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The Life & Times Of Usha Uthup, The Unconventional 80s Queen Of Indian Pop In A Saree

There was a conservative perception among Indian listeners that pop songs are just ‘hip hip hurray’ songs which make no sense. But Usha Uthup proved that pop is meaningful and powerful.

Think of Usha Uthup and her long, illustrious career, and you’d think that she’d have been sweeping awards from the start with her undeniable talent. I had goosebumps when I heard her speech at an awards show and learnt that she won her first Filmfare Awards in 2011 after 42 years of singing.

Naturally, I was curious to know more about her story, and jumped at the chance of reviewing her biography.

The non-celebrity like celebrity

The Queen of Indian Pop: The Authorised Biography of Usha Uthup trails an unconventional road, and feels like a candid conversation with the towering legend. She holds you by the hand, shows you around her beautiful home and invites you to an exclusive literary party with her family and friends. She swoons about her love and her varied unrelated interests including painting, music, acting, sound recording and production, stitching, and cooking.

To think someone of her stature can be grounded, gregarious, generous, and gracious is unbelievable and sublime. It’s what makes her endearing and relatable to people.

Born to stand out and not fit in

Born to a large, middle-class Tamil Brahmin family, Usha Uthup defied societal norms and stereotypes with her choices. Be it singing in the yesteryears’ nightclubs, or walking out of a ‘normal’ but unfulfilling marriage and remarrying for love with a Syrian Christian man, Jani Uthup.

“Nightclubs were considered indecent. Usha entered the nightclub when only men went there. Usha changed that image with her dignified presence.”

Usha Uthup

Transforming weakness into strength and opportunity

Like many other new singers in that time, she found it hard to break into the big singing league in the film industry because of the unfair politics and dominance of the Mangeshkar sisters.

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Also, her voice was considered “too manly” for a female lead actor. The few film projects that came her way were reserved for the bad girls of cinema. But Usha had tremendous self-belief, and used her perceived shortcomings as her unique strengths. Watch her speak about it in her TEDxIMIKolkataWomen talk here. 

“Usha created a contemporary narrative of the new-age Indian woman. And not only that, she introduced a new paradigm of the confident Indian woman-free and strong.”

Changing mindsets and perceptions

Usha UthupThe misperception about pop music initially went against Usha’s favour, including a court case. But she turned that around with her firm conviction in her niche music.

“There was a conservative perception among Indian listeners that pop songs are just ‘hip hip hurray’ songs which make no sense. But Usha proved that pop is meaningful and powerful. She believes it’s all about how we see it. Everything rests on our vision. Actually, pop means change with joy. A happy change.”

Check out this James Bond style theme song of the superhit ensemble movie, Shaan.

Her work was certainly ahead of her times. Perhaps that’s why the recognition started trickling in much later. In her diverse career, Usha has lent her voice in multiple languages to ad jingles, nightclubs, playback singing in films, and children’s stories in the famous “Karadi Tales”.  Compared to the legendary Mangeshkar sisters, Usha Uthup’s voice sounds youthful, energetic, and undeterred even in her seventies.

Owning her eccentricity and authenticity

Rina Banerjee, Usha Uthup’s friend says, “That typical Madrasi girl looked a bit eccentric at first glance. I was surprised to hear that and wondered what this girl would be singing?”

That’s Usha Uthup. A contradiction of contradictions. She’s someone who balances the extremes with an effortless ease like no other.

She wears her inner child on her sleeve unapologetically. Often, ‘happy’ people are dismissed as frivolous, shallow, and even unimportant. This biography dispels this flawed perception as it details her struggles. Uthup doesn’t shy away from talking about her vulnerabilities in a dedicated chapter called ‘Many Flaws, Many Fears’. Despite it all, she walked on stage every time with a hearty smile to enthral people and bring joy in their dreary lives.

Want a copy of this book?

If you’d like to pick up The Queen of Indian Pop: The Authorised Biography of Usha Uthup written by Vikas Kumar Jha and translated by Srishti Jha, use our affiliate links at Amazon Indiaand at Amazon US.

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Image source: YouTube, and book cover Amazon

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About the Author

Tina Sequeira

Tina Sequeira is an award-winning writer and marketer. Winner of the Rashtriya Gaurav Award in association with the Government of Telangana, Orange Flower Award by Women’s Web, India's leading website for women, read more...

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