Wearing a sari, with fresh flowers in her hair and 36 or 48 bracelets clinking on her forearms, singer Usha Uthup stands tall as she talks about her work, which spans more than five decades . “I just have one regret though, that I never learned a musical note in school or in my entire life,” says the 74-year-old whose recently published authorized biography, The queen of Indian pop, gives an overview of his life.
“I wish I had at least learned sight-reading or notation, because that would have helped me in my career. If you can read the sheet music, 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 at music, so she kicked me out of the choir class, which is pretty amazing. Years later, 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 him; we both cried… But it’s not a regret that brings me down. It pushes me to do better,” says the “compulsive optimist,” who now performs in 17 Indian languages and eight foreign languages, worldwide. And to add, “It’s not that I’m a good or bad singer; I am a 100% original singer!
Born the same year as India’s independence, Uthup started singing around 1968, but had never spoken before about the hardships she faced. She shares, “I am a very non-controversial person. Also, I don’t do sensational copying, which is why you haven’t heard from me about a lot of things in so many years except the things that are known about me. Some of her heartfelt confessions have been documented now, and these include the time a “politician tried to ban me from singing,” she says, recalling, “It was really overwhelming to think that a person Sadharan like me, who is very down to earth like the girl next door and doesn’t fit the image of a nightclub singer, people would actually ban me! My God, what for? 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 became very popular. And this ban came because of these songs. Can you imagine how many songs would you have to ban today if we go by the lyrics? We wouldn’t have any more music,” she said, bursting out laughing.
Since the pandemic hit, Uthup has been confined to his home and can’t believe what the world has had to go through. “How come I was home?” A person who has been to the airport 10 times! It was March 7, 2020 when I did my last (physical) show. So for the past two years, I haven’t been out of my house, except for a show. But I still haven’t seen the airport… It’s crazy! Can you believe someone like me just sits at home and doesn’t grumble? I complain a lot about Mr. Covid and what he brought, and I hate everything he did to us – took away our loved ones, made us suffer. But we all need to help. Stop blaming everyone else and do something yourself too,” she said, adding, “At least obey all the protocols. Also, prioritize and put a routine on what you have to do, and have some discipline; so i think there is no time to be depressed. I am very sad and pained for this generation and the next, that they have to grow up wearing masks and carrying sanitizers, all the time, and keeping social distance. But what can we do is smile and carry on.
Author tweets @HennaRakheja