Usha Uthup takes Anusha Parthsarathy on a ‘Vegam Vegam…’ trip through her forty years in music and memories of Chennai

Usha Uthup walks into the lounge wearing her trademark bindi with a golden Bengali ‘kh’ on it, jasmine flowers in her hair and a red and black silk sari. “You have to understand my sense of humour,” she says upfront, “I’m not like other celebrities. You don’t have to prod me for answers.” And so, like her music, she narrates her story seamlessly, talking of her earliest memories of Madras, her first acts, how she learnt to sing in 17 languages and what she is looking forward to doing.

“I love Madras,” she smiles, and remembers all those early years she spent travelling here to see her grandparents. “They lived on Edward Elliots Road. My earliest memories of this city are getting down at Central Station and driving to their home, knowing that my paati would be waiting for me in her rocking chair. You know, you think some things will last forever… And my lovely aunt, every time I visited, I would reach the end of the lane and turn to see her standing there, waiting for me.”

But it’s not just family that reminds her of the city. “The yellow vishu flowers have had the biggest impact on me actually. Every time I land in Chennai, that’s the first image of the city that comes to mind. And of course, the mallipoo overtakes everything. Filter coffee too. And sundal on the beach with kilimooku manga. And the kadala, I call them soggies.”

Usha’s taste in music was influenced by the radio and the music that her family listened to when she was a child. “Video can never kill radio, I think radio will always reign,” she says categorically. “My influences at home were huge. My uncle listened to Mozart, Beethoven, M. Balamuralikrishna and M.S. Subbulakshmi. I would listen to The Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and so on. So I was influenced by jazz and all these other genres. It made me the musician I am today. That apart, I don’t think you rank yourself by being a good or bad singer but by being an original one.”

When she began her career, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Usha often performed in a night club in Madras called Nine Gems, where she sang popular English covers of that time. “It was here, in a Madras night club, that I learnt how important learning the local language is,” says Usha. During one of her performances, she suddenly broke into ‘Bambara Kannale’ and says that the crowd went wild. “The audience loved it. There’s something about singing in the local language people connect immediately. While this particular session was coincidental, I consciously began to build my repertoire after this.” She owes her fluency and the ability to pick up languages to her schooling. “There we had English as our first language, Hindi, Marathi and French as second, third and fourth languages. But I think Indians are blessed because we’re born in a country with so many languages. Instead of shying away, we must celebrate them.”

She became popular with songs such as ‘Vegam Vegam Pogum Pogum’ (Anjali), ‘Vande Mataram’ (Khabi Khushi Khabie Gham), ‘Koi Yahan Aha Nache Nache’ (Disco Dancer) and more recently ‘Darling’ (7 Khoon Maaf). “Tamil is perhaps the most easy language to set to tune, because you can cut the words and it won’t mean something completely different,” she explains. “Bengali is, of course, beautiful. Gujarati is easy to pick up and that is the reason it has spread far beyond our shores. I think my love for people made me learn all these languages, really.” Usha has also sung in Kannada, Telugu, Marathi, Assamese, Bhojpuri, Oriya and Khasi. “I write the lyrics in English, usually or sometimes in Hindi. I work very hard on my songs and I always maintain that music is not my business but communication is. I only think about how better I can communicate the song. If I have to sing a song in another language, you’ll usually find that I’d have written down the lyrics at least three or four times because I think the more you write, the better you communicate,” she adds.

Her 40-year career has not just led to her receiving a Padma Shri but handling language workshops across the world and inspiring many young musicians to take up singing in languages other than their mother tongue. “Music is beyond caste, creed, colour, race, age and gender. Why let something as trivial as language stop you from reaching out to all those people? The workshops are about training a non-Tamil or non-Bengali speaker to sing in that language,” she says.

Having judged a number of reality shows, Usha is happy about the amount of talent that the country possesses now. “It’s phenomenal. All these performers are trained and so clued in. I tell all these young performers that they must sing in other languages so that they can grow. I’m so glad that many of them have listened to me.”

Usha confesses to being a fan of Ilaiyaraaja. “I think he is still the king. There is absolutely no reason for him to be compared to anyone else. You know, there are some songs that you can listen to and just cry? His music does that to me. I have a big collection of his compositions,” she says.

Usha was in the city recently to sing in an upcoming Tamil film. “I’m always listening to something or the other,” says Usha, “We have two holes on the sides of our face and if you want to listen well, the only way to do it is to listen with your heart.”