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The queen of Indian pop: Usha Uthup on her new memoir that celebrates her musical career

Her over-five-decade-long musical career has been captured in her recently published memoir, which is penned by journalist Vikas Kumar Jha in Hindi, and has been translated into English by his daughter, Srishti Jha


Joydeep Sengupta

Published: Thu 10 Mar 2022, 10:25 PM

At 74, the evergreen Indian pop icon Usha Uthup continues to conquer the world in her trademark kanjeevaram saree. Born in Mumbai in a traditional Tamil Brahmin family and married to a Malayalee Jani Chacko Uthup, she is madly in love with Kolkata, which has been her home since the mid-1970s. Her love for Kolkata is always on show as she sports a ubiquitous emblazoned alphabet “kaw” in Bengali script on her bindi on the forehead.

Though she had started singing in nightclubs in Chennai — that was called Madras back in 1960s in Tamil Nadu in south India — she found success while belting out covers and chartbuster at Trincas, a bar-cum-restaurant at hip-and-happening Park Street in Calcutta in the mid-1960s that exuded colonial charm.

Her over-five-decade-long musical career has been captured in her recently published memoir, which is penned by journalist Vikas Kumar Jha in Hindi, and has been translated into English by his daughter, Srishti Jha. The memoir is called The Queen of Indian Pop.

wknd. caught up with Uthup for a freewheeling conservation on her illustrious career, including singing at the canonisation of Mother Teresa — who founded the Order of the Missionaries of Charity, a Roman Catholic congregation of women dedicated to helping the poor and the downtrodden that is headquartered in Kolkata — at the Vatican in 2016.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

How does the queen of Indian pop demystify her ‘unusual’ voice?

Well, it’s a tough question to answer. I don’t know how to demystify my voice. It’s nothing unusual, obviously, because I was born with a particular kind of voice. The fact that other people found my voice so different, and so much so, I didn’t get a place in the school choir. And everybody thought my voice was very low and they still think that way. So, for me, it was having a crooked nose or different kinds of eyes or whatever other physical attributes. I’ve always maintained that it’s not how good or how bad, it’s just how original you are. My voice being the way it is gave me more of an impetus to overcome any challenge.

How do you look back at your long and eventful career?

Yes, it’s a long journey that has lasted 53 years and is still counting. Though it seems like such a long time, it appears like only yesterday that I started. This is largely because I focused on the good things — on the highs in my career rather than the lows. It’s been a marvellous journey. I come from a happy space and I’m comfortable in my own skin. I don’t have regrets, except small ones like I wish I had learned notation, then it would’ve helped further career progression. It’s been a wonderful career. My audiences have accepted me, even though I didn’t have a godfather or a godmother in the Indian film industry. The intoxication of the applause is what makes it for me the most important thing in my career. I love to belong. I love to be loved. I love to be appreciated. I’m sure everybody does. But few people are as explicit in saying it as I do.

In retrospect, would you consider yourself as a stage performer and a nightclub performer rather than a playback singer?

I’ve always maintained that I’m a live performer. The fantastic thing about being a live performer is that there are no retakes. You need to rehearse well and put in a lot of hard work because that’s the only take you have. You just do it once and that’s it. There’s no substitute for hard work. For me, the instant reaction with my audiences is much more important than being a playback singer, but one is linked with the other. For instance, if I get a hit song in a film, then I get about 375 live shows because of that. I’m a live person. I need the reaction from the audience immediately. And I think that happens when you are going live as opposed to being a playback singer. But when you’re a playback singer, then the results come a little later.

How truthful have you been in the memoir?

Oh! I’ve been truthful, and honest. I was shy and reserved. A little hesitant, but 100 per cent honest. There’s no two ways about it. I’m a private person. When you trust the person who is writing in this case, of course, she becomes so much higher. When you trust the person or the person who is listening to you or the person who is writing about you, then it is easier. And that’s how it was for me.

What were the high and low points in your illustrious career?

Sometimes the highs were higher, and, at times, the lows were lower. But hey, isn’t that what life is all about? The lows came from my personal life more than my professional life. However, I learnt to take these things in my stride. I’ve had a fantastic guide, Rumi, who helped me negotiate the difficult phases of my life and removed all barricades from my life. The barricades are strewn in a path called life. The lows are like where I talk about my leg being the way it was following a bout of polio.

Of course, some of the highest points were getting married to Jani and my two children — Anjali and Sunny — and my grandchildren. What kind of a high is that? Besides, I’ve received such wonderful accolades from people from all walks of life. The other points were meeting the late Kenyan President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, for whom I performed my hit number Malaika in Swahili. Also, my meeting with the late South African President and anti-apartheid leader, Nelson Mandela. I sang alongside Miriam Makeba, who was known as Mama Africa — the late South African singer, lyricist, actor, and civil rights activist. I have sung with the late Mahalia Jackson, one of the world’s best gospel singers. I’ve worked with RD Burman and Bappi Lahiri from our Indian film industry. I also worked with director-composer Vishal Bhardwaj for Darling. But I got the greatest satisfaction from working with Mother Teresa.

Why did you choose to live in Kolkata even though the city’s glory days were long over?

Who said that the city’s glorious years are over? I don’t think it’s over. Kolkata will always be a magical place for me. Of course, the magic of the city is in Park Street. Why did I choose Kolkata? Because this is the city where my husband, Jani, was based. He worked for J Thomas & Co. Pvt. Ltd. — the largest and oldest existing tea auctioneers in the world. Later, he was transferred to Cochin, where my children were born. But he got back to Kolkata, which was Calcutta back then, in 1976. I’ve been living in the city ever since. Kolkata allows you to grow, makes you a thinking person. The city makes you a loving and caring person.

How many songs have you sung in how many languages?

I’m not a numbers person at all. Perhaps, I may have sung in thousands of songs in 17 Indian languages. But I didn’t sing them to make a record of sorts. I’ve also sung in eight foreign languages to date. I take immense pride in the fact that I’ve worked in several languages and with children. But numbers are a mere statistic. For example, Frank Sinatra probably sang only 300 songs in his life. Or, for that matter, consider how many hits did German composer and pianist Ludwig van Beethoven deliver, despite composing so few symphonies.

Is it true that songs for good girls were given to others, and those for bad girls were given to you?

Yes, it’s true. The bad girls were given my voice — raucous and husky. It’s a typecast and a preconceived notion in India. It’s depicted in films that the heroine got the mellifluous and silken voice of Lata Mangeshkar. However, I always got an item number such as Ramba ho, Samba ho. But I did playback for heroines such as Sridevi and Rekha. I don’t have any axe to grind with anybody in the Indian film industry.

Choose the top five numbers of yours and five of your best renditions of others.

In English, I’d say, Hank Williams’s Jambalaya (On the Bayou) is one of the chartbusters. Listen to the pouring rain by José Feliciano. American rhythm & blues (R&B) singer Little Willie John’s Fever and Noel Harrison’s The windmills of your mind are other ones that readily come to my mind. Of course, Sinatra’s My way. My top five numbers as the audience would like to believe is Doston se pyaar kiya from Shaan, Ramba ho, Samba ho, Hari om hari, Koi yahaan nache nache and, of course, Darling.

I also sing other people’s renditions as well such as Mangeshkar’s Ajeeb dastan hai yeh, my own version of Bindiya chamkegi. I have also been singing some of the songs from my favourite Indian singers such as Kishore Kumar, SP Balasubrahmanyam, KJ Yesudas. I’m trying to give a Bengali twist to Allu Arjun and Rashmuka Mandanna’s Pushpa song Srivalli. I’m also doing a lot of work with Ilaiyaraaja, who is predominantly a Tamil film composer, conductor-arranger, singer, and lyricist. I’ve done a lot of work with him such as Mani Ratnam’s Tamil film, Anjali that was released in 1990.


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