Follow Mint Lounge

Latest Issue

Home > How To Lounge> Art & Culture > Asha Puthli, forever ahead of her time

Asha Puthli, forever ahead of her time

Asha Puthli's work has been rediscovered by a new generation of musicians and fans—from the diaspora and beyond

Asha Puthli
Asha Puthli

Asha Puthli is having something of a late-career renaissance. Decades after the 78-year-old Indian-American singer, fashion icon and actress receded into the shadows, her work has been rediscovered by a new generation of musicians and fans—from the diaspora and beyond—fascinated by the life and work of this charming, irrepressible, self-professed diva. In 2022, Brighton-based indie label Mr. Bongo reissued her long out-of-print 1973 self-titled album, followed by the first official compilation of her work. The same year, Indian-American experimental artist Raveena released her concept album Asha’s Awakening, named after Puthli and featuring her vocals on one track. And late last year, L.A. label Naya Beat Records put out Disco Mystic: Select Remixes Volume 1, a six-track EP featuring contemporary dance-floor-ready remixes of Puthli’s spaced-out disco and moody funk. 

Also read: New on Shelves: 4 titles to bookmark for the long weekend

This critical re-appraisal is long overdue. Puthli has the sort of story that Oscar-bait Hollywood biopics are made of. Born in Mumbai in 1945, she studied Indian classical music and dance as a child before falling in love with jazz thanks to Voice of America radio broadcasts. As a teenager, she would sneak out to perform at Mumbai’s nightclubs, singing with her back to the audience so her parents wouldn’t find out. Soon after moving to New York on a dance school scholarship, she was discovered by legendary talent scout John H. Hammond, who sent her to free-jazz visionary Ornette Coleman’s studio. Her vocals on Coleman’s 1971 album Science Fiction—incorporating Hindustani classical techniques to keep up with the saxophonist’s avant-garde compositions—earned her the prestigious Downbeat critics poll award alongside Ella Fitzgerald.

Puthli also soon became a fixture at Andy Warhol’s Studio 54. A maverick with a penchant for the unpredictable—when her student visa was running out, she asked a stranger at the Museum of Modern Art to marry her so she could stay in the US—she fit in perfectly with Warhol’s coterie of eccentric visionaries. But her music didn’t really take off in the US, which she partly attributes to the prejudice of American record labels, who wanted her to change her name to Anne Powers. 

She moved to the UK, where she became an early adopter of glam rock with her 1973 self-titled debut album, produced by Elton John collaborator Del Newman. Soon she was incorporating soul, funk and disco into her sound. Her third solo album The Devil Is Loose, is a masterpiece of sensual soul and cosmic disco, centred on her breathy, serpentine vocal performances. She was a proto-Donna Summer—Puthli likes to assert that she was an inspiration for the “Queen of Disco”. By the early 1980s she was firmly back in rock territory, reaching the charts in Japan with her 1982 album Only The Headaches Remain. When she wasn’t making or performing music, she was acting in movies like Merchant Ivory’s Savages or Italian B-movie Squadra Antigangsters, or playing muse to Salvador Dali and Manolo Blahnik. 

Puthli spent the 70s and 80s on the verge of stardom, but never quite making it. She released ten albums before dropping out of the public eye to raise her son. But her music stayed in rotation, gaining cult status amongst crate-diggers and record-flippers. By the 1990s, it had been rediscovered by hip-hop producers. Her music has been sampled by Notorious B.I.G, The Pharcyde, G-Unit and Action Bronson, and in the 21st century, she returned to her Hindustani classical roots for collaborations with Bill Laswell and the Dum Dum Project. 

These samples and name-drops kept her in public memory, but Puthli’s recent resurgence has more to do with the efforts of young South Asian musicians, who have found in her story an icon to look up to, and a lineage to tap into. In 2018, Mumbai musician Imaad Shah, who calls her one of his “greatest inspirations”, convinced her to come out of semi-retirement and play a show in Mumbai, which I attended. It was a fascinating show and a precursor of what was to come, with Shah (as Madboy) and Saba Azad (as Mink) accompanying Puthli as she re-imagined her disco-funk classics for the 21st century. In the years since, she has found plenty of other young South Asian champions. 

Disco Mystic: Select Remixes Volume 1 is situated within this same project of reclaiming Puthli’s legacy and bringing her music to new fans across the world. The six remixes on the EP sandpaper away some of Puthli’s rougher, more experimental edges—the high-pitched shrieks, the dramatically licentious gasps, and turbo-speed synths—in favour of a more accessible sound that fits more seamlessly onto the modern dance floor. American house producer Maurice Felton gives a live funk makeover to smouldering cosmic-disco cut Space Talk, an approach that UK duo Psychemagik mirror on their prog-rock rework of Puthli’s acid-jazz Right Down Here cover. Turbotito and Ragz—the two DJs who run Naya Beat Records—push One Night Affair even further into space-age disco territory with layers of retro-futuristic synths and four-to-the-floor percussion. Assam-born, Brooklyn-based psychedelic soul savant, meanwhile, adds seamy, dirty-disco atmospherics to the originally pristine I’m Gonna Cut

It’s a testament to the timeless nature of Puthli’s playful, forward-thinking, experimental artistry that her music sounds just as vital and contemporary today as it did 30 years ago. Perhaps she was too ahead of her time, an outspoken, provocative, innovative brown woman at a time when the music industry didn't know what to do with such an artist. Nonetheless, her influence can be felt in the work of those who followed the trail she blazed, from American contemporaries like Debbie Harry, to current South Asian artists like Arushi Jain and Raveena. With all these new releases—alongside an upcoming documentary on her life, and her first world tour in 40 years in the pipeline—that influence is only bound to grow. 

Also read: Charles Allen's ‘Aryans’: Disentangling the propaganda around Aryans

Next Story