The Undisputed Queen of Pop – Usha Uthup
“Be your own artist and always be original in what you are doing. If you are not going to be original, you might as well not be doing it”, and these words greatly amplify the living legend, the veteran singer ‘Padmashree Usha Uthup’. She is the undisputed Queen of Pop, a filmy, jazz, and playback singer whose musical journey now spans over five decades, a multi-talented and versatile singer. Sharing few excerpts from an interactive session with her.
Tell us about your musical journey as to how it started?
I started singing in a small nightclub in Chennai called Nine Gems, when I was 20, wearing a saree and leg calipers. My performance was so well received that the owner of the nightclub asked me to stay on for a week. After my first nightclub gig, I began singing in Calcutta at nightclubs such as “Talk of the Town” and “Trincas“.
After Trincas, my next engagement took me to Delhi where I sang at the Oberoi hotels. It so happened that a film crew belonging to Navketan unit including Dev Anand and Shashi Kapoor visited the nightclub and they offered me a chance to sing a movie playback. As a result, I started my Bollywood career with Hare Rama Hare Krishna. Originally, I was supposed to sing Dum Maro Dum along with Lata Mangeshkar. However, as a result of internal politics on the part of other singers, I lost that chance but ended up singing an English verse. I am happy to tell all of you that I did not start as a playback singer. I started as a nightclub singer and I got the opportunity to playback because of that.
Without any formal training in music, how come you are one of the most prolific singers in the country?
Yes, it’s true. I have never had any formal training in music ever and I am still around, so glad to tell the tale and assure all other singers and talented people that this is possible. I have always been very hardworking, dedicated and above all honest with my brand of music and my audience. For me, it was never a question of how good or bad, but how original and that is what I have maintained all through – never copying anyone. I come from a time when there were no electronic media so I could never watch and copy anyone else. And that’s what makes me original.
How did you cope with the opposition from other conventional artists when you just started out as you did not match their style of singing?
I did not have opposition from senior singers, except for a few setbacks, nothing of great importance. This was mainly because I started off as a nightclub singer and not a playback singer. Also, I was doing a totally different genre of music.
You have sung in seventeen Indian languages and seven foreign languages, which is totally incredible. How could you do this?
I have always been a people’s person and that is what inspired me to learn more and more different languages. Also, my school gave me a great ground for languages. I am not saying that everybody who is exposed to many languages will become a linguist, but they could as well if only they tried. I went to a convent school where the medium of teaching was English, Hindi was the second language, Marathi the third, French the fourth, and Tamil the fifth at home. So, I had a fantastic foundation and this is what made me reach out to greater audiences.
You have been singing for five decades now, so how has this journey been?
I have been around for 51 years – more than five decades now. My journey has been peppered with lots of ups and downs, but on the whole fantastic, very satisfying, and humbling. I look forward to your blessings to carry on with my journey of love, peace, and music.
How do you balance your professional and personal life?
I always keep them in two separate compartments, not mixing them together. Am a performer on stage, but when back home, am the simple lady doing the normal domestic chores.
S P Balasubramanyam used to say – ” The same Kanjeevaram Silk sarees, malligai poo (jasmine strings in hair), the big bindi – all put together in one Indianness, that is, Usha Uthup. Can we call this your style statement?
I started performing in clothes I had always worn, which is basically the humble saree – the first Kanjeevaram saree being gifted by my father. The flowers or the gajra in my hair is a family tradition. And bangles have always been a weakness. The bindi came in much later. A lot of people may consider my look to be a clever marketing strategy but it was never meant to be. You can attribute it to my traditional upbringing. Fans today don’t want me to change my image. I remember once an airport security staff manager expressed his disappointment on seeing me without the gajra. Even if I go to the market in other clothes, people turn and ask, Didi, why are you not in a saree today? (she laughs).
You juggle shoots for reality shows, song recordings, stage performances, and the affairs at the studio. How do you manage to multi-task?
I have learned to prioritize and truly that has worked for me.
Tell us about your passion for acting?
I love facing the camera, especially if I don’t have to be myself in the role. Every role I play is a huge learning experience. In 2006, I acted in the Malayalam movie ‘Pothan Vava’ and made a cameo appearance in the movie Bombay to Goa. In 2007, I appeared in ‘Bow Barracks Forever’ directed by Anjun Dutt as myself and also in Hattrick music video as myself. Had a minor role in the 2010 Tamil movie ‘Manmadan Ambu’. I also acted in Vishal Bhardwaj’s ‘7 Khoon Maaf’ as a maid. In 2012, I starred in a Kannada film Parie. In 2019, I appeared in the documentary ‘If Not for You’. And coming up next is a movie with Akshara Hasan.
We are hearing that you are now designing Kanjeevaram sneakers – absolutely amazing. What made you take it up?
My mother always told me to wear comfortable shoes, but I of course went ahead and wore stilettos. Around 15 years back I decided to switch to wearing sneakers with my sarees. But they were in either black or white — rather boring. So, I began cutting up borders from my Kanjeevaram sarees and sticking them on my shoes and they looked rather cool. I made my own Kanjeevaram sneakers for about five years and then found two cobblers who began making them for me. People find them very cool. So, I’m trying to promote them; I hope it will take off in a big way and the cobblers will get recognition.
What is your opinion on the next generation of singers and what advice would you want to give them?
The next generation of singers is absolutely amazing and brilliant. Just that today’s youths are afraid of failure and when they face rejection in life, they become depressed and think that their future is tarnished. No matter how tough life is we should be strong and fight back. Every career is about TIKE RAHO (not run away in desperation).
How was your experience working with the golden era legendary musicians like Cawas lord, Basu da, Burjor lord, and others?
My experience with them has been totally exhilarating. All these people are amazing and I have had the privilege of working with these fantastic musicians, who loved and respected me. So humble and so disciplined and that really reflects in the work they’ve done. I’ve been one of the lucky ones to have learned so much from them. One thing they liked about me was that I liked to be corrected. I was one with them, I sat along with all the musicians. It was great.
Finally, your role as a mother and grandmother?
The joys of motherhood brighten even the darkest and dingiest of spaces within you… But I surely overdo it at times. My children are my biggest critics and they keep telling me to work on this. Motherhood is great but being a grandmother is even better. I’m loving it more than I enjoyed being a mother! My grandchildren are like oxygen to my soul and I am proud to say that I get along with them much better than I do with my own children.
“If there is a legend bridging the East and the West, and why even different parts of India, it is Usha. With her music and charm, she has transcended the barriers of caste, creed, language, and nationality.” This euphonious voiced singer radiated natural warmth all through and her rich velvety voice echoed in the room as she wrapped up the conversation with her evergreen hit number Darling Ankhon se Ankhen Chaar Karne Do