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Usha Uthup: The bad girl with Kanjeevaram sneakers

Dressed in a gorgeous Kanjeevaram silk saree, her trademark big bindi adorning her forehead, she climbs up the stage gingerly. She is 71 and her hair has streaks of grey. She looks the complete antithesis of what you expect a nightclub singer to be. And yet when her booming voice reverberates through the speakers, you cannot but groove to the rhythm.

That rain-washed afternoon Usha Uthup was in conversation with Sanjoy K Roy at the Jaipur Literature Festival at Diggi Palace’s Front Lawn. The session was aptly titled “I Believe in Music”. The downpour had brought down the temperatures considerably, but Usha Uthup exuded warmth, narrating anecdotes from her life to the packed crowds.

“The song is always bigger than the singer. Gaane gaane par likha hai gaane wale ka naam,” she laughs in her guttural manner, as she tells us the story of how after Dum Maro Dum was recorded in her voice, she was replaced with Asha Bhosle. “But I am the person who never got frustrated. It definitely it made me feel sad at times. But I know tomorrow is going to be a brighter day for me.”

“I am a night club singer, for that’s where I started,” she says. Her story of the transformation of Usha Sami— who sang at ‘Trincas’ in Calcutta, at ‘Talk of the Town’ in Bombay, and other night clubs, to Usha Uthup who sang in films—  is stirring. She tells us how she was spotted by Dev Anand and asked to sing for Hare Rama Hare Krishna. She was the Jingle Queen singing Come alive with Nescafe, Happy days are here again for Thums up and Vicks ki goli lo khich khich door karo. She is a born story teller, knowing how to engage with her audience. She sings on demand from the audience in several languages— Tamil, Rajasthani, Bhojpuri, Marathi— she can go on! After all she has sung in 17 Indian languages. She has written 150 songs of her own. “Communication is my business,” she says. And language was never a barrier for someone who is a Tamilian married to a Malayali and settled in Kolkata.

There is a lot of talk about her incongruous attire for someone singing in a night club. She chastens someone from the audience trying to click a picture, and tells her to click the right profile, holding her saree elegantly to cover her tummy!

For the last 30 years, she has had to stand for hours during shows in stilettos. Now that took its toll, and she now finds heels uncomfortable. Her daughter Anjali told her: “Amma, if you can wear sneakers in the morning, why can’t you wear them in the evening too?” So Usha tried her hand at sticking bits of borders of old Kanjeevaram sarees to her sneakers. She held up her sneakers for us to see. She says she now has two Bihari cobblers, Sushil and Misri Das, who have made her a whole series of Kanjeevaram sneakers. Talk of starting a new trend of pairing sarees with matching sneakers decorated with brocade borders!

She talks about her unusual voice and the difficulties that came with it. “I had a bad girl’s voice. So the heroine’s songs rarely came to me. I was the voice of the cabaret dancers and the bad girl.” She says she has sung most songs for Kalpana Iyer. She talks of how she even was the voice of Mithun Chakraborty! “The song was ‘36-24-36” from Roti ki keemat, something I cannot be”, she laughs.

“I don’t have the power of knowledge of sa re ga ma.” she says, “But I have the power of emotion. I learnt to turn my limitations into my strength.” Not many people had her range and style. The people who probably came closest to her powerful voice were Reshma and Ila Arun.

As the day’s session concludes, she regales us with Vishal Bhardwaj’s Darling.

She’s back the next morning at JLF after a whole evening of singing. And this time she sounds even better. Usha Uthup sings with all her heart. She chooses the right song for the event, “It’s only words, and words are all that I have.” The crowd is singing along with her, clearly overwhelmed by her voice.

Usha Uthup has now been singing for fifty years. Irrespective of what she sings: Ajeeb dastaan hai yeh, Skyfall or Imagine, we are enraptured. Age might have caught up with her physically, but her voice sounds rich and resonant like always.

I have grown up listening to her sing Hari Om hari, Koi yahaan nache nache, Rambha O, Hare Rama Hare Krishna and Kaali teri gut. Her voice is an inseparable part of my growing up years. Just to show you how fantastic she is, I cant resist linking this song from Bombay to Goa which has ‘Usha Iyer’ singing a medley of songs.

That morning, as she stands up to say bye, I know I have experienced magic in her voice, that few are lucky to cherish. The crowd roars in appreciation. She is clearly overwhelmed with gratitude for the love, her eyes welling up with tears. As she says, may the nasha of applause keep her going.

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