthli was introduced to Shah through social media and common friends like director Sooni Taraporevala and media producer Deepti Dutt. It was a conversation that led to a rare gig in G5A, a small club in Mumbai’s Mahalakshmi, in October last year.
In a rainbow-coloured silk poncho top and black pants, Puthli sang American songwriter JJ Cale’s Right Down Here, a song released in 1974 by CBS Germany. Shah along with Saba Azad, the two musicians who make up the electro-funk act Madboy Mink, sang and played along. “I haven’t sung this song since 1973,” says Puthli. Her husky, whiskey-tinged voice dived into the lyrics: He puts me right down here/ He holds me right down here/ Keeps me right down here.
“Her singing had an indescribable quality. She sang in this slithery, sexy funk style and in an accent that was Indian but not quite. It felt universal and real,” says Shah, as he recalls chancing upon a Puthli record five years ago, a discovery that blew his mind. It was a voice that reminded him of singer Peggy Davis, Miles Davis’ ex-wife. “You could hear a few bars from her songs and get stuck into them,” says Shah. But he wondered: how is it that he had never heard her before?
The question lingers. How is it that Asha Puthli’s name draws a blank, even with leading Indian musicians? This was the artiste whose vocals on legendary jazz musician Ornette Coleman’s album Science Fiction (1973) won her the prestigious Downbeat critics poll award — the other musician who shared the prize was Ella Fitzgerald, no less. That’s not all. One of her first music producers was jazz giant John Hammond, the man who discovered Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.
Even as recently as 2006, The New York Times described her voice as the kind that “segues from sultry jazz phrasing to the quavers and slides of Indian music”. How did a large part of India miss out on someone whose music in the last few years has been reinterpreted by rappers P.Diddy, The Notorious B.I.G., Dilated Peoples, Governor featuring 50 Cent, and Redman? How are we not aware of a singer whose cover of George Harrison’s I Dig Love became a hit in the US and Europe and was sampled in 2005 for the chart-topping track Reload It by English rapper and grime artiste Kano. How did Puthli become a blindspot for her Indian listeners?
“Maybe, I was really ahead of my times,” says Puthli in a soft voice.
In the 1960s, when most girls her age were being prepped for marriage or, at the most, for academics, Puthli was frequenting jazz clubs of south Bombay with a group of friends and sometimes taking the stage to sing in her sultry voice — always with her back to the audience. She didn’t want anyone to recognise her and tell her parents. “They were quite conservative and didn’t want me in the entertainment business. But if any of us wanted to study music and dance of any kind, that was encouraged,” says Puthli.
Born to a businessman father and a homemaker mother, Puthli grew up on Aarti Masani Road in Mumbai’s suburbs. The lane was known as Hollywood Gully in the 1940s and 1950s, as Indian theatre and film pioneer Prithviraj Kapoor lived here with his family. Puthli was about 4 when Kapoor heard her singing by the window. “Papaji (Kapoor) knocked at the door and told my mother that your little girl is so talented that you should consider the film industry for her. My mother didn’t like the idea at all,” says Puthli with a throaty laugh.
One of the greatest influences in her teens was her aunt Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, writer and key figure in the international socialist feminist movement. “The strength of Kamla aunty, her love for the art and craft, was a huge influence on me. She always called me her most vibrant niece. I would meet her husband Harindranath Chattopadhyay, his sister Sarojini Naidu often and they all had a very positive impact on me. They made me the person I became,” says Puthli.
When her elder sister began learning Hindustani classical music at home from Pandit Laxman Prasad Jaipurwale, she was drawn to it, too. “I loved this world of gamakas and alaaps,” she says. Unlike most teenagers, she never had to be dragged to music or Bharatanatyam classes. She found herself drawn to opera, and began learning it from one of the few teachers of the form in Bombay, Mrs Haycinth Brown of Dadar’s Parsi Colony.
Slowly, Puthli was getting hooked to jazz. She had begun to listen to Voice of America’s jazz hour — and the voices of Benny Goodman, Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. “It was a turning point, which made me decide that I didn’t want to be in India. Film music did not appeal to me and my parents didn’t encourage anything to do with films,” says Puthli.
Her parents were worried that their daughter was spending more time at clubs like Bombelli’s or Alibaba, known for its cabaret acts, and Astoria hotel’s famous Venice restaurant, the famed haven for jazz musicians.
They had another plan for her — marriage. So, they sent her to Vadodara to study home economics. “I wanted to go to St Xavier’s or JJ School of Art or Sophia but I was instead packed off to Baroda. They thought home economics would teach me to be a better housewife,” says Puthli.
But MS University in Baroda was hardly the cloister they had banked on. “There was a lot of freedom here and I broke every rule under the sun,” says Puthli, who began dating art student Vivan Sundaram, who lived in a small house on top of a garage. “I spent more time with him on top of that garage rather than in my hostel,” says Puthli. Sundaram was a year senior to her, so when he graduated and went to Varanasi to teach, Puthli followed. “We travelled a lot. We went to Kathmandu together, on top of a truck. These were exciting times. And I am talking about the mid-1960s here,” says Puthli. Sundaram remembers Puthli’s “spirit”. “She was courageous to have that journey without a musical background and proceed on an eclectic journey”.
When Sundaram moved to Mumbai, Puthli, too, moved home. One evening, while at Astoria for dinner, her friends persuaded her to sing. “At that time, I would sing but only if my friends insisted. I wasn’t a professional singer, and I was very shy,” says Puthli. So, she turned her back to the audience and sang My Funny Valentine, made famous by Frank Sinatra and Fitzgerald.
Unknown to her, journalist Ved Mehta was there, nursing his drink. Impressed, he wrote about Puthli in The New Yorker in 1967. In a piece titled Jazz in Bombay, he called her “a beautiful, mercurial girl”.
Around the time, she also met iconic filmmakers Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, who were filming their movie The Guru (1969), at a house in Mumbai where one of Puthli’s friends lived. The movie starred Aparna Sen, Saeed Jaffrey, Madhur Jaffrey among others, with music by Ustad Vilayat Khan. Puthli, about 24 then, recalls that she wanted to be spotted. She laughed deliberately in the next room. “It was an operatic laugh” to catch the filmmaker’s attention.
Merchant came to the room and said, “Get into a sari and come into the scene.” She didn’t get to act in the film. But she had made acquaintance with Merchant.
Puthli had also applied to work as an air hostess with British Airways. “I wanted to go to New York but Indian air hostesses on British Airways were only allowed to go till England. There was always one of us on each plane to help Indians, mainly immigrants from Punjab, to use toilets, communicate in Hindi, etc.,” says Puthli, who worked with the airlines for less than a year. In 1969, she managed to get a scholarship to study with legendary dancer Martha Graham in New York. “When I reached New York, I went to the two people I had met, albeit only once — Ved and Ismail — and both helped me immensely,” says Puthli. In 1970, Mehta’s New Yorker piece about Puthli appeared in his book Portrait of India, which helped Puthli get noticed. Hammond had read about her and was willing to back her.
Meanwhile, Puthli’s one-year-long student visa was about to expire. She had tasted freedom and opportunity in New York and didn’t want to return to Mumbai. She wanted to be on stage and look at her audience as she sang. In the last few days left to her in New York, she went to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) for a visit. A tall man offered to open the hefty gates for her. “If you really want to help me, you should marry me,” she told him. Not taken aback at all, he said, “Absolutely.” That’s how Puthli married Marc Goldschmidt in 1970 and stayed back to work with Hammond.
“There was a hierarchy in music. The male groups were signed first — The Who, The Monkeys, etc. Then came the male solo singer, then the female trios. That was more Motown R&B sound, very black-oriented. At the bottom of the rung were the female solo artistes,” says Puthli.
Hammond, because of his reputation as a legend, seemed intimidating initially, but turned out to be “one of the kindest people” Puthli met in the US. He asked her to go and audition for Ornette Coleman and put in a word for her. Coleman was a jazz saxophonist, a composer and the pioneer of avant-garde jazz in America. He made Puthli sing for his album Science Fiction (1973). The two tracks she sang — What Reason Could I Give and All My Life — with their kooky and reverberant jazz melodies won Puthli the Downbeat critics poll award. “The way I sang these songs, there were little taans and gamaks. Then there would be vocal scatting in jazz. It was truncated but all of it from my voice,” says Puthli. The prize “turned me into jazz royalty,” she says. A few years earlier, in 1967, Pt Ravi Shankar had also done something similar in terms of fusion. He collaborated with legendary violinist Yehudi Menuhin. “Menuhin and Panditji stuck to their own music on similar scales, which was wonderful. It was interesting but I don’t think it was fusion,” says Puthli.
While Science Fiction earned her fame, it didn’t get Puthli more work in the US. She had failed to get a work visa. As a result, many recording companies steered clear of her. Some wanted her to change her name. Puthli refused. “They did not know how to market me with an Indian name, one that instantly brought the sound of sitar into their heads,” she says.
But CBS Europe took her up for an offer and the result was Asha Puthli (1973), her eponymous album that found much critical acclaim. Produced by Del Newman, who produced Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973), it was an eight-track album with seven covers and one original. One of the most famous covers from the album was George Harrison’s I Dig Love. Harrison sang it in 1970, with its lyrics implying the easing of social taboos on sex and sexuality in the 1960s. “Harrison sang it beautifully but it was sung like a bhajan. I felt that America needed to hear it the way it was meant to be sung, this time from an outsider. I wanted to bring out the sexual aspect,” says Puthli, who turned the song into a wild ode to sex and sexuality. She chortles often in the song, and her throaty and breathy vocals lead us into a very different world.
Space Talk also remains one of her most famous songs, inspiring a plethora of musicians. “The DNA of Space Talk is something that I find in so many songs. It’s been sampled numerous times and has children and grandchildren of its own,” she says. In case of American rapper Notorious Big, the song was wrongly credited to Kit Walker, composer of a song titled Space Walk. Puthli sued for royalties. The matter was settled outside the court some years ago.
In 2015, when the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles decided to pay a tribute to two pioneer global artistes from India, they chose two names — Pt Ravi Shankar and Asha Puthli. The Museum put up on display the records of the two artistes along with the clothes they wore during the concerts. One of Puthli’s costumes, which also saw her on the cover of SPAN magazine, was a red-and-black blouse and dhoti in Patola print. “I felt vindicated after that exhibit,” says Puthli.
Puthli believes that she deserved more from India. “India didn’t understand me too well.” At the show in Mumbai last year, though, she found a glimpse of the adulation due to her. “It’s unbelievable that there is an audience that I can relate to and who can relate to me, even though we are generations apart. The excitement and energy in that room was so palpable,” says Puthli.
The future holds a plethora of plans. A radio show in Florida is in the pipeline, as well as an album of unreleased songs with “some of the most legendary musicians” and a plan to write an autobiography. “I think it will be interesting to know me,” says Puthli.
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘Lady Sings The Blues’