Before breaking into an SP Balasubrahmanyam song (Rum Bum Bum Aarambum from Michael Madana Kama Rajan, 1990), with the legend himself, on a Kairali TV show, Usha Uthup tells the jolly SPB that people have often observed how much she sounds like him, adding, “meesha illai (no moustache)”. SPB chuckles in his trademark way and says to the audience, “I’ve been watching her for 40 years. At the best parties, she sings all sorts of songs, I’ve never seen her changing her attire. The same Kaanjeevaram silk sari, lovely malligai poo (jasmine strings in hair), the bindi, all put together in one Indianness that is Usha Uthup.” The bad girls of Bollywood got her voice, even Mithun Chakraborty, she got her first film-singing award after 42 years of singing, but she has been turning every weakness into strength over the last five decades, more recently, with digital concerts. Excerpts:
How is life under COVID-19 lockdown?
The pandemic has got the whole world down on its knees. We can’t do anything. My last show was in Jodhpur in early March, and ever since I’ve been home. I don’t see any of my big shows coming up until the end of next year. I’m not an angry person, but this corona, especially after SPB’s passing, I’m so angry because it has taken away so many loved ones. But I’ve pulled up my socks, I’m a sucker for routine and discipline, and have led my life like that, just wash hands, wear masks and keep a social distance.
How vulnerable are artistes and how essential are fundraisers like I Believe #ArtMatters?
I belong to the entertainment/music/art fraternity, and we’ve been without a job for so many days. Somehow, by God’s grace, we’ve been able to manage. I also run a studio, and over there, there are 10 families on one individual’s shoulder, I’m not a big moneyed person but I can say with my head held high that I’ve never cut a penny from anybody’s salary. But there are daily wage earners, who work on the stage, like technicians, arranging microphones, the lights, monitoring speakers, taking care of backstage arrangements, of everything, now those people get paid per show, they are not salaried people. It’s affected all of them very, very badly. Fundraising, thus, becomes important. The I Believe #ArtMatters fundraiser is going to be of great help to a lot of people. It is also one more way for us to connect with people.
Do Indian artistes feel cheated/forgotten since governments in other countries have given rescue packages to their artistes?
I won’t say we feel cheated, but to say that we are not even considered as an industry is sad. There are so many well-known singers and artistes who have no money to get their next meal, or even to buy medicine, that’s the pitiable state. I don’t know what the solution is except to help one another. I can’t put everything on the government, it already has enough on its plate.
You performed at Trinca’s (in Kolkata) last year. They celebrated their diamond jubilee, and the golden jubilee of your first performance there. How was it to walk down memory lane?
It is fantastic to walk down Park Street any day. Trinca’s is like a holy place of worship, it has given me my life and I shall never ever forget that. With all humility and gratitude, I say ‘thank you’ to my audience, everybody who’s been there in the past 50 years. They may have dispersed all over the world, but for making this person who started as a nightclub singer to be here today, and active. I’m doing much more work now than I did ever before. I’m sitting at home, exploring, and performing on the digital platform, it worked out very well for me.
What about digital concerts is not as satisfying as being on the stage?
I won’t use a negative word to say it’s not satisfying, what is more satisfying is when I’m live, the immediacy of the interaction. From Day 1, I’ve been a stage performer, not a playback singer, I’m a people’s person, so even on online Live concerts, people send heart emojis, it’s nice, but to see people happy and clapping their hands, I miss that, and the adrenaline rush that I get when I and all my musicians are appreciated.
As a champion for authentic singing, what do you make of ‘copies’, remixes and remakes?
A song is a song is a song. It matters to me; it doesn’t matter to me who has sung it before. So, if people in the audience want me to sing Suhana safar aur yeh mausam haseen, I will sing it, because what’s important to me is that you want to listen to it, you are my audience, and you are most important. For me, the song is always bigger than the singer.
I’m not saying all remixes are good. In the olden days, when I sang somebody else’s song, that was called my version. But see, an old song like Mana janab ne pukara nahin, the younger generation would probably not have heard it. Even if some DJ plays it, it is making accessible to the younger generation that brilliant composition which can’t be heard now. Everybody doesn’t have to sing original songs, come on.
After capturing our imagination for half a century, would you prefer the single take/analogue days to today’s auto-tune days?
I come from a time when there was no electronic media, so whatever I did had to be original, I didn’t have anybody who I could see on television and say I want to do it like this. I heard the radio. For the analogue recordings, everybody on the floor, the singers, musicians had to jolly well be well-rehearsed. In those days, there were more pre-rehearsals, now everything is so precise, I won’t call it auto-tune days, but in this day and age, they should not use it. Auto-tune is bad, anybody can sing then. There’s a precision that comes with technology, which is amazing, so the recording will come out absolutely perfect, if the recording engineer is doing his job. As far as I’m concerned, analogue days had a warmth.
You were born the year India got its independence.
I’m 72 years old, yet I look not a day older than when I started singing (laughs).
Indeed. You would have lived through a lot of political upheavals.
I do believe that change is inevitable, without change there is no life. Having said that, I feel, things have changed so much all over. I didn’t have to go through wars, didn’t see the independence struggle, I came into the world when everything was won, it doesn’t mean that I haven’t seen political upheavals like the Emergency, I have. But I come from a middle-class family, somehow with my father being in the police, it never really filtered down to us. We weren’t open as such to the bigger, political things happening in the country. We carried on living/singing as long as the authorities allowed us to. And then, Trinca’s, many people said that the nightclubs hiked up the cover charge. It was because the entertainment tax became so much that they were forced to not have entertainment. People say that Park Street is dying because there’s no music around, but then, how can you have music if you (nightclubs) have to pay so much entertainment tax, plus pay the artiste. Then the audience has to pay a high entertainment tax, and so, slowly the crowds started waning, and there was a lull.
But, I have to say, I’ve been really lucky, because by then, I had already found my footing in stage shows, I was doing so many para (neighbourhood) shows, I would perform all over India, do stage shows. I’ve had a good run. But the corona is the worst, nothing comes close. Our grandchildren will probably have to grow up having to pack their bags with water, two extra masks, sanitiser.
You’ve broken many barriers. Did men ever make any advances on you at your workplace? What do you think of the #MeToo movement?
I’ve never faced it, I’ve been lucky, maybe it’s got to do with the way I carried and conducted myself. It was not conducive for people to take a chance or try to make a pass at me. But truly, people have been wonderful, whether at Trinca’s, or Kala Mandir auditorium or Netaji Stadium, all over India and abroad, it’s never been like that. However, I know people might think I’m oversimplifying things, for some people, it hasn’t been easy at all. But I have no hard-luck stories to give people.
As a south Indian having sung in 17 Indian languages and eight foreign languages, how do you see the south Indian reluctance to adopting Hindi, and sometimes, even English?
I never thought of it that way. English was a way of communication for me because I went to a convent school in Bombay; and next to that, I would say, it would be Hindi. I long to talk in Tamil and I do whenever I get a chance or go to Chennai; anywhere in the south, I’m happy to speak in all the south Indian languages.
You’re playing Akshara Haasan’s Carnatic singer-grandmother in your forthcoming Tamil film Achcham Madam Naanam Payirppu. Ten years ago, you acted with her father in Manmadhan Ambu.
I’m really looking forward to that. Akshara is a darling. I had a ball working with her. Kamal Haasan is almost my age, we were very good friends when we started off, we still are, though we don’t get to meet each other so often. But it was a great experience. I love acting, I feel it is an extension of singing.
What are your memories of late SPB?
SPB is one of the greatest singers, with amazing versatility and hold over the medium, he’s incomparable. I’ve known him for a very long time, we did our first recording together in a Tamil movie (It’s Easy to Fool You in the MGR-starrer Oorukku Uzhaippavan, 1976), and ever since we’ve been good friends. I recall this one stage performance, from 10-15 years ago, at Kala Mandir (Calcutta), when I sang I Just Called To Say I Love You and he sang the Hindi version (Aate Jaate Haste Gaate). He was a perfect gentleman, had a great sense of humour, we did the Tsunami song together in Tamil, but one thing that comes to my mind is his kindness. In 2015, when my son (Sunny) was going through a kidney transplant in Cochin, SPB had come for a show, I called to express my desire to meet him and told him about my son and why I couldn’t get out of the hospital. He said, ‘don’t worry, I’ll come.’ He came. And sang a song for Anjali (daughter) in the hospital’s foyer. He didn’t need to do that; he was really kind.
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