She sings in 14 Indian languages and every city that the spunky Usha Uthup performs in claims her for its own. She may have got her first taste of the music scene in Chennai. Made her mark as a nightclub crooner in Kolkata. But she's the quintessential Mumbai gal who keeps coming back to sing in Aamchi Mumbai once a month, wherever she may go the rest of the time.
Did you always know you'd be a singer?
I always loved music but when I was young, I never even found a place in the choir. In school, people didn't like my voice too much. I was almost thrown out of the music class and I didn't sing in too many concerts, as they couldn't find my niche… My voice was between contralto and alto.
But I was determined to perform. I decided I must be an allround performer, so I started doing mimicry and singing in various languages, just so I could bask in the attention.
I never thought I'd be a singer professionally. I was studying commercial art and interior decoration when I got that first break in Chennai.
Were your parents encouraging?
Yes. Don't distract me with your questions… let me talk! I had a very happy, fairytale childhood, full of music, love and family picnic, in Byculla's Love Lane.
<b1>My mother, a housewife and father, in the police force, although typically orthodox middle-class, were very musically inclined. They exposed us (all six siblings, of whom I was last but one) to some great musicians and encouraged all of us to perform. It was easy to thrive in the loving and creative environment they created.
Ummm (hesitantly)… So many decades of singing. Do you ever feel jaded?
I didn't plan it, but I think I made time my friend instead of my enemy. I started off my serious singing career at Trinka's that most famous nightclub in Kolkata. And then I used to sing at Talk of the Town in Mumbai which is now Not Just Jazz By The Bay, where I still perform.
I often joke that nothing there is the same apart from the chandelier and me! Films have been an experience too - right from Purab aur Paschim in 1971 to Pyara Dushman, Shaan, Suraksha in the '80s till Hattrick just a few months ago - it's been forty years of singing. But apart from accomplishments, the main thing is that I enjoy what I do.
Even though audiences have changed - before they'd scoff if I sang a regional song and today they boo if I don't sing Rock'n'roll soniye - I still love entertaining them.
What makes you such a great performer?
I believe my greatest strength is that I know my weaknesses and limitations. I'm a people's singer, without any illusions and pretensions. I sing whatever they like. I play to the gallery I make the audience feel comfortable. And I NEVER lose my temper on stage, even if someone really provokes me.
Tell me about your trademark silk sariclad look…
It's not something I've cultivated. It was what came naturally to me, coming from a middle-class orthodox family. In fact, the combination of traditional saris and Western songs in a nightclub is not even mine.
My older sisters, Indira and Uma, who are famous as the Sami Sisters, were the ones who influenced me the most. Both musically and sartorially. They did things at a time when no one did it.
And the Kanjeevaram has special significance for me, because that was what I received in appreciation of my first public performance. I was 21 and on a family trip to Chennai. As a big treat, we were taken out to a little nightclub called Nine Gems and since they knew I liked music so much, they urged me to go onstage and perform. I sang
and then, seeing the response of the audience, sang
and many more.
At the end of the evening, I had an offer from the owner to sing there for another week, as well as the gift of a beautiful Kanjeevaram sari! So yes, the sari is special as well as the garment I'm most comfortable in.
But you recently exchanged the sari for a Caribbean kaftan and an Afro wig for a Hindi film?
Yes, it was for
in Milan Luthria's
. I had a lot of fun doing that song. Even for the music launch, I wore my trademark sari, but teamed it with red sneakers to get into the exuberant, sporty mood of the music! Thanks to Pritam, I could do Calypso in Hindi films after 37 years…
<b3>Who are the musicians that inspire you the most?
Harry Belafonte, the king of Calypso, who has been my inspiration for as far back as I can remember. And, like I said earlier, my sisters have always been my driving force.
My parents listened and exposed us to a variety of musicians like MS Subbalaxmi, Pt Bhimsen Joshi, Kumar Gandharva, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Frank Sinatra, Bing Cosby… and as I grew up I listened to Cliff Richard, The Beatles, Tom Jones, Engelbert Humperdinck, Barbara Streisand, Stevie Wonder, Connie Francis, etc, apart from Radio Ceylon and Vividh Bharati.
So there's been quite a wealth of musical talent influencing my life. What gives you the most happiness today?
When I'm performing, I feel euphoric if I connect with even just one person in the audience. Just one single listener who truly appreciates what you're doing can make the biggest difference.
Wicket bacha (Hattrick) 2007, Oh my heart (Joggers Park) 2003, Daud (Daud) 2002, Vande Mataram ( Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham) 2001, Ramba Ho (Armaan) 1981, Shaan se (Shaan) 1980, Hari Om Hari (Pyaara Dushman) 1980, One, two, cha cha cha (Shalimar) 1978