Music is not my business, communication is. I may not be the best singer in the world, but I'm original, the first lady of Indian pop music, Usha Uthup, tells Bhumika K.
The Swinging Sixties — that would suitably string together Usha Uthup, the person and her music. She's a rocking 65 this year and her music subverted any conventional idea of what an Indian woman singer on stage in the 60s would croon.
“You'll never hear me say I'm tired… I'm never tired. Just put a mike in front of me and I'll start singing,” says the original pop queen of India, though she looks exhausted from the last evening's show and the flight after that. She was in Bangalore to perform at a concert for The Whitefield Club; the proceeds of the show go towards upgrading its facilities.
“People tell me they are shocked I'm ‘still' singing,” she says in the course of the interview. “But I'm not ‘still' singing, I'm singing now! Lots of exciting things are happening now. It's just fantastic!” she says with an enthusiasm and spirit that one has come to associate with her. The polyglot gives a glimpse of just how she's doing it all now — she'll be seen on MTV Coke Studio doing a Tamil song with Chennai group La Pongal, produced by Shantanu Moitra! “Music is not my business; communication is. I may not be the best singer in the world, but I'm original,” Usha reiterates with pride.
After a 43-year musical career, Usha Uthup won her first Filmfare award for her song “Darling” (which she shared with co-singer Rekha Bhardwaj) in “Saat Khoon Maaf”. But it was a song that almost wasn't! When the film's director Vishal Bhardwaj called upon Usha to be a part of the film, she assumed it was to sing. But he wanted her to act (she played Maggie, Priyanka Chopra's maid in the film). “But I told Bharadwaj I have to get a song… I'm dying to sing now…and that's how ‘Darling' happened.”
Her husky deep voice, her robust singing of Jazz, and Anglicised accent automatically made her the “bad girl voice” of the Hindi film industry when she first made her appearance in the 1970s. When you point out that film songs didn't come her way easily, Usha says, “I didn't come into this world as a playback singer. I'm a 100 per cent stage person. Singing for Hindi films is not the only standard to measure against.”
But, all the same, she admits India gave birth to the concept of playback singing and the music video. “All our Hindi films are musicals, each with 10 music videos…I mean each song in our films was one!” she observes. “Our Hindi film industry is just too amazing.” This Friday she will perform in Singapore for IIFA Rocks, where Hariharan and Leslie Lewis join her in paying a musical tribute to 100 years of Indian cinema… in 12 minutes flat through 12 songs spanning “Babul mora” down to “All is well”. “How can you choose from such a vast bhandaar of glorious songs? How can you do justice to it? It was so difficult to choose.”
What did easily choose her right at the beginning of her life, though, was music. Right from her school days, it was music all the way. “Towards the last years of my school life I learnt to play the guitar and would sing and play on stage. I realised very few like Stevie Wonder can be multi-talented. I realised that I was giving more importance to the song than the guitar…thank god I realised that then, so I concentrated on singing.” It's also almost legend now how Usha Uthup started singing in the 1960s in nightclubs in Chennai, Mumbai and then Calcutta. “I never had a single note of formal music training,” says the woman who sings like she knows nothing else. Did she go to paat class like all good girls from Tamil families are expected to? “My older sisters had the paat vadyaar coming home to teach them, but I didn't have the opportunity to learn Carnatic music…and I have no regrets. I'm a compulsive optimist. I don't believe in getting frustrated.”
This year the country celebrates the 151 birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore. And Usha pays tribute to the poet laureate with an album “Garland of Gems” — English renditions of Rabindra Sangeet , with Naseeruddin Shah reciting the poetry while Usha sings. “There are many preconceptions that Rabindra Sangeet is boring and all sung in the same way. But I found the world of his music and lyrics amazing; there's a Rabindra Sangeet for every situation. I have earlier made six Bengali albums and now I did it in English because if it's well presented to the younger generation and non-Bengali speakers, there's a greater chance of spreading Tagore's music.” She also goes back to memories of 1969 when she sang Rabindra Sangeet in English with a guitar for company at a nightclub!