Dressed in a saree, with fresh flowers in her hair, and 36 or 48 bangles clinking on her forearms, singer Usha Uthup stands tall as she talks about her work, which spans over five decades. “I just have one regret though, that I never learned a note of music in school or right through my life,” says the 74-year-old whose recently released authorised biography, The Queen of Indian Pop, gives an insight into the her life.
“I wish at least I had learned the sight-reading or notation because that would have helped me in my career. If you can read the music sheet, you can pick up the music so fast. But I didn’t really have the opportunity to learn… My music teacher didn’t think I was very good for music, and so she put me out of the choir class, which is quite unbelievable. Years later once when I was performing at The Ashok, in Delhi, my music teacher was in the audience. I dedicated a song To Sir, With Love to her; we had both cried…. But this isn’t a regret that pulls me down. It pushes me up to do better,” says the “compulsive optimist” who today performs in 17 Indian and eight foreign languages, the world over. And adds, “It’s not that I’m a good singer or a bad singer; I’m a 100% original singer!”
Born in the same year as India’s independence, Uthup started singing around 1968, but never before spoken about the difficulties she had to face. She shares, “I’m a very non-controversial person. Also I don’t make a sensational copy, which is why you haven’t heard me talk about many things for so many years except the things that are known about me.” Some of her candid confessions have been documented now, and these include the time when a “politician tried to ban me from singing”, she says recalling, “It was really overwhelming to think that a sadharan person like myself, who is very down to earth like the girl next door and not fitting into the image of a nightclub singer, would actually have people ban me! My God, for what? When I think about it, the songs Hari Om Hari (Pyaara Dushman; 1980), Rambha Ho Ho Ho (Armaan; 1981) and Koi Yahan Aha Nache Nache (Disco Dancer; 1982), all of them became really popular. And this banning came because of these songs. Can you imagine how many songs would you have to ban today if we go by the lyrics? We would be no music left,” she says bursting into a laugh.
Since the pandemic struck, Uthup has been homebound, and feels difficult to believe what the world had to go through. “How could it be that I was at house? A person who went 10 times to the airport! It was 7 March 2020 when I did my last (physical) show. So last two years, I didn’t set out of the house, except for one show. But I still haven’t seen the airport… It’s crazy! Can you believe that somebody like me sitting at home and not grumbling? I do grumble a lot about Mr Covid and what it has brought, and I hate all the things it has done to us – taken away our loved ones, made us suffer. But, it takes all of us to help. Stop blaming everybody else, and do something yourself as well,” she opines, adding: “At least obey all the protocols. Also, prioritise and put a routine to what you have to do, and have a certain amount of discipline; then I think there is no time to be depressed. I’m very sad and grieved for this generation and the next, that they have to grow up wearing masks and carrying sanitisers, all the time, and keep social distances. But what can we do is smile, and carry on.”
Author tweets @HennaRakheja