Usha Uthup: 'I believe in love because music is really everything to me'

Usha Uthup: 'I believe in love because music is really everything to me'

Ahead of her performance in Mumbai at a fundraiser, veteran singer Usha Uthup gets candid about illustrious career

Verus FerreiraUpdated: Sunday, March 26, 2023, 09:04 AM IST
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With a voice that can set your hair on end, live performances that rock, Usha Uthup packs a punch wherever she goes. The dazzling and charismatic singer with her trademark jazzy vermillion, traditional colorful necklaces and her Kanjeevaram saris adorned with fresh flowers in her hair, are a regular at most events. Regarded as one of India’s earliest female pop and jazz singers, who has performed at nightclubs to packed concerts across India and the world, done Bollywood music, has over a 100 music albums and counting, Usha’s music appeals to everyone. When Usha sings, you just cannot help dancing. The legend performs at a fundraiser in Mumbai this week.

In an exclusive interview with The Free Press Journal, the prolific singer recounts her over 53 year old musical journey.

From 'Hare Rama Hare Krishna', 'Rambha Ho' and 'Koi Yahaan Nache Nache', you have come a long way. How do you look back in your long and eventful career?

Actually, it's more than just ‘Hari Rama and Hari Krishna’ to ‘Koi Yahaan Nache’. It's been a long, long career. And you know, it's been 53 years since I've been singing. I've been singing English songs long before I got in chance to sing in a Hindi film. I've been singing in nightclubs from 1969. It's been absolutely wonderful and my journey so far has been really, really amazing because people have always supported me. People like you, who you know, who want to still write, write about me and get youngsters to read about me, it's just fantastic. So when I look back on this long career of mine, I can only say with all humility, thank you God, thank you to my musicians, thank you to all the audiences that I've had for so long.

You’ve made a career singing jazz at nightclubs wearing kanjivaram sarees, gajras, and bindis. How did this fashion statement come about which even today flows well wherever you go.

I made singing jazz and at nightclubs and wearing kanjivaram saris and gajras and bindis and this I truly did only because I come from a very, very normal and shall I say, a traditional South Indian middle class family. I didn't really dress up like that or try to change my clothes or the makeup or anything. I just wore whatever my sisters wore, whatever my mother wore and whatever sarees were in the house, I just wore them. As for the bindis, well it started off with small bindis, then slowly it all started changing and the sizes became bigger and the creative in between became even bigger. Soon it became a fashion statement. But really, I didn't plan it. It's just amazing that people love all this and people love the kanjivaram shoes I wear. All the kids say she's so cool, some say I'm so swag. That's all because of all of you.

With absolutely no formal training in music, how did you nurture your talent to become one of the most prolific singers in the country?

In a way, I feel that girls and boys are so lucky to have the opportunity to learn. I would always say, please go ahead and learn music, because it's fantastic. Having said that, I have no regrets really about not learning any music because if I had learned it then, now 53 years on, I would have to unlearn everything I know through experience, through life, through meeting so many different audiences. You're meeting so many different musicians, so I guess never having any formal training also has its good points. But I wouldn't say it to the youngsters today that you're OK without learning. You must learn. If you have the chance to learn, just go ahead, have an open mind and try to do as many languages as you possibly can. We are born Indian, you're already born with an advantage. 17 Indian languages and God knows how many dialects. So just go ahead and learn your music and keep practicing, because there is no substitute for hard work.

You have dabbled in films, music, acting to being a stage performer, nightclub performer to a playback singer. Which do you feel addresses you as the best?

You know something, I have acted in films, I do music, I'm acting and being on stage. I've been a stage performer, nightclub performer, to playback singers, to everything, which is the thing that thrills me the most. I think I would say that I am a people singer, so when I can sing live to people it's just fantastic. I don't find there being any other way to tell you that I'm a complete, complete people singer and when you sing on stage, there is no second take. There is only one take and you jolly well deliver and you better work hard to do a good job of it because the people come to listen to you. You have to give them your best.

In January you released two songs, one on cricket Icon Sourav Ganguly and the other on Africa, are you very passionate about both?

Cricket and Africa both excite me very much. I am very passionate about Africa in a different way because I’ve been to Africa so many times, in different parts of Africa and we've done some very amazing shows, met some amazing people like Nelson Mandela, Jomo Kenyatta and we've had a wonderful time over there because I was able to record (my song) ‘Malaika’ which was also my first Swahili song. Cricket I think is in every Indian’s bloodstream or DNA or whatever it is. Visiting Africa has been really wonderful and you won't believe it. I never really got a chance to visit so many sanctuaries. But this time we did go to the Lion Park and it was really amazing. The one thing that really hit me and really made an impact on me is that this time we were all caged, caged up in pickup vans and all the animals were walking free. That's the way the cookie crumbles, I guess, that's what life is all about. They were meant to be free and they are.

You did the title track for Drishyam 2 late last year. Tell us something about it.

Drishyam 2 and working on Drishyam 2 with music director Devi Sri Prasad was an amazing experience for me and one of the best times of my life, because working through the Internet and the three states involved, Madras, Bombay and here in Calcutta, W Bengal, was just fantastic. Drishyam 2 is such an amazingly powerful film. So I'm very grateful to God for giving me this chance. I should be thankful to everybody who gave me this chance, especially DSP, the director. I believe Ajay Devgan was very, very keen to have my singing as well. I'm very grateful to him. It was just fantastic. I'm so glad that I got this opportunity to do this. I do hope all of you loved it.

You play Akshara Haasan’s grandmother in Raja Ramamurthy’s Tamil film ‘Achcham Madam Naanam Payirppu’ (March 2022) on Amazon Prime Video. What was the experience like?

Great experience working with Akshara Hassan, mainly because, of course, she's Kamala Hassan's daughter. It was so amazing because the generations are so widely split. She's really so tiny and a good actress. I hope I get many more opportunities to work in films because I love doing that. I really love acting in films.

Last year you came out with your memoir written by Vikas Kumar Jha. Any reason why you decided to let someone else write your life story?

No, actually it wasn't a memoir written by Vikas Kumar Jha. It's a fantastic jivani, as they call it, the biography. I didn't let anybody else write because I really didn't have any plans to write anyway, though there have been many people who offered to write my biography. It was finally Vikas Kumar Jha who wanted an interview with me. I never imagined that an interview could be like that. They just carried on and on, and somehow or the other, you know, you have trust. When you talk to somebody, you can make out that this person is not going to distort facts. He would write it as you say it. It was never meant to be a biography, it was only meant to be an interview. But it just so happened that we touched on so many topics and so much, so many parts of my childhood, that I'd never spoken about before, that I think it just gave itself to being a biography.

So I should always be grateful to Sri Vikas Kumar Jha for writing ‘Ullas Ki Naav’, and there's an English translation which has come about which is written by Srishti Jha. It's called ‘Queen of India Indian Pop’. And when you say it, is there any reason why I decided to let someone else write your life story? No, it would never happen like that. It just happened as a small interview.

You’ve been generous to a cause and use your talent for humanitarian causes in India and overseas. Tell us about your upcoming performance and musical fundraiser in aid of Alert India?

I have been associated with Alert India for goodness, how many years now. It's just wonderful working for a cause like this because though we know that leprosy has been eradicated from India or maybe from the world, still I don't think people are aware of how much the treatment costs, the awareness is not there. So working for a fundraiser like this for Alert India, especially working for Veera Rao, she is such an amazing human being. Her whole team, husband included, are so dedicated and totally compassionate. There are two people and their entire team are people who really work with such focus and so much determination. So there's no way that you can even feel like saying no to them, really. I am overwhelmed whenever they ask me because I am so grateful that through them I get an opportunity to work for such a marvellous cause, like working to help the people with leprosy.

So when you do a show of this kind, do you waive your artist fee?

People call me charity Didi. In fact, if I were like every other artist that I know today, I would be a real, really a rich woman. But I'm very, very rich in good wishes and blessings from everybody. No, I do waive the artist fee for almost all the charitable organizations that I've worked for and I think, it’s something which is very, very personal. So I wouldn't force my musicians or anybody else to do it. You should never talk about these things. Actually should never talk about what they say, what the right hand gives the left hand should never know. Actually, that is ever so true. One doesn't talk about it. All I can say is that I'm grateful to God that I get this opportunity to do it.

Your homepage on your website says ‘I Believe in Music’. So what does Music really mean to you?

It’s true when I sing, I believe in music. I believe in love, truly, because music is really everything to me. Everything. When I say music, I don't mean necessarily singing a song. It's being able to share with other people your thoughts, your feelings, and get their feelings as well, even though not every session is a interactive session in as much as we're not getting the audience all the time to talk along with me, but to sing along with me, I definitely think it's just fantastic to be able to say I believe in music and I believe in love and really live that, live it till to its fullest. And that's what I do. I really mean it when I say music is the universal language and love is the key to brotherhood and peace and understanding, living in harmony. I wish the rest of the world would listen to that as well.

You have done thousands of shows in your illustrious career. Have you ever been nervous on stage at any point in your career?

I am one of the most nervous people to get before I get onto the stage. I mean, I don't know how, sometimes I wonder how I've stayed away from all kinds of stimulants and things like that. Thank God for that. But I am truly a nervous wreck before I get onto the stage. I think it’s because I believe so much in damage control. Where I'm trying so hard to see that I am better than I was before, if not, I should be at least as good. There's no way that I can just get onto the stage without saying a prayer within myself or being nervous. I think being nervous is almost like saying it's my birthright and I will be nervous. Yes, I'm very, very nervous. But on the good side, I will say I work better under pressure.

It’s been over 50 years for you in the music industry. Have you ever thought of taking a break from music?

Actually, it's 54. And no, I've never thought of taking a break, and God, make that dream of mine come true. I never want to take a break. In fact, I say that to every artist and every creative person. Never ask God for a break. Because when he gives you a break, it will be really hard to take. Really. So I don't want a break at all. I just want to sing and laugh till I cry. What's the line? Let me tell you the line, OK. I want to live till I die. I wanna laugh, till I cry. That's very, very important. So I would say, put it the other way, I would say I want to sing, till I die. Really, there's no other way. I don't want to break at all. I'm very happy going on to the stage. The excitement of meeting up with my musicians and the excitement of working on the list and getting an audience that’s absolutely fantastic. I thank God for all this. In all humility, I say, God, what would I have done without music, really? Thank you so much for this amazing opportunity of doing an interview for the Sunday Free Press Journal newspaper. I've been in Bombay for so many years, so I know all about this paper. Thank you so much.

What other projects, Bollywood projects, you are working on?

There are many other Bollywood projects which are going on, but it's difficult for me to give all the names because half the Bollywood projects, they don't get their names till the final days. So I just hope that all my songs get really, really heard well and get successful.

Event: Usha Uthup Live in Concert (in aid of Alert India)

Date and Time: Wednesday 29th March, 7. 30 pm

Venue: Nehru Centre, Worli.

Tickets on: bookmyshow.com

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