Usha Uthup relives the old times and celebrates the new ones at P.R. Ramakrishnan’s memorial concert
Forty-three years ago in Bombay, a lady in a Kanjeevaram sari with jasmine in her hair, took centrestage in a dimly-lit bar, Talk of the Town. The audience, including R. Prabhu, son of Coimbatore Institute of Technology’s founder P.R. Ramakrishnan, braced itself for a Bharatanatyam performance. Instead, the lady with a tambourine in one hand and her pallu in the other belted out Nancy Sinatra’s ‘These Boots are Made for Walking’. She was Usha Uthup, who went on to receive the Padma Shri, sing on a hundred albums in 21 languages and become India’s Queen of Pop.
“Namaste, namaskar, namaskaram, salaam aleikum, vanakkam,” she welcomes a 2,000-strong audience at the free concert in CODISSIA Intech Hall, held recently to commemorate P.R. Ramakrishnan’s fourth anniversary. ‘I believe in music!’ she sings, ‘I believe in love!’ Her bangles keep time with the tambourine and her shimmering Kanjeevaram reflects the yellow stage lights. For four decades, her vibrato has resonated off thousands of concert walls and whistles from the audience prove they haven’t had enough yet.
“I’m happy in my skin. At 64 you start living again, and it’s all because you have stood by me,” she says, breaking into Ben King’s ‘Stand by Me’ followed by Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’. The audience screams back, ‘I love you!’
Not much has changed in the depth and flamboyance of Usha’s voice. She began her career in the Nine Gems nightclub in then Madras and her Tamilian roots have stuck with her. “Ready-aa?” she shouts before seducing the crowd with her velvet-voiced rendition of ‘Dum Maaro Dum’. “Soooper mamaa!” she concludes.
“I haven’t always sung what’s appropriate for Madras-maamis, though,” she says, “and people ask me where the power in my voice comes from despite eating just sambar and rasam. I tell them it works only in South India!”
Nevertheless, North India has showered Usha with plenty of love as well. She reminisces the early days when she got to sing a portion of the immortal ‘Dum Maro Dum’ — her first Bollywood number.
R. D. Burman’s ‘Shaan Se’ and Bappi Lahiri’s ‘Ramba Ho’ follow. As the last echoes of staccato ‘hos’ fade out, Usha whips the mic off its stand, pushes her glasses up her nose and jives to ‘Rambambam Aarambam’ from Michael Madana Kama Rajan.
In the last half-hour of the concert, Usha proves to the audience why her powerful jazz voice is irreplaceable in the industry even today. As she croons her award-winning ‘Darling...’ from 7 Khoon Maaf, one wonders why the award took 42 years coming. She then sings one of her more recent hits, ‘Hai Ye Maya’ from Don 2.
By now, the crowd has left its seats far behind and danced its way down the aisles. The frenzy rises with Usha’s covers of Rowdy Rathor’s ‘Chinta Ta Ta Chita Chita’ and Gangs of Wasseypur’s ‘Jiya ho Bihar ke Lala’. Kids run up on stage, grown men twist and shake with veshtis folded up and college students hoot their lungs out.
“I wish I could whistle like them,” says Usha. Instead she flashes the ‘Rock on’ hand sign and asks us “Why this kolaveri-di”? The night closes to the adrenaline-pumping strains of “Appadi Podu Podu”.
Keywords: Usha Uthup