The notion of a female performer, especially a singer, was unequivocally associated with the ideas of morality, femininity and tradition during the 1950s and 60s. The gentility of the voice was often used to portray the ideal woman in Hindi Cinema. Women with deep and provocative voices were deemed as anomalies that would disrupt this ideal of femininity. A women’s body became visible in cultural arenas like films which invariably invited dilemma and misnomer in public discussions. This was the time when aspects of modernity, morality and nationhood were mapped on to women’s voices and as a result, any ‘other’ kind of voice was perceived to disrupt this image. Therefore, a desexualized voice especially in cinema became necessary to ‘undo’ this change and enmesh the larger woman’s question with the meta-narrative of the nation. However, one woman with her spirited and deep voice ruptured the narrative at myriad levels. Her voice was unlike any other singer in the cultural sphere at the time in India.
Usha Uthup as a Night-Club singer
It is a little-known fact that Usha Uthup, who recently completed fifty years as a female artist and performer, started off as a night-club singer. At a public event in the year 2018, she says, “Nobody expected a woman in a saree looking like me, singing in a night club.” In the year 1969 at a night-club in Chennai, Usha Uthup performed publicly for the very first time. She recollects how she was judged because of her appearance as the audience wondered in apprehension and she quotes, “What is this ‘amma’ going to do here?” Moments after her performance, the entire audience was awestruck with the power of Usha Uthup’s voice and performativity that enchanted the spectators, singing Al Martino’s ‘You’ll never know’!
The power of her performance and creative skill deconstructed the nomenclature attached to her appearance and the space she was performing at i.e., a night-club. Usha Uthup’s ‘husky’ voice, her bangles, her bindi and her saree which eventually became synonymous with her public image came to her naturally and made her eccentric in innumerable ways. Later that year, she shifted to Calcutta and started singing in the famous night club on Park Street called ‘Trinca’s’.
There has been a silencing of her story as a night-club singer which she proudly owns at multiple public events perhaps as a conscious choice. In an interview, she says, “I am happy to tell all of you that I did not start as a playback singer. I started as a night club singer, and I got the opportunity to playback because of that. In live singing there is no second take. If you have one take you better be good, almost perfect.” It is this story of creative labor and hard work that gets ignored in narratives while talking about Usha Uthup as a phenomenal playback singer and record artist.
Night-clubs in the 1960s were seen as spaces of flagrancy and opulence. For Usha Uthup, night-club singing gave her the necessary experience, exposure and opportunity that ultimately led her to become the first female pop-singer of India. She makes it apparent in most of her interviews and evidently puts across the fact of how she was able to sharpen her skill as a live performer because of her experience at night clubs at the inception of her career.
Also read: What Happened To The Female Jatra Performers
The Idea of Cabaret and Clean Spaces
During the 1960s, Calcutta had a vibrant nightlife with performers coming from all over the world. The euphoria of jazz music had just begun to grow for a city well imbued in the colonial past. Park Street soon became the heart of Calcutta’s nightlife attracting youth from all over the country including celebrities and movie stars. During the 1960s and 70s, Park Street represented affluency of the rich as opposed to the rise of leftism and a charged political climate in Calcutta. Trinca’s was one such night club located in Park Street that provided a platform for young artists to perform.
It was the time of ‘Cabaret’ or live-floor shows. Usha Uthup while talking about her experience of Cabaret at Trinca’s says, “People used to throng the place. Some requesting movie songs, others retro, be it Hindi or English. I learnt Hindi and added Punjabi, Bengali, Marathi and Tamil to my repertoire. Nobody could imagine singing Tagore’s ‘purano shei diner kotha’. I have broken the myth that Tagore songs cannot be sung at nightclubs.”
This was not the only myth that Uthup dismantled, the very idea of cabaret was seen from a perspective of denunciation, moreover, the idea of a live show by a female artist at a night-club did not necessarily do well in social circles. A culture of flagrancy was associated with spaces such as theatres and night clubs since the colonial era. The idea of cordon sanitaire or clean spaces have dominated the public discussions under the colonial state and after, for far too long. Night clubs and theatre houses articulated the opposite of a cordon sanitaire during the late nineteenth century. This was embedded in the public discussions on ‘respectable’ women being a part of such spaces during the 60s and 70s in Calcutta. It can be posited as a colonial input that eventually got strongly enmeshed with the ideas of morality and immorality. Night clubs and theatre houses were imagined to be sexualized spaces when it came to a discussion on female performers. Often the idea of creative labor and the skill these artists embodied and imparted were obliterated in these public discussions.
This did not stop Usha Uthup from performing live as she notes that, it was the very aspect of live-singing and interaction with the audience that made her a phenomenal performer. Usha Uthup describing her career at Trinca’s says, “Satyajit Ray, Uttam Kumar and Supriya di (Chowdhury), Amitabh Bachchan, Sharmila Tagore and Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi used to visit. Politicians like Jyoti Babu (Basu), Somnath Chatterjee were among few. I remember Uttam Kumar and Supriya di would request me to sing Those were the days sung by Mary Hopkin. Harry Belafonte’s Matilda was quite a hit. It had created magical moments here (at Trinca’s) when everyone at the audience starts singing.” Many singers and bands like Biddu, Eve, Trojans and Savages performed live at Trinca’s.
Padma Shri Usha Uthup
Usha Uthup recently went back to Trinca’s to perform live once again. Life has a come a full circle for her and she fondly states in another interview that Trinca’s is “hallowed ground” for her. “It’s where I got all the good things in my life.” Uthup is known for singing songs like Basame Mucho, O Malaika, Jambalaya which were later recorded. All these songs belonged to her set list in the clubs. Especially Jambalaya, which is the first song she recorded as a single. For Usha Uthup, the idea of performing live to enchant the audience is what keeps her going as a singer and a performer. With a legendary career spanning for over five decades, having a stupendous multi-lingual discography, the saree-clad chanteuse became a formidable voice to reckon with. Usha Uthup was awarded the fourth highest civilian honor in India, Padmashree in the year 2011. Her career as a female performer has been unconventional at multiple levels which she embodies and imparts proudly!
- “Don’t regret beginning as a Night-Club singer: Usha Uthup”, Business Standard, September 18th, 2019
- “Why is this place has great significance for Usha Uthup”, Sucheta Chakravarty, enewsroom.in
- “How has Trinca’s of Kolkata kept live music industry alive for decades?” the Indian Express, September 29th, 2019
- “The Cordon Sanitaire: Mobility and Space in The Regulation of Colonial Prostitution”, Philippa Levine, Duke University Press 2002.