It’s all come around for Asha Puthli, the “Bombay bombshell” singer-songwriter/actress who found renown singing with the likes of Ornette Coleman and starring in films including Savages and The Gang That Sold America.
The Bombay/Mumbai-born Florida-resident was honored in August by the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, along with the late Ravi Shankar, for being one of the first Indian artists to cross over into mainstream music. Both are featured in the latest installment of the museum’s I Love LA: Celebrating Los Angeles’ Musical Melting Pot exhibit, which remains up until the end of the month.
“I applaud the Grammy Museum for embarking on this initiative to ‘celebrate the musical melting pot,’ and feel honored that they have included me in the exhibit as this concept is consistent with my lifelong goal of breaking barriers, erasing borders and embracing different cultures,” Puthli stated at the exhibit’s opening. “I also feel privileged to share the display with Pandit Ravi Shankar, whose music has always inspired me.”
Also in August, the City of Los Angeles, in conjunction with the LA Mumbai Sister City organization, presented Puthli with a proclamation at City Hall, likewise in recognition of her being the first vocalist of Indian origin to cross over into mainstream music. On Dec. 9 and running through November of next year, she will be included in an exhibit curated by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center in Washington, D.C., Beyond Bollywood--Indian Americans Who Shaped The Nation.
Puthli was trained in classical Indian singing and European opera, and combined it with the American pop and jazz sounds she absorbed growing up in India. She moved to the U.S. to pursue a career in jazz, and was discovered by Columbia Records’ legendary producer John Hammond, who teamed her with jazz pioneer Coleman. She earned Down Beat’s Best Female Jazz Vocalist honor for her contributions to his 1972 Science Fiction album. Signed to CBS Records, she became a ‘70s New York scenester and fashion plate, headlining at Studio 54 and being photographed by the likes of Andy Warhol and Mick Rock.
"Space Talk," from her 1976 album The Devil Is Loose, has been sampled by many top hip-hop artists including Notorious B.I.G., P. Diddy and Redman. But most of Puthli’s CBS albums weren’t released in the U.S.
“They refused to release or promote my albums in the U.S. because I was considered ‘too ethnic,’ even though they had done extremely well internationally,” she says, “and though I was singing mainstream American music and sometimes standard cover songs, my name was a detriment, and I had refused to change it as I had already established a small following with my exotic name at that time. And besides, I felt it was not a level playing field, and the cultural flow of music from West to East, North to South was one-way traffic, and I wished to change that.”
An “exotic name,” Puthli adds, “did not necessarily mean temple bells and sitars! In retrospect, much later in my career I began to understand how cognitive dissonance had railroaded my career. But it’s hard to change perceptions single-handedly.”
Now, however, Puthli has had a big assist from Nina Davaluri, the second-generation Indian-American who is the newly-crowned Miss America.
“More than 40 years later, it’s heartwarming to know that perceptions are changing,” says Puthli. “It’s been a long hard road. The question is, Do we flaunt our diversity? It’s a question that most people on a public platform have to consider, and interestingly, Nina chose 'Diversity’ as her topic. Was it overload on some of our fellow Americans? Should her entire package have been a little more sugar-coated? It's different when one sits behind a desk, but when you have to take center stage as the ‘Face of America,’ does one still have to consider cognitive dissonance?”
Puthli, who now heads her APMP Records and Publishing company, went on to release several experimental, funk and soul recordings for labels including EMI, Sony, PolyGram and RCA, her output broaching music genres now known as acid jazz, disco, neo-soul, ambient and electronica.
She’s now set to serve on the jury of next week’s Silent River Film Festival in Irvine, Calif. She’s also working on an album of jazz standards associated with artists she worked with including Cy Coleman and Lionel Hampton, and a vocal exercise album for children including songs by Danny Kaye.
And Puthli, who no doubt has a lot to say, is also writing a memoir.
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