The Taste with Vir: Usha Uthup and a song for a vanishing South Bombay
One of my clearest memories of early 1970s Bombay (as it was then) is of going to The Talk of The Town, a restaurant on Churchgate Street. The restaurant was distinguished by the elaborate carvings and sculptures that had been brought from all over India (by its owners, the Narangs of the Ambassador Hotel) but we had gone to hear Usha Iyer sing.
I was still at boarding school, was back in Bombay on holiday, and looked distinctly sceptical when a South Indian lady in a Kanjeevaram sari got up from one of the tables and joined the band on the stage.
My scepticism lasted for two minutes. She began with a version of Peggy Lee’s Fever that had the whole restaurant swaying and followed it up with many classic songs including a beautiful rendition of Hurry Sundown.
Somebody from the audience shouted out, “Play something new!
“Something new?” She was not pleased at all. “How about some Santana?” she asked.
I wondered about that. It was one thing to sing Peggy Lee and the classics, quite another to do Santana, then (after Woodstock and the super-success of the band’s cover of Fleetwood Mac’s Black Magic Woman) one of the hottest bands in the world.
But I stopped wondering the moment she went into Evil Ways, tambourine in hand and Kanjeevaram sari swaying to the music. Even without Carlos Santana’s singing guitar, she pulled off an accomplished version.
In those days, it wasn’t difficult to hear live music in restaurants. Most of the Churchgate Street places had a band of some description. Admittedly the musicians were grizzled, old, (mostly Catholic) jazz veterans who played House of Bamboo (Andy Williams originally sang it, but I doubt if anyone remembers the song now). The singers were elegant ladies in slinky black dresses with names like “Sweet Loraine”.
But I had never seen anything like Usha. She did not bother to dress like a ‘crooner’ and she could sing everything from jazz classics to rock to Hindi film songs. (She would sing Bindiya Chamkegi at the Talk of the Town.)
I went back to hear Usha sing last weekend. Nearly everything has changed. The Churchgate Street restaurants no longer have bands. (You need all kinds of licenses and bribes to arrange any live entertainment in the city, these days.) There is no Bombay any longer. It is Mumbai now. The Talk of the Town is gone. A pizzeria has taken its place. I don’t even know what Churchgate Street is called now.
And Usha is not Iyer any longer. She took the surname of her second husband, and found national fame as Usha Uthup.
By the time I got to know Usha, I lived in Calcutta (sorry, Kolkata) and she was queen of the city. She had recorded many hit songs for Hindi films including Hari Om Hari. When people pointed out that the tune was stolen from the late 1970s hit One Way Ticket, she began to perform both songs together in a medley as a good-natured acknowledgement of the plagiarism. (Bappi Lahiri copied the tune; Usha did not write the song.)
But I couldn’t help wondering if she had been born too early. By the time she finally began recording hit film songs, the industry had begun to change. But in 1971, when Dev Anand heard Usha and asked her to sing for Hare Rama Hare Krishna, the film business was in a different place. Usha was supposed to do playback for Zeenat Aman who played Dev Anand’s sister in the movie. (The heroine was Mumtaz.)
Rahul Dev Burman wrote Dum Maro Dum for the Zeenat character and Usha sang it brilliantly in the rehearsals. It was clear that this would be the biggest hit of the year, the song that showed that Hindi cinema could handle rockier rhythms.
Once everyone accepted this, the problems began. Usha was elbowed out. Asha Bhosle sang the song in a register so high that no Western rock star (except perhaps for Alvin and the Chipmunks) could ever have managed. Dev Anand, who did not like the idea of a hit song that was not picturised on him, cut the song sequences short in the movie so just as audiences were getting into Zeenat Aman singing Dum Maro Dum, the movie cut to Dev, ponderously intoning “Ram Ka Naam Badnam Na Karo”. (The full song is not in the movie but it was released on the soundtrack recording.)
Suppose Usha had recorded Dum Maro Dum? Suppose she had sung one of the biggest hits of the 1970s? Would her life have been different? Would she never have left Bombay and shifted to Calcutta?
Usha is unwilling to engage in all such speculation - in public, at least. A biography of her was released on Saturday at the Kala Ghoda Festival and Vikas Jha, the author, spoke eloquently about her life and work. But when I asked Usha about being sidled out of Dum Maro Dum,she would not give a direct answer to those questions. All she would say was that she sung Dum Maro Dum better than anyone else.
After our on-stage conversation, she proceeded to sing it.
And yes, of course she was right.
Talking to Usha and attending the Kala Ghoda Festival (where the actress and brilliant food writer Tara Deshpande and I also discussed Indian food and its history) made me happy. And it made me sad.
The South Bombay of my childhood is gone. When I was growing up, Churchgate Street seemed like the centre of the universe. Now it is dirty and tacky.
There was nothing at Nariman Point. Then they reclaimed the sea, built the Air India building and the huge office complexes. In the 1980s, the Nariman Point complex prospered so much that, when I was editor of Sunday magazine, I put it on the cover and called it India’s Golden Mile. Now, the big companies have moved out. (With the notable exception of Reliance.)
So have the great institutions – the Indian Express, Air India etc. have all given up space in the buildings named after them. Only the Oberoi remains as an island of excellence.
It is not as though South Bombay is deserted. I went to the Taj Mahal Hotel on Sunday to pick up a pair of shoes from Munna Jhaveri of Joy Shoes who has made my shoes for years. The shop was as I remembered it and the Taj lobby was so full that even VT station (which is not called VT any longer, of course) seemed less crowded and classier.
So there are still lots of people but somehow everyone and everything counts for less and less. As is perhaps inevitable, the city has grown and the centre has shifted. Bandra, a distant suburb in my childhood (an era when snobs claimed that the suburbs began after Worli’s Lotus cinema ; a claim that seems laughable now) is probably the centre of Mumbai now. BKC, a phenomenon of the last decade and a half, is the new Nariman Point. Juhu is the new Chowpatty.
This is not unusual. Chowringhee is no longer the centre of Calcutta. In Delhi, Connaught Place was withering away till the Metro gave it an arterial by-pass to West Delhi a couple of years ago. In Bangalore MG Road is no longer the centre.
So life hurries on. And often the changes are for the better. (Though it is hard to find anyone who says that today’s Mumbai is better than the Bombay of the 1970s.)
But listening to Usha sing Fever in the heart of South Bombay at the Kala Ghoda Festival, the memories came flooding back. And I felt nostalgic for a vanishing Bombay.
But then, as Joni Mitchell put it: something’s lost and something’s gained in living every day.
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