Notes of unity

GOING STRONG: Usha Uthup has the mesmeric quality. — Photo: P.V. Sivakumar  

A ROBUST voice, which has rendered innumerable songs in English and other languages can be none other's than Usha Uthup. She has a unique place in the musical firmament today. She has elevated night club singing imparting it a sense of dignity. She creates a certain magic on stage and with the audience right from the word go. She makes them jive to her renditions - be they English, Hindi or in other languages. Scores of stage shows, hundreds of songs, volumes of experience and yet Usha is the same - down to earth, warm and friendly. Very willing to talk even at a late hour, Usha revealed her magnetic personality and her interests.

Usha is proud of her middle class background, which she reiterates throughout. "My father was in the police in Bombay. I was the fifth of six children. I had a very happy childhood. I specify middle class because there are a lot of answers that I have derived because I hail from this class - my morals, ethics and the sterling values that have been passed down by my parents. I am very proud to be Indian, my appa and amma's daughter.''

With no note of formal training, Usha rose to be a popular singer. ``While I was in school I was thrown out of music class because I didn't fit in with a voice like mine. But my music teacher recognised that I had some music in me would give me clappers or triangles to play. I grew up in an atmosphere of music. My parents used to listen to a wide range from Western classical to Hindustani and Carnatic. In those days one heard only live performances,'' says the singer, who grew up listening to Radio Ceylon. Her main inspirations - the Sami Sisters, the singing duo (her elder sisters) and Harry Belafonte.

Her accidental foray into singing in 1969 charted her path forever. One of the first singers to lend dignity to night club singing, Usha's speciality besides her voice was her style of dressing which remains her signature even today. Was it a conscious decision to wear a sari? ''Many ask me so whether it was a good marketing or packaging strategy . The answer goes back to my middle class upbringing. I just wore what was comfortable. I had seen everybody wear the sari and I wore it because there was nothing else. I always wore bangles and flowers in the hair and a pottu (bindi).''

For Usha, singing is not the question of numbers.'' I must have sung 200-300 film songs. I take solace in the fact that even Frank Sinatra did only 300 in his lifetime. If you ask me how many stage shows then I would probably break records - though I can't remember the actual number.''

Ask her about the pop and rock scene today filled as it is with so many bands in cities and she replies. "I am thrilled to be a part of this scene for so many years. Today there is amazing technology and thanks to the electronic media one gets to see and hear many more people. I think it's great. Let it all come. Our country is so vast and so full of talent."

The Indi-pop trend is on the verge of decline. People are doing their own albums spending their own money. She replies: "I don't have that kind of money. I always respect the audience and I don't think you can dish out rubbish all the time. I believe quality lasts. The bad will be sieved out and only the good will remain.''

There's so much of fusion today. What do you think of this? Is it a healthy trend? Is fusion a misused term? "I feel under the guise or garb of fusion a lot of rubbish is passed. Good music is not just about putting things together- something from the East and West. Here, I would say I am fusion - a South Indian born and brought up in Mumbai, married to a Malayalee, living in Kolkata. Fusion is something that is so subtle that you don't know where it actually gets fused. That is what should be really good fusion. Fusion is all about making it a way of life''.

World music is in these days with even classical musicians getting into such ventures. What do you think of this? ''World music is OK because you need to widen your horizons. How far it is going to take one I don't know.''

Do you think emotion is more important than actual singing of the song? "For me every night is a new experience even if I've sung the song before. I never sing the same song the same way every day because I'll find something new that's happened before I go on to the stage, which will change my emotion towards that particular song. For me, the song is always bigger than myself. I've always believed that the singer is never bigger than the song."

``I've worked hard in keeping the professional and personal life separately. When people ask me how does your husband help in your career I say by not helping. He never interferes and has been really supportive,'' says Usha. Right now her granddaughter is her life. "I can talk about her the whole day. She has given me an insight into so many facets of my life,'' says a doting grandma.

Have you thought of penning down lyrics? I do, but I noticed it doesn't work for me. People would rather listen to other songs I sing.'' How do you put so much zest into your music? "The magic is the audience. I am honest and natural." Despite her hectic schedule Usha is brimming with ideas of new projects. "I am working on a multi-lingual album. I am also working on a new series of `Karadi Tales'.'' Usha fondness for children is revealed when she talks excitedly about some projects she has for them. "I could talk endlessly about what I want to do for children. I want to put together songs and nursery rhymes with a difference. I have a few ideas in mind but unfortunately no sponsors to back me up. Moreover, I don't have the time to work out proposals. There is an interesting one on the train - an imaginary one starting in Kashmir and ending down south. Enroute I want to capture the life and seasons through songs and thereby project the unity in diversity. For instance, I have prepared a map of the route and I realised that rice and tea are common almost in the whole country. I have other ideas on saris, festivals and cooking oil, chanawala, policemen.... the list is endless. The idea is to make interesting songs with an underlying message, ''says this compulsive optimist, whose motto in life is to move on with it which she has demonstrated aptly keeping in mind another maximum `not to progress is to regress'. Wish you many more years of singing.