After 51 years in the music industry, Usha Uthup is still raring to go, by adapting to a virtual format for performances and taking on numerous projects of social relevance.
When one is as legendary a singer as Usha Uthup, one may attest to have seen it all. But even she did not see this pandemic coming, nor the forced lockdown for over a year. In a candid video she released on social media in May of last year, she relates that people of her parents’ generation had lived through World Wars, but currently we are living through a war where one cannot even see the enemy. She shared an important message urging everyone to stay at home in her characteristic musical way – “Ghar pe raho na!”.
We have come a long way from May of 2020 to May of 2021, despite staying home for most of that period. Usha Uthup has continued to live life on her own terms, calling herself a ‘compulsive optimist’, who keeps going from the time she wakes up at 4:40 a.m. to when she turns in for the night. It is her innate ability to carry on despite difficulties that allowed her to reach this successful stage of life – counting 51 years as an award-winning and international-accolade worthy singer, with thousands of songs sung in 17 Indian languages and 8 foreign ones.
Through the lockdown, she has worked on virtual shows and masterclasses. Claiming that this period has been one of learning for her, she talks of setting up a small studio at her residence with the help of her recording engineer. Her team helped her with the nuances of Zoom and other online communication platforms, so she could stay connected to people through phones and video calls, and even perform live albeit virtually.
Though virtual shows keep her busy, she laments the fact that they offer no or very little money. “I worry most about the musicians and technicians. Have you once thought what happens to the singers, musicians and technicians? If I don’t get a job they don’t get paid any money. Virtual shows don’t pay much, but for artists, the song is always bigger than the singer, and so we keep going. For one year I’ve been sitting at home, doing shows from home.”
One of her most recent projects was the radio jingle she sang for raising awareness about the disease of leprosy. It was a project commissioned by the Delhi South Rotary Service Foundation, in the hope that knowledge would lead to the prevention or timely treatment of leprosy. Genesis BCW was onboarded as their communications partner, who approached the socially aware team of ShowCase Events, who then suggested the name of Usha Uthup.
Over the years, she has supported many causes and is known for her sensitivity and compassion. Other than her vast experience in the advertising industry with jingles, her multilingual ability also helped the jingle achieve a wider reach. Nanni Singh, CEO of ShowCase Events hails Usha Uthup as the perfect choice, because she is an artist par excellence that works closely with the team, while advising them on how to make the jingle an impactful one. “Ushaji, or didi as I call her, is humble to the core and a true artist with a pure heart. For her a cause is much greater than the commercials and she has proved that over and over again,” shares Nanni Singh with candour.
Refusing to accept her regular fee for this humanitarian cause, Usha Uthup instead settled for a nominal honorarium. With her in-depth knowledge and experience, she realised the first cut of the jingle needed improvement and worked tirelessly to have it changed overnight – a mere 12 hours before it went on air. She says, “I kept at it till I was 100% satisfied that my singing offered what was needed to get the message across. The jingle had to have josh because we did not want the sadness to creep in at all – even though it is a sad subject. We wanted to show the enthusiasm for sharing awareness on this important cause because most people do not know about it or think about it. Nanni and the ShowCase Events Team believed in my vision and backed me up on it all the way through, and it was wonderful working with people who understood and shared my vision and my passion.”
Apart from radio jingles on social causes and multiple virtual shows, Usha Uthup recently collaborated with the Subramaniam Academy of Performing Arts (SaPa) India which was founded in 2007 by violinist L. Subramaniam and Bollywood playback singer Kavita Krishnamurti Subramaniam, to conduct a masterclass on the tips and intricacies of stagecraft. The popular artist and singer broke down the elements of entertaining on stage for this one-of-a-kind session. She was clearly the best choice for this subject with her experienced background in live performances.
Referring to her career in the late ‘70s as the ‘magical years’, Usha Uthup fondly remembers her days as a nightclub singer. Her live performances in popular places like Chennai’s Nine Gems, the Bangalore International Club, Trincas Bar in Kolkata and Talk of The Town in Maharashtra, helped her set a strong foundation for her musical journey. In fact, she was ‘discovered’ by Bollywood when Dev Anand attended a performance by her in Delhi’s Oberoi Hotel and asked her to come on board to sing for his upcoming film, ‘Hare Krishna Hare Ram’. The rest, as they say, is history. She refers to the joy of live performance and consequent applause, as being more intoxicating than six bottles of whisky.
In the last few months, Usha Uthup has also worked on 6 -7 songs with videos which are now ready for release. “The only difference between me and other artists is that I don’t actively promote my work through digital platforms like Instagram and YouTube because I’m not very well versed with such mediums. And my work is not just in Hindi films, but I have done songs across Kannada, Malayalam and Tamil as well,” she explains why sometimes, the sheer range of her work escapes public limelight.
Rounding back to the subject uppermost in everyone’s mind, she ends the chat with sage advice and a smile, “the pandemic has taught us to be global citizens. It has increased our horizon to think and care for people outside our social circle. To be careful and mindful of our deeds and how we impact people around us. I have also realised that having a routine and being disciplined helps to keep me going. I start my day by chanting mantras and taking a walk in my home. Post that I continue with my singing work.”
The writer is a lawyer who pens lifestyle articles for various publications and her blog www.nooranandchawla.com. She can be contacted on email@example.com.