Usha Uthup, now in the 40th year of her singing career, admits that she made her limitations her strength.
You have a distinct voice that was very different from what was in vogue then. Did you face initial rejection when you started out?
I was rejected outright when I did my first audition for a documentary film. But I consider myself lucky; I have been blessed by god. I’m an original singer and have done well in these 40 years. I wouldn’t say it was easy, but I am a very positive person. I made my limitations my strength and now my career is on an upswing, touchwood!
Some singers try to copy you. Do you take that as a compliment?
Oh yes! It’s wonderful to see young people not only try to sing like me, but also try to emulate my style of singing. I love it! It’s a great feeling.
You started out singing at nightclubs...
(Interrupting) I still do and I love every bit of singing at nightclubs. But I never had any bad incident. I guess it depends on how you carry yourself. Here I was, in a saree, singing with all my heart. It was and probably will always be the prerogative of some people to come to nightclubs wearing slinky outfits. But you see, I came on and I changed it (smiles).
You made the saree and big bindi your trademark style. Who inspired you to follow that style?
No one. I wish I could give you some sensational piece of information but I come from a middle class family and it didn’t seem necessary for me to focus on how I looked. Yes, it did matter to me how well turned out I am. But honestly, the sari, the bindi, the gajra… nothing was planned.
Earlier, Lata Mangeshkar, Kishore Kumar or Asha Bhonsle were just voices till the electronic media came into the picture and brought them out. This is not to say they were not wearing nice clothes. But it wasn’t important for any of us to be body-conscious. But I’m happy to see so many youngsters so competitive and body conscious. And much of it can be credited to Bollywood.
Is it difficult for you to do playback singing for actresses, because of a heavier voice?
(Emphatically) Of course! There’s this pre-conceived notion that songs for the good girls have to be Lata or Asha, and bad girls, me. This kind of notion is especially true for India. I can’t see it
changing in terms of playback singing.
What do you think of the present Indian pop music scene?
Sky is the limit. It’s great to see the way things have changed, making way for technology and electronica in music. The music reality shows on TV are an amazing platform for the youth.
However, today’s music lacks the soul. Analog recording had more warmth. But I do believe that change has to come because life is cyclic and everything has to come back to what it was. I’m sure one day, someone might stop and say, “Hey! Let’s get that magic and soul back to the songs.”
What do you think composers like Shantanu Moitra, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, Himmesh Reshammiya?
They are brilliant! They’ve got both classical and western background in music, which is great. Shantanu and Shankar’s teams are wonderful. I don’t know Himmesh so much. But he must have done something wonderful to get people going crazy over him.
You have performed before Indira Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Jomo Kenyatta. Any fond memories you recall?
When I sang ‘Malaika’ for Jomo Kenyatta, the President of Kenya, he told me that with my kind of voice, I should belong to the African world. I remember that day vividly. Meeting Mandela and Mother Teresa were wonderful experiences too.
Any particular composer you’d like to work with?
Yes, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy and AR Rahman once again.
What was it like to sing for the Celebrate Bandra Festival?
It’s the most magical experience, as a singer, to be on stage. Any artiste should give an arm and leg to be there. It’s also the 40th year of my singing career, so it was special.
I wouldn’t say that it was like coming home because I keep going to Mumbai all the time.
You grew up in Bombay. Don’t you ever want to come back and settle here?
(Earnestly) I love it when I land in Mumbai. I learnt to cook, stitch, live in this city. I miss the buzz, the excitement... it’s just something so different. What pains me is that in my time, we were never scarred by religion.
Any album you’re working on?
I have this album called Kashmir to Kanyakumari coming up. I have sung it in 16 different languages and the album knits the whole of India. I’m going for the premiere of this album to Bangalore, on December 20.