#50over50: Usha Uthup
The Person Behind Personality in my #50over50 series today has charmed generations of Indians, young and old. People smile, tap their feet, clap their hands, and forget their worries when she performs. Meet Usha Uthup! Read on to know more about how she has given people in far-flung cultures an unexpected image of an Indian woman: strong, independent, humorous, intelligent and loaded with talent.
A friendship of over sixteen years, that started with hosting her at an event in California gave me insight into one of the most amazing minds in the entertainment industry. We hosted a fundraiser in the USA where we invited Usha Uthup as a featured musician and she brought the house down – Indian, non-Indian, young, old- they all were up on their feet dancing to her tunes. If the interaction ended there, we would have been just acquaintances. On the spur of the moment, I asked her if she would like to come home for dinner to meet a few of my women friends and she readily agreed. I was surprised and thrilled. I invite about a dozen of my women friends for dinner and we gathered around her and she had us laughing so hard that I had to literally beg her to stop talking because my jaws were aching from laughing. She spoke about funny incidents that happened across the globe and across India with perfect accents of the people that we could not hold ourselves back. To this day, that is one of the most memorable dinners I ever hosted.
We kept in touch over the years and I got to see her in action at many of the events that I hosted, hanging out with her in her office in Delhi and meeting her all across India in green rooms before or after her performance. Here is what I learned about what makes her dear her adoring audience.
First, she is game for anything. She does not measure everything by the fees she gets paid. When I hosted TEDIndia, I invited her to sing on the global stage. Not many people knew about TED in India at that time and I had to tell her that we do not pay fees to any of the speakers and she accepted with no hesitation. She not only sang on the main stage but also was a sport to join the evening celebrations and sang late into the night. And there was one precious moment when she sang on the main stage that I would never forget. One of the best parts of being a co-curator is that you get to play a great role in who is featured on stage and one of the not so great parts of being the show manager is also that you spend a lot of time backstage taking care of issues so that show goes on well on the stage. As Usha started singing, I had to go backstage to take care of something and asked my colleagues from New York to hurry, as I wanted them to hear Usha. They were all ready to listen to some great songs from India and I can still see the look of disbelief on their faces as they heard “Hava Nagila” being belted out by Usha. We all ran to get a view of the stage to witness the 1000 plus audience on their feet dancing to her singing.
Second, she pushes herself to be always open to new challenges and finding a new audience. When we launched INK in India, I asked her to perform, as we wanted to have her songs online. She is a great live performer but till then not many of her songs were familiar to the digital native generation. When we decided to have her sing the title song for the James Bond movie “Skyfall”, she came up with her own twist of “Skyfall in a saree”. When we posted her video online, over a million views came in the first week or so, and to this day, the popularity continues with over 16 million views. From then on, Usha Uthup has been a permanent celebrity sighting at INK. The popularity of that video introduced her to a whole new generation of social media savvy youth, who continue to give her their digital views to this day.
Finally, she is fiercely protective of her people. She ensures that her ecosystem gets the same respect as she does, wherever they perform, and here is an example. When I spoke to her about the content of her latest INK talk, she said that she would like to talk about her latest passion - making Kanjeevaram shoes. She said that since she stood and sang at most of the events, she wanted to wear comfortable walking shoes and they don’t quite go with her exquisite sires. So, she decided to do something about it. She worked with a couple of the cobblers in Kolkata to follow her designs and got them to create Kanjeevaram shoes. As she gave the talk, she wanted the two cobblers to be on stage making the shoes. She wanted everyone to recognize them and have them as her partners on stage. Needless to say that the fifty or so pairs of shoes she brought there as just a sample of their work, got sold in no time making the cobblers very happy.
While I meet and enjoy the company of the Usha Uthup of today, I think of the twenty-year-old young girl who had the courage to sing in night clubs wearing a saree. It’s one thing to wear a saree at a nightclub in Chennai and it takes exponentially more courage to do the same at the popular “Trincas” in Kolkata. Maybe that’s what attracted her to Jani Chacko Uthup, who met her at Trincas and later married her.
And then there is her voice. She said that in a country where the dainty, high-pitched voice was celebrated, her voice stood out. When she was in school, she was thrown out of music class because her voice was hoarse but then the musical atmosphere at home made her continue her singing in her deep voice, unafraid to stand apart. Even though she has never been trained as a musician, her singing comes from a place much deeper than years of training – from her belief that she is meant to be a singer.
She is a great role model for generations to come as a person who was successful in living life on her own terms, singing in over sixteen languages reaching an audience across the globe, wearing her signature kanjeevaram saree, shoes, large bindi, and hearty laughter.