‘The song is bigger than the singer’ – Usha Uthup on music, success and creativity

Usha Uthup, the pop, Bollywood and jazz singer has made waves not just with her music but also with her style statements, pluralism, and her trademark wit. An informal chat with the legendary singer…

Some of the highlights of the recent annual Bengaluru Poetry Festival were the panel sessions by singer Usha Uthup and actress, Shabana Azmi, featuring emerging and established poets, and folk music performances.

After Usha’s session that included a range of popular Hindi, Tamil and English songs, she spoke to YSWeekender about music, comedy, the digital world and much more…

On re-mixes

“I don’t think I can say all remixes are bad and neither can I say they are all good. But on the whole, I would say that it’s good to do remixes otherwise we would lose melodies,” Usha explains. “The generation of today would never hear melodies like Dil Kya Kare,” she adds.

On fusion

Fusion between Western and local styles of music is common in countries around the world, but draws mixed reactions in terms of quality and authenticity. “I think I am a complete example of fusion. Fusion has to be organic,” Usha explains. “For instance, I may be dressed in a particular way but I am singing something else. So that’s fusion, isn’t it? Everything is fusion. But when they start making a big hue and cry about it, then it’s different,” she says, in defence of the creative contribution of fusion.

Usha Uthup

On digital media

Digital media is seen as a double-edged sword by the music industry – it is more efficient and global, but there has been rampant illegal downloading and sharing in recent years. At the same time, social media has powerful promotional ability and has created new kinds of music stars in their own right.

“I compose a lot. Today nobody buys albums; everyone downloads songs off the internet. So I am planning to do something on the Net - digitally, but no album,” Usha says. “I also think YouTubers are just brilliant. It’s the most amazing platform —YouTube, and the digital domain,” she adds.

The road ahead

Usha also had words of encouragement for aspiring artistes and entrepreneurs. 

“My advice to everybody is to hang in there. Unless you have a dream it can’t come true. So I would say, if you really believe in yourself, follow that dream. It’s got to happen if you are hanging in there with dedication and honesty. And always remember that the song is bigger than the singer. There are no two ways about it. It’s not the singer that makes the song,” she says.

Converting limitations to strengths

Usha realised early on that her bass voice stood out from other popular high-pitched singers in Bollywood. “Very early I began to understand my limitations and converted them into my strengths. I also understood that the most important thing for an entertainer and a good performer is to be a good camouflage artist. If you forget a word of a song or make a mistake, just don’t show it to people,” she says.

Usha started off as nightclub singer. “Being a night club singer you see so many stories happening in front of you, and it is great when I got this opportunity. I think for me - the turning point in my life and career was when I realised that the stage was the most important thing for me,” she recalls. “Many people today think that playback is the ultimate; but I am proud to say I am a nightclub singer.”

Usha is also thankful to her wonderful family who gave her the support she needed. “It’s important to have a supportive family infrastructure,” she says.

Usha Uthup with fans and friends in Bengaluru (Image credit: WhatsAround Bangalore)

Plan B: Stand-up comedy?

“If I was not a singer I would have been a stand-up comedian,” she jokes, and the audience showed their endorsement with a loud round of applause. She is regarded as the only female singer who has sung for a male star (Mithun Chakraborty).

“I went to a convent school so my first language was English, second Hindi, third Marathi; at home it was Tamil, so I was already exposed to so many languages,” Usha explains. This helped develop her language skills and her sense of humour.

“I keep telling younger singers today, that being born in India is itself such an advantage because you have so many basic languages to learn. So why don’t we do that? And early in life I learned that music has no gender. Who said that this song can be sung only be female or a male singer?” she observes.

“Earlier people would say - yeh sirf angrezi Gana gaati hai (‘she sings only in English’). Now almost every song has words like baby, Yo, Shake it, Move it, Do it! It has become a style,” she laughs.

The Indian film music industry

Music in Indian films has come a long way, drawing different reactions from old and new audiences. “There is a huge difference in the way songs are recorded now. Analogue recording is what we used in the past; there was a warmth which is now missing. In digital, everything is so perfect, so precise. And sometimes that can be really cold,” she says.

According to Usha, perfection is unreal. “Which is why I think when you hear a song like Suhana Safar or a Ganga Jamuna - we remember them,” she adds. “But digitisation is here to stay. I use the past as a reference to make tomorrow better but I love the music scene of our times,” she says, as she signs off.

 

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