Saturday, June 19, 2021

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Unkrate Exclusive: Usha Uthup, the OG Rock Queen of India

It was I think the year 1996 when my brother excitedly brought a cassette from our stash and played the songs. It was called “Hits of RD Burman” and the first song that played was this track from the hit movie Shaan. The track was “Doston Se Pyar Kiya..” and I fell in love with the rockstar singer. The OG rock queen of India, Usha Uthup, has been singing and entertaining each one of us for over 5 decades now!

Every stage performance, every TV appearance, and now every virtual concert that she’s been part of has made people jump out of their seats, care less about the world, and just sway to the baritone that she has. The breakout track that set the charts on fire, Dum Maaro Dum continues to play in clubs, albeit remixed multiple times.

The lady with the Bindi is now donning another hat and that of a master. I honestly wonder sometimes, what kind of a teacher would she have been if she taught us at school? No points for guessing though! The coolest teacher on the block!

In association with SaPa (Subramanium Academy of Performing Arts), the brainchild of Dr. L.Subramanium and Kavita Subramanium that trains children of today in music, the legendary singer will be taking a masterclass on the tips and intricacies of Stagecraft.

In her own words, entertainment is and has become a serious business over the years and so has learning the nuances of stagecraft.

Through SaPa India’s recently launched online learning platform, participants will get a chance to enroll themselves in various masterclasses and training sessions.

Launched in January 2021, the online learning platform provides opportunities to learn from iconic artists in the field of singing, learning how to play musical instruments, the art of entertaining amongst others, and making it accessible to all musically inclined audiences in India. 

We caught up with her for an exclusive interview and snippets from it below.

UNKRATE: Didi, as people call you fondly, started off your career from first, a stage at Radio Ceylon and then at a nightclub. How does it feel to be everyone’s Didi for real and mentor others and give them a stage to perform? 

USHA: It’s wonderful, I love being called Didi by people, it actually means elder sister or Akka. In fact, people much older than me also call me Didi shows the kind of respect and love I have gained over the years.

It is amazing that through SaPa India I will be able to impart the knowledge and experience I have gained for the past 51 years of my singing career and teach the art of stagecraft through the masterclass in spite of not having any form of professional training.

UNKRATE: You have rightly said that entertainment is serious business. Over your 5 decades long singing career, what are those valuable lessons you learned while being on stage?

USHA: From my 51 years of singing career, I have been learning every day through my stage as well as virtual shows. Every performance/show adds value. You have to be a good patra, a vessel, and a receptacle to be able to assimilate all the things that are happening around you.

One has to be receptive and willing to learn from what the stage provides you with. The other things I have learned are honesty, being nice and respecting other people’s feelings, loving and believing in yourself, and only then will you be able to give an amazing performance to the audience.

The most important people for me while performing are the musicians behind me providing me encouragement, the audience in front of me, and the God above me.

One should never forget that you are on stage only and only because of your audience, they make you who you are and if you are a singer, the song is always bigger than the singer.

So no matter how many times you have sung a song, one should always strive to keep improving for each performance. Lastly, never lose your temper on stage and never ever disrespect your instruments. 

UNKRATE: What do you plan to talk about in the masterclass? What can participants expect from it?

USHA: Everything that I have learned is through experience and practice. Everyday being on stage is a new lesson. What the participants can expect from the masterclass is not what you would get to learn academically from a book. Unless I plan to put my ideas together and write a book about it ( Laughs).

I would be teaching from my real everyday experiences of stage performances. What a stage should mean, how you place your instruments, monitors, speakers, mainly stage manners and etiquette.  

UNKRATE: What was your first reaction when you were asked to take a masterclass?

USHA: Absolutely thrilled and exhilarated. I have been doing shows and performances for years now and with time, people and organisations started calling me to take workshops and classes to impart the knowledge I have gained through years of my experience.

The response from these classes has been so amazing through the kind of conversations and experiences I get to share with people.

When SaPa India approached me to conduct this masterclass, I was over the moon because it is something I have been wanting to do for a very long time. SaPa India provides the right platform for such masterclasses and connects the teacher with the student. 

UNKRATE: Starting with your first performance, you managed to wow the audience. What are the smaller nuances a performer must keep in mind while performing on stage?

USHA: If you are 100% yourself on stage, it doesn’t matter how good or bad of a singer you are, but how original you are while performing.  When I say original, it doesn’t have to be your own song to sing every time, it can be any song by another artist, a bhajan or a ghazal.

However, each song appeals differently to people depending upon who has sung it. It is because of the originality. How well and different an artist can present a song. Let your interpretation of the song be your own interpretation and not cloning anybody else. You can always take the good things from other artists and is probably the reason why people say that I sound like Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones, because I have taken notes from their singing and performances.

Personally, Harry Belafonte is the person who has influenced me singularly. Remember, when I started we did not have electronic media to see performances and copy somebody else. Hence I was always 100% myself.

What is important is taking a song, making notes from other artists, and making it your own song.

UNKRATE: It has been a while since we saw a hit number from you. What are the projects in the pipeline?

USHA: I have infact during the pandemic done the maximum amount of singing. I have put out about 6-7 songs with videos. The only difference between me and the other artists is that I do not actively promote them through digital platforms like Instagram and Youtube because I am not very well versed with such mediums.

My work is not just in Hindi Films like ‘One day’ with Anupam Kher, ‘Dil ka Parinde’ from Sahib Biwi and Gangster 3, etc. but I have done songs across Kannada, Malayalam, and Tamil as well.

My latest project is now with SaPa India and the Masterclass.

UNKRATE: The pandemic brought about a total change in everyone’s lives. How did you manage to keep yourself busy and entertained?

USHA: I have always said this that I am a compulsive optimist. Covid has brought misery, grief in everybody’s life but there has been a good side to the pandemic as well. It has taught us to be global citizens. Increased our horizon to not just think about people around us but send prayers to people in whole around the world.

We need to accept and learn new rules, be masked and sanitized to help in such times. Throughout the past year, I have actually been working. It has been a huge learning curve for me, I have set up a small studio at my residence with the help of my recording engineer, Gautam Bas at the studio.

My team, Somresh and Rinta have helped me with the nuances of Zoom and other online communication platforms. I have been connected to people through phones and video calls. I am a sucker for routine and discipline and that is what keeps me going.

I start my day by chanting mantras and taking a walk in my own home and continue with my singing work.

UNKRATE: Tell us of your association with SaPa India, the brainchild of Dr. Subramaniam and Kavita Subramaniam, your colleagues from the fraternity. What do you think of the academy that trains kids as young as 3 years old?

USHA: Kavita has been a dear friend of mine for years and I have such high admiration and respect for both. It is great that they have a brainchild like SaPa which is training children as young as 3 years old.

I am so grateful to them for including Stagecraft as a subject. It’s one of the most important aspects of being an artist apart from technical knowledge, regular practice amongst others. It provides an awakening to people that no matter how good of a singer or an artist you are, what would you do if you did not have the right kind of stagecraft to perform. Because Entertainment is a serious business indeed.

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If you would like to learn from the legend herself, do not forget to sign up for the masterclass.

Date: Saturday, 20th March 2021

Time: 8:00 PM – 9:30 PM

Fees: INR 1000

Mode: Online

Link to enroll: https://sapaindia.com/stagecraft-workshop-usha-uthup

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