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Icon of Music

Jan/06/2024 / by abhijit-masih

With a five-decade, multi-lingual career that straddles Indian and Western the Queen of Pop Usha Uthup is leaving a lasting legacy 

With a powerful voice and genre-bending style, Usha Uthup’s impact on the music industry is an indelible one. Over her decades-long career, she has captivated global audiences with her mesmerizing performances, seamlessly fusing Indian and Western musical influences. Known as the Queen of Indian Pop, Usha’s soulful voice and dynamic stage presence have solidified her as an iconic figure in music. Beginning her musical journey at a young age, she swiftly rose to fame, showcasing her talent in languages such as Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, and English, connecting with diverse audiences worldwide. Usha’s versatility spans from soulful melodies to energetic pop hits, earning her admiration not only in India but the world over. Usha Uthup’s vibrant and unconventional style, reflected in her bold sarees, bindis, and accessories, further exemplifies her fearless self-expression, adding to her multifaceted legacy.

Can you share the story of how you began your singing career and what inspired you to pursue music?

It all started in 1969 quite by chance. I never thought I would take singing as my career because I was thrown out of my music class because Ms. Davidson thought my voice wasn’t suitable for the kind of choir that we had in school. I come from a very musical family and used to listen to Mozart, Beethoven, Kishori Amonkar, Bismillah Khan, and so many others classical musicians. They would also listen to radio Ceylon, Cliff Richard, The Beatles, Frank Sinatra, and Ella Fitzgerald. 

So I had a mixed bag of music in my head. I think the atmosphere was conducive to the kind of music I finally took up. And one time when we were in Madras, my aunt took us for a dinner treat and she asked me to just get up and sing. There was a band playing over there and found that the audience enjoyed my music. When they asked me to sing some more, I think it got into my mind that I love the sound of applause and being one with an audience. 

At the end of that stint, I got an offer to sing for the whole week at Nine Gems. While I was singing there, I got an offer to sing at a night club in Madras. From there, I went to Bombay. I started singing at the Little Heart at the Ritz Hotel. Then I got an offer to sing in Calcutta. I was absolutely thrilled. The one thing I did tell them was that I don’t know how to wear a dress and I don’t wear a frock. And they said we just want you the way you are, just come along. 

Your unique fusion of Indian and Western musical styles is iconic. How did you develop this distinctive musical style?

I found that very early in my career that music knows no barriers of caste, color, creed, language, gender, sex, nothing. I do believe that every language has a certain musicality to it. And so I tried to pick up the nuances and I found that when I sang in a nightclub, and when I sang all my jazz and pop songs, if I included one Hindi or Punjabi song, people reacted totally differently. When you touch the chord in somebody’s heart with their own language, it means something totally different. So I started learning more and more languages. Even in school, English was the medium of teaching and Hindi was the second language, Marathi was the third language, fourth language was French and of course at home we spoke in Tamil. I already had a good, basic foundation for languages. But I work very, very, very hard at doing a good job of the pronunciation and the expression.

You have had such a long and illustrious career, which have been your most memorable songs and meaningful musical collaborations?

It’s difficult to say because for 54 years that I’ve been singing, it’s a long journey. There have been so many favorites and so many wonderful songs depending on the region where I’m singing. There are songs in Malayalam, Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Punjabi, of course, Bengali, that are big hits in all the different languages. But the most memorable, or the most satisfying language, I will probably say is English. It’s always one step higher for me to be able to learn it and lyrics means so much more. It touches you immediately, whereas the other languages, I have to learn. But I will say that Tamil is a fantastic language to sing and also Punjabi. I think one of the most difficult languages I would say would be Malayalam. It’s a difficult language to sing. Amongst the foreign languages, I would say Italian is one of the most exciting languages. Any language that really touches your heart, or touches my heart is good enough to take it and get your teeth into it.

You’ve had a long and successful career in the music industry. What do you believe has been the key to your enduring popularity?

I think it’s easy to get to someplace, but to stay there is very, very difficult. You’ve got to work really hard at it. It works when you’re honest and sincere about your job; really work hard at it, without any compromise and just do it straight from the heart. I think it works for staying power and for being able to get across to people, not just the Indian diaspora, but to get across everybody. For me, music is the strongest medium to get people together. 

How do you stay inspired and motivated to create new music even after all these years?

The wonderful thing about music and being on the stage, at least for me, is that I’m 100% honest over there. I’m really fortunate, and god has really blessed me because it’s not everybody who loves the work that they’re doing and who work for the love that they’re getting. It is really quite amazing. I’ve always said the song is much bigger than the singer. So I’m a grabber. I just look for the moment that’s going to give me the maximum amount of love. And I try my level best to deliver much better than the last moment.  

What are some of your cherished and memorable moments?

It’s difficult to enumerate and put it in a small capsule. But the one milestone memory I would definitely say would be the fact that I had the privilege of meeting up with Nelson Mandela. I had the privilege of meeting him and singing at the United Nation. I’ve also been really blessed to have been able to give my second album, ‘Beautiful Sunday’ to Indira Gandhi. And of course, working for Mother Teresa closely. So there are lots of things that I need to be grateful for all the time. Coming across to New York one more time and to be able to sing for all of you is in itself a huge big thrill. We just finished a nice tour of America in cities like Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Chicago, San Francisco, and ended with Kentucky. So there are huge memories, really fantastic milestones and it’s been a great, great journey.

Your biography, The Queen of Indian Pop, was recently released. Tell us a little about it?

The first book that was written about me was called Ullas Ki Naav, which was the biography. It was written by Mr. Vikas Kumar Jha and that turned out to be a real big success. The Queen of Indian Pop is written by Mr. Jha’s daughter Srishti who translated the whole thing. She’s done a beautiful job of it. It all started with Mr. Jha trying to get through to me for an interview. Finally when he got the opportunity to talk to me, my son was in hospital in Cochin, having a kidney transplant. I was in the lobby waiting and Mr. Jha got me on the phone. After I came back from Cochin to Calcutta, he came to there and I started doing the interview with him there. It turned out to be so deep, with so many things being said that he thought this has to become a biography. So it became a one but really wasn’t planned as a biography. He just came to do an interview.

Your fashion sense is often as unique as your music. How do you express your individuality through your style, and has it influenced your music?

I don’t have a hard luck story neither do I have a sensational story except for the fact that it’s just a middle class person who started straight off from school. It never struck me that I have to wear something or put on something to do performances in a night club. I never felt that you had to particularly dress up so I started wearing sarees. Then I used to wear the bindis and put it on my forehead. So I started making different shapes with different colors, and I just thought it was so exciting to do that. I found that it looked good with my sarees. And then as a South Indian, my mother would buy flowers for the puja and I thought it did something very nice for my face and my hair. I wore sarees, bindis and flowers and of course I love bangles so that became my dress. I made my own web which is sad because wherever I go, I have to wear all of that. It wasn’t a strategy or marketing genius. I just did what I thought was good or whatever I was able to afford. 

You’ve been associated with various social causes and charities. How do you use your platform to give back to the community?

No one does really want to talk about the charities that they are doing but I definitely have been involved with cerebral palsy. I’ve also been involved with School for the Blind. Working against leprosy and tried to get eradicated and a lot of other charities. I always feel that what you take from society at some point of time you have to give back and it gives me more pleasure to give back rather than to take. 

SIDEBAR 1

Usha’s Favorite 

Favorite Food – I’m really a junk eater. I love South Indian food – Rasam and Sambhar.

Favorite city – To visit I would say London. In India, Bombay. 

Favorite singer – There have been so many singers who are really my favorite.  If you say Western music then I would probably have to include Stevie Wonder, Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald so there is not just one person.

If you had a chance to perform a duet – The person who I was very good with was S.P. Balasubrahmanyam and would have loved to do much more work with him. My hero and my idol was Harry Belafonte, unfortunately he is no more.

What lifts your mood – Just getting onto the stage and singing. 

SIDEBAR 2

Usha Uthup’s Top 10 Hits

  1. Vande Mataram – Movie: Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham
  2. Rambha Ho Ho Ho – Movie: Armaan
  3. Hare Rama Hare Krishna – Movie: Hare Rama Hare Krishna
  4. Hari Om Hari – Movie: Pyaara Dushman
  5. Koi Yahan ha Nache Nache – Movie: Disco Dancer
  6. One Two Cha Cha Cha – Movie: Shalimar
  7. Darling – Movie: 7 Khoon Maaf
  8. Dirty Picture – Movie: Thikka
  9. Doston Se Pyaar Kiya – Movie:  Jurmana
  10. Aami Shoti Bolchi – Movie: Kahaani

PQ Suggestions

I was thrown out of my music class because Ms. Davidson thought my voice wasn’t suitable for the kind of choir that we had in school.

The one thing I did tell them was that I don’t know how to wear a dress and I don’t wear a frock.

I found that very early in my career that music knows no barriers of caste, color, creed, language, gender, sex, nothing. 

When you touch the chord in somebody’s heart with their own language, it means something totally different.

I think it’s easy to get to someplace, but to stay there is very, very difficult. You’ve got to work really hard at it.

I’ve always said the song is much bigger than the singer.

It never struck me that I have to wear something or put on something to do performances in a night club.

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