Usha Uthup: Queen of good times

Iconic pop singer Usha Uthup about going viral with her cover of Miley Cyrus’ Grammy-winning song Flowers, and reinventing herself to keep up her image of the ‘Queen of Indian Pop’
In frame: Usha Uthup
In frame: Usha Uthup

One could say that the days when you could recognise a singer just after listening to a few lines of a song have long gone. With digital sound design, auto-tuning, and the proliferation of independent labels, making a unique identity with just one’s voice has become a challenge.

In frame: Usha Uthup
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Amidst this, one singer who still stands her ground with her voice and charisma is Usha Uthup, often referred to as the ‘Queen of Indian Pop’. Her upcoming performance in the city this weekend, will be the first since she was honoured with the prestigious Padma Bhushan award.

Sharing her excitement at receiving the award, she says, “It’s been a marvellous journey so far. I was in the car and we were travelling from Pune to Bombay to catch our flight. I got this call from Delhi and they said ‘Congratulations, you have been awarded the Padma Bhushan’. Immediately I had tears in my eyes. And then for a brief second, I thought it was a joke but they assured me that it was for real. It was one of the most exciting moments for me and my family – to be appreciated and recognised by my country and government.”

Beginning her musical career in 1969 in the modest settings of Nine Gems, a nightclub in Chennai, Uthup says that she prefers to sing ‘people music’ without sticking to a particular genre. “At the time when I started singing, there were no other people who were singing in nightclubs or singing the kind of genre that I was singing. Now, when people ask me what my genre is, I say that, well, I sing ‘people music’. I sing what people love and what people want and that’s what’s kept me going. The thing that I believe in the most is that the song is always bigger and greater than the singer,” she adds.

In frame: Usha Uthup
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Once deemed unfit for the traditional mould of the Indian film industry, Uthup’s journey was one filled with challenges. Her voice, initially thought unsuitable for Indian cinema, eventually became her trademark. “I didn’t start off as a playback singer. In fact, for me, everything has been the opposite. I started off performing live everywhere. People heard me, then spoke about me and that’s how people came to my shows.”

Her recent rendition of Flowers by Miley Cyrus which went viral across social media shows her understanding of changing musical tastes across generations. “The thing that has kept me going is that I appeal to all generations, even younger generations like my grandchildren. I remain relevant by moving along with time, reinventing myself and rethinking and reconstructing a particular song which I’ve been singing for donkey’s years like Rambha Ho,” says Uthup, adding, “A month ago my daughter told me that I should sing Flowers. For me it’s a song that describes Nari Shakti, why do you have to depend on anyone else. I am always grateful to my family for giving me these ideas.”

Uthup acknowledges the brilliance of the digital world in enhancing music but also notes the loss of warmth and soul that characterised the analog era. “The digital world is so brilliant...perfection is to the nth level. They can auto-tune you, they can make your voice sound differently, which is fabulous. In the olden days, you couldn’t do that. It was all analog. But I feel that digital music has lost some warmth. It’s so perfect that it’s like touching a marble porcelain statue. I really feel the analog could capture the soul. My point is how long will it last? Somebody will see through the artificiality,” remarks the 76-year-old singer.

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