It's great to be me: Usha Uthup
Have you had breakfast?' When an interview for a cover story opens this unexpectedly, you're somewhat at a loss for words - especially when the query comes from the country's original pop diva (dressed immaculately as always, in her trademark silk saree).
Have you had breakfast?' When an interview for a cover story opens this unexpectedly, you're somewhat at a loss for words - especially when the query comes from the country's original pop diva (dressed immaculately as always, in her trademark silk saree). But Usha Uthup, the beloved 64-year-old "original" Didi of Kolkata (Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee being only a recent addition to the city's Didi), radiates natural warmth, almost her USP. We lap up the "bread, omelette, chai" and get on. Her room in Studio Vibrations, a four-storey building tucked in an alley off one of central Kolkata's busiest and congested roads, is a contrast to her flamboyant, colourful self. A simple studytable and a handful of cushioned chairs, plaques, trophies and a few framed photographs - some of them sepia-tinted - make up the roomscape. On the table are bangles and earrings arranged neatly in transparent pouches, and packets of the signature "Usha Uthup bindi", embossed with the first letter of Kolkata's Bengali spelling. Naturally our discussion veered around her sartorial choices, considered a "miss-match" for her profession.
Brand Usha Uthup
Reminisces Usha: 'I started singing at a time when no performer in India, barring the film industry, hired image managers or costume designers. I started performing in clothes I had always worn, which is basically the humble saree. The flowers or the gajra in my hair is also another family tradition, given that I am an Iyer by birth. And bangles have always been a weakness. The bindi came much later... A lot of people may now consider my look to be a clever marketing strategy but it never was meant to be. You can attribute it to my upbringing.' Her wardrobe is a kaleidoscope of colours and textures from all parts of the country. Kanishka, a well-known South Kolkata boutique, and Chamba Lama, Tibetan jewellery shop in the city's New Market, are her two favourite shopping venues. Honoured with the Padma Shri last year, Usha calls herself a "people's singer" because she's doing a little of everything - jazz, pop, folk, Bollywood. She says fans today don't want her to change her image. She recounts how once an airport security staff member expressed his disappointment on seeing her without the gajra. 'If I even go to the market in other clothes, people turn and ask 'Didi, apni aaj saree keno poren-ni (why are you not in a saree today)?" she laughs. (Though Tamilian, Usha speaks the language of her adopted home, Bengal, fluently.)
The die-hard individual ist is surprisingly emotional by nature. 'I cry at the drop of a hat... I can look at an old photograph from the family album and cry; I can cry while watching a movie; I can cry while reading a human interest story, and I can also cry when I am singing a song with moving lyrics!' But almost contradictorily, she is too shy to give vent to emotions in public, so finds herself rushing to the washroom when the floodgates threaten to open up. She fishes for her smartphone and unlocks it to show me a photograph of herself with Sunny, her second born, who is now 38. 'I found this photograph last week... this was taken by my brother when my son was about six years old. I looked at it and there were tears streaming down my cheeks. I quickly got it scanned and saved it on my phone. I can now look at this 24/7!' says the doting mother. Her children Anjali (40) and Sunny still laugh at her spontaneous bursts of emotion, which, the singer says, helps her drop negativity and be cheerful.
Marriage & Motherhood
The mention of Anjali and Sunny veers the conversation in another direction as Usha talks of her marriage and motherhood. Usha Iyer met Jani Uthup at Trincas, the famous Park Street bar and restaurant in Kolkata. This was when she was entertaining the city with her brand of jazz and pop. Usha broke notions of the stereotypical "female nightclub singer" - skimpily clad and almost always from the Anglo-Indian background - when she first performed at Trincas way back in 1969, dressed in a modest cotton saree with a string of jasmine in her hair. The romance between the diva and the tea company professional soon led to marriage. The couple then moved to Kochi where the two children were born. A possessive mother, Usha says, 'The joys of motherhood brighten even the darkest and dingiest of spaces within you...' But she admits that she tends to overdo it at times. 'I know that people feel claustrophobic if you smother them with love and emotion, but I don't know if I'll ever learn to be less possessive. I am 64 already. My children are my biggest critics and they keep telling me to work on this. They are concerned that I end up hurting myself.' Usha returned to her home city Kolkata years later, when her husband was transferred. Kolkata is where Sunny, also working with a tea company, is still based, while Anjali, a radio jockey, has settled in Kerala after marriage.
A Better Grandmom
Today Kerala continues to figure in Usha' list of frequently-visited places, thanks to her two grandchildren. 'Motherhood is great but being a grandmother is even better. I'm loving it more than I enjoyed being a mother! Anjali's children - a daughter and a son - are like oxygen for my soul and I keep running to Kerala at the slightest opportunity. And I am proud to say that I get along with them much better than I have with my own children. People of ten complain about generation gap being at the root of adjustment problems. When I analyse the bond I have with my grandchildren, I wonder what they're talking about,' says Usha. Her grandchildren are 12 and 8 years old.
Usha The Giver
Usha believes motherhood, as well as caring, sharing and nurturing, came to her as naturally as did music. 'No one trains you for such things... you are just born with it and of course you imbibe from your surroundings as you go along. I have always been a giver even if it meant, in certain cases, being unwise. But life is like a balance sheet - you gain some, you lose some. And I am not afraid of conceding defeat to a loved one.' Perhaps it was the "giver" in Usha that prompted her to cook meat and fish for her husband and children despite being a staunch vegetarian herself. 'When I am the chef of the day the menu is according to the eater's preference,' she declares. There are certain "cooking" dates that she never misses. Baking Christmas cakes is one such commitment.
Adding More Feathers
Juggling shoots for reality shows, song recordings, stage performances and managing the affairs at the studio keeps Usha on her toes but wells of energy keep her from cracking under pressure. Not one to settle for less, she is always looking to do more. That explains why Usha took up acting, making her debut in the role of protagonist Priyanka Chopra's maid last year in Vishal Bharadwaj's 7 Khoon Maaf. The film's song "Darling", a duet by Rekha Bharadwaj and Usha, won her the Filmfare for the Best Playback Singer Female. Her first ever! Currently Usha is busy canning episodes for Bharat Ki Shaan, a reality show on Doordarshan. Usha believes in individuality. She says it breaks her heart to see parents "pushing" children to be "like" someone. 'I am horrified when I hear parents on the sets say things like "my daughter sings like Shreya Ghoshal" or "my son copies Sonu Nigam well"! There is no glory in the art of imitation. You cannot be someone else. There can be only one Sonu Nigam, only one Sunidhi Chauhan, only one Shreya Ghoshal... And nothing can be more shocking when a parent is encouraging the child to copy.'
While giving full credit to her parents for allowing her to follow her heart, Usha says that it helped to have "singing sisters" to be her role models. 'My two oldest siblings, Uma and Indira, are the original Sami Sisters (named after their father Sami Iyer). They started singing at Mumbai clubs in the fifties and so many decades later, they are still going strong. And then they got Maya, our youngest sister, and me for company and look what a beautiful family we have!' her face lights up as she speaks of the "musical" bonding they share. 'I was not formally trained in music. With Uma and Indira to guide me I didn't even need a tutor... the music flowed naturally. I think that's what people like about my singing. It's simple, unpretentious and easy to connect to... There have been many such instances when listeners have run up to the stage to join me. And I love that.'
Usha & Kolkata
Usha is perhaps the only singer in India to have sung in 13 regional (including her mother tongue Tamil) and eight foreign languages. 'I sang in Punjabi much before I had even uttered a word in Bengali, let alone sing in the language,' she informs. However, iterating her love for the City of Joy, she says she is happy being based in her "karmbhoomi". 'This city has given me an identity, my husband, love and adulation... And I am totally sold on love. Give me love and you will find me with you, always.' The muchloved "Didi" of Kolkata doesn't take kindly to any criticism of the city. 'Show me one city that is without problems. So why be so har sh on Kolkata only? People have f lown the nest branding Kolkata as "doomed". If I have problems with my home city, I will stay on to do my bit. To be able to do things you have to be around!' she declares with passion. Ask her to choose a song that describes her best and she replies within a nanosecond. 'I have modified a few words to make the description perfect. Here it goes... Doston se pyaar kiya/ Dushmano se bhi pyaar kiya/ Jo bhi kiya humne kiya, shaan se... (I have loved friends/I have also loved my enemies/Whatever I have done in life/I have done with pride). Her rich velvety voice echoes in the room as the singer wraps up the conversation with this evergreen number... Vintage Usha.