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`I am a stylish maami'

Despite her traditional south Indian image, Pop diva Usha Uthup has always had the audience eating out of her hands



Pioneer of pop: Usha Uthup — Pic. by S_Thanthoni

IT'S AN ordeal to decide what to focus my attention on — that colossal, shining bindi on her forehead, or that throaty voice that sings, "Shaan se" and "Summer Time" with equal fervour. After much mental tussle, it is the sheer energy of the woman that gets me. It can't be trouble-free for a 57-year-old to dance all about the stage without a visible knee wobble, and to sing for a whole two hours without letting the strain show in her rock-steady voice. Usha Uthup refers to herself as a `performer'. Because it is when she steps on stage that she's at her power-packed best.

She refuses to call this city by its current name, saying she likes the sound of `Madras'. Closing her eyes, she puts her hand to her chest, and says it's all about the "liveliness of the people, the way they enjoy themselves in their own way. What a personality this city has!" She says she "can still smell the coffee, and the mallippoo", then suddenly opens her eyes, breaks into a wide grin, and says, "But that's probably a memory in my head, ok? Oh, the pollution now... "

As we talk, she's quick to notice how I very obviously try to guess the radius of that enormous circle of red on her forehead. "Yes, yes, it's all in place: the big temple border sari, pottu, kajal and jasmine," she assures me, "You know, this pottu and flowers have got me caught in a web! When I'm wearing a salwar-kameez while travelling or something, I don't wear a pottu. Then people in the airport, people on the road, people everywhere start saying `Oh madam, you forgot your pottu!'" Then, to my absolute glee, she launches into a full-fledged imitation of all those twisting themselves into knots about the Mystery of the Absent Pottu.

Stereotype image

I ask her if she'd ever thought of an image makeover, just to escape the stereotyping. "My image happened accidentally, and it stuck. I don't know how to reverse it, or whether I even want to. Nowadays, image and packaging have become so important, no? Pop singers go out of their way to groom themselves, but very little is individual style. My style was nothing extraordinary, but it was the jolt of seeing a sari-clad woman sing night-clubbish songs that stuck in people's heads."

Usha Uthup was one of the country's first pop singers at a time when home-grown pop artistes were few and frowned upon. From the age of 20, she has been singing on stage, and took her music even to nightclubs. Although it later contributed to removing the stigma attached to women singing in nightclubs, it wasn't rebellion alone that made her walk in wearing a sari, grab a mike and croon away to a predominantly male, somewhat drunk audience. "Playback singing didn't offer me the space to sing what I sang best. And I wasn't formally trained either. But I knew that music would be what I would do for the rest of my life. So I walked into a nightclub one night."

From those days, to today's stage performances, in the midst of her singing, Usha says, "Women are my best friends." It always gets her a good laugh, and of course, the women in the audience listen more keenly after that, but Usha says there is a reason for that. "Initially, when women sang in nightclubs, the mostly male audience watched the body more than listened to the singing. It was about sex and seduction that women felt uncomfortable with. But with a body and image like mine, I'm no threat to any woman whose man is in the nightclub. I'm not about oomph and sex, even though my voice could do that!" Women wouldn't feel icky about visiting a pub if she were singing there, and that makes her feel "like a pioneer of some sort".

Instant rapport

During all her performances, Usha engages the audience, never letting them settle down to a quiet evening. No way. If you came to Usha's concert, she might sing you the same songs for the 50 millionth time; but if you weren't dancing for joy and madness, you would at least bob your head and tap your feet. "I'm totally a live artiste. If there were only recording studios and no stages in the world, Usha Uthup would be a dead boring woman."

Since she's known to sprinkle the what-a-wonderful-audience line throughout her performances, I ask her what she'd do if the audience sat like dead fish. At that, she looks me up and down, and wags her finger at me, "I don't fake on stage, my dear," she says between a stifled smile, "I try to find one person enjoying himself thoroughly, and in an otherwise non-responding crowd, that one enthusiastic person is my wonderful audience." In the North, she says, one bhangra number, and she has the audience eating out of her hands. "But in the South... pha! What a discerning audience. They're actually listening to me closely, just waiting for me to go off key once to leave the concert," she says, shaking her head. "They make me work very hard!"

As we swap Metraas nalla Metraas notes, she tells me she used to buy her fake gold jewellery ("I still wear fake only. Nice and gaudy it is.") from Lakhs & Lakhs in Luz Corner, and still orders special Kancheepuram silks from big old stores here. Sighing as she thinks of old days, she says her image has preserved the south Indian in her forever. "Even if I'm singing in Punjabi, Bangla, Assamese, Oriya, Italian, Swahili, Nepalese, or English, I'm a stylish maami through and through!"

ROHINI MOHAN

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