My bad girl voice

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Usha Uthup was never ‘gone’. Bollywood’s new anthem, Darling, is a reminder of what she’s always had, says Samrat Chakrabarti

Crooning to glory Singer Usha Uthup
Photo: MS Gopal

DARLING, THE SONG from Saat Khoon Maaf  that is causing an involuntary shoulder-shaking epidemic in the country, has a female voice that reaches not for the heavens, but for the centre of the earth. It’s a familiar voice. You might remember it from the time Zeenat Aman smoked ganja on screen. Bollywood’s women aim for the heavens, but once in a while when a bad girl has fun, Bollywood reaches for the earth and Usha Uthup sings.

Uthup is 63 now. Last week, she was awarded the Padma Shri for her services to music — a career that has now spanned 42 years. A few white strands of hair have marked time but little else. She still drapes in long reams of Kanchivaram silk, still the oversized bindi on her forehead and still the naughty boom in her voice that was both an opportunity and a curse. “In school, my music teacher always threw me out saying that my awaaz was too low but she knew of my interest in music. So I was always given a percussion or a triangle to go tic tic tic or chick chick chick. In Bollywood, if you are good girl you have to have Lata Mangeshkar’s voice but if you are a bad girl, you could have my voice, but it didn’t matter. I built on what I had.

She has still maintained the nightclub ethic: approachable, no distance with the crowd and encouraging any number of requests

Untrained in music and with a talent that the mainstream had no use for, Uthup found her unfamiliar path. “During a vacation to Madras, we were all taken out to a nightclub. I got up and sang on my aunt’s insistence and when I saw the applause I got, I was intoxicated.” So began Uthup’s career — the epiphany combining both the calling and the setting that would receive her unique bag of talents. It was 1968 and over the next two decades, the girl born to a policeman father in a middle-class Tamilian home in Mumbai, was to become a celebrated regular at the nightclub hotspots. It was the heady seventies, Park Street in Kolkata was the delectable English music capital and in the smoky, glass-clinking murmur of Trincas, where she was to meet her husband Jani Uthup, she sang to the executives pouring out of the corporate head offices.

Several years later, not much has changed except that she’s now the recepient of a Padma Shri award. “I grew up with Muslims as my neighbours. Born in a traditional Hindu family, they showed me a world I’d not seen. In India, music brings people together. So my aim has been integration through music and the award feels like an acknowledgement of that.”

A natural mimic who can pick up a song in any language in one listen, Uthup has sung in 17 Indian languages and eight foreign ones. At a Mumbai concert recently, one saw the still enduring appeal of Usha Uthup. She has still maintained the nightclub ethic — approachable, no distance with the crowd and encouraging myriad requests. Any Gujarati number, a Malayalam song for the gentleman there and I just called to say I love you for the ageing couple. Her appeal is also to the immigrant in us all.

“Why have I stuck on? Because people want constancy. I find much older people coming to my shows, still holding their hands and listening to me sing Love story,” she says.

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