If you want a unique autograph from Ms Usha Uthup, be sure to carry a lovely ink pen. Not only is the 73-year-old Padma Shri singer a sucker for old-timey pens but also the nib impels her to fill her signatures with heart: "Music is the universal language."
Uthup--she of the unfailing gajra, the big bindi, the Kanjeevaram sari and the 100-watt smile--has completed 51 years as a singer of pop, jazz and film songs. Probably the only female singer to sing for a male actor (She sang for Mithun Chakraborty in the film 'Roti ki keemat'), Uthup's voice still oozes as much gravitas as her personality. In an interview, the singer--who used to receive fan mail on Inland letters--holds forth on the sanctity of the autograph. Read on to know how Uthup responded to a man took off his shirt in front of her for a signature
What's your earliest memory of seeking an autograph?
I do remember the first autograph. It was of my teacher in school, Ms Davidson. I really loved her. She was my music teacher. And then of course there are so many teachers such as Mr Kalra that I took autographs from. As far as celebrities go, I think---though I am not quite sure--I took Dilip Kumar's autograph when I was a little child. That was quite exciting.
What's the most prized autograph you own?
I have a fantastic autograph of an amazing world-famous singer called Al Jarreau. I also have an amazing autograph of Nelson Mandela and Kofi Annan. Unfortunately, I don't know where I've kept them. During times of upheaval such as Tsunami and the Kolkata floods, I have lost lots of these precious things including a signature of Mother Theresa.
What's your earliest memory of giving an autograph?
In 1968-69, I gave an autograph to someone in Shanmukhananda Hall in Mumbai. It was quite an amazing feeling actually.
What do you think is the historical significance of an autograph?
I think it's so wonderful to go through old autographs. When people show me autographs of mine that I have signed for them 40 or 50 years ago, and they were little children, it really brings back the whole scene in front of my eyes--sometimes behind my first album or behind a record. Or when I see autographs in different magazines, of say Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru or Gandhiji, it makes me feel amazing. Autographs for me are very precious.
What do you think makes an autograph superior to a selfie?
Well today, it's difficult to say. Nowadays, nobody has the time to stop and take out a book and a pen or a basic piece of paper or pen at airports or inside a plane. So I think these days, selfies are the in-thing. But frankly, I think selfies are very invasive whereas autographs are really warm, really nice. Of course, there are people who just take autographs just for the sake of taking. I say to them also, that you have taken it on a ticket of a programme or something like that. Understandable. But when they just bring out a tissue, I refuse to sign on that. Because I tell them you are going to throw it out anyway. And then, I very politely whip out a piece of paper from my own bag and from my own notebook and I give it to them. But I think, yes, autographs are more precious than selfies because, in this day and age of selfies, which get deleted so fast. I'm not quite sure how many people really keep them.
Have you had strange encounters with selfie seekers?
I've had many many strange encounters with selfie seekers. One of the really strange ones was at a show. This person kept clicking. I told him I don't like selfies. Because, as I said, it's invasive and it's also not very nice when people put their arms around you or things like that. So I've been able to keep them at bay most often. But sometimes when you find that there are children who really love your music or your personality and it's nice when you can put your arm around them, you know, it's nice. This man came and stood by my side and said, "i want a selfie of you" because he's been following my musical career for such a long time. I said, "Yes, okay. Certainly go ahead." And he took it and he showed it to me. I told him, "Look, I'm hardly in it. Do you want to take another one?" This one had him in it, I was cut out about half. No No, it's perfectly okay. And he went away with half a photo of mine. I've had plenty of occasions like that where they've come in a hurry and not bothered whether they've got a selfie properly or whether they've got the background or whether they want the names in the backdrop more than they really want to be with me.
Do you still get fan mail? Has the number of letters dwindled over time?
The number of people who write to me now are much more than before. Earlier, we would get letters which came in envelopes and postcards. Which was lovely. And for a long time, I kept all of them. Don't forget, I've been singing for 51 years. So, I've passed through a lot of Inland letters or yellow envelopes with a letter or card inside. But this is the day and age of emails and whatsapp messages and so many things like that. So, yes I've got lots and lots of mail even now. I've got lots of comments and lots of mail even on YouTube which won't be possible in those days when there was no electronic media. But people really meant it when they wrote notes to me and said that they loved my voice or that they love my singing, you really knew they meant it, because it entailed a lot of time, it entailed you thinking about what you were writing, it entailed the person writing honestly from his heart or her heart, and so that was nice for me. I loved it.
Do you think an autograph can convey more about a personality than a photograph?
I am in two minds about this. What happens is very often, a person gives an autograph without even thinking, especially when there is a big rush or there are too many people waiting or there is a big line, or you have to hurry up and give, like if I was to sign a book like the latest one, which has been written on me. It's a biography which has been written by Vikas Kumar Jha. We had many book releases and there were so many people standing with me. You can make out the personality through an autograph vis-a-vis another person and what that person would write. When I write, it would be different from what somebody else would write in an autograph. People these days are more quick. It's all about time. It becomes a bit more synthetic than taking a photograph. A photo also can be synthetic. I don't pose for a photograph if I am not smiling from within. If I stand for a photo, with someone, then you can definitely make my personality out. Because I will not give a photograph without smiling from the heart. When I sign an autograph also, I do it with a lot of heart 99.9 per cent of the times.
Do people converse with you while seeking an autograph?
Usually people come to sign autographs. And if they strike a conversation with you, it's usually almost always either out of curiosity or nothing better to say. Most often, it's nothing better to say. So, they try to start a conversation saying, "Oh I loved you singing such and such song." Which I probably haven't sung at all like, say, for example, so many people say they loved me singing 'Jhoom barabar jhoom'. It's not my song at all or they say "Disco Deewane" which I've not sung at all. But I'm happy to talk to them. Very often, they say they like my song, "Ab ke sawan". Before, I used to clarify and say that's by my dear friend Shubha Mudgal. But I don't know how people can even think that way. Because we both look so different and our styles are very different. But many people go to Shubha Mudgal and say we like you singing 'Ramba ho' so whenever it happens, I phone her up and she says well this happened to me today.
How do you generally sign autographs? Are you particular about what to say?
I say love and luck. I do say I believe in music. I say "Music is the universal language". I usually try to pass on some message. I think that's very important because when they look back at my message, they must get my face back in their memory. And what I said. And what I did. It's very important to me that what I do, what I think and what I say are all in sync. So, what I say is important to me and what I write is very important.
What is the strangest piece of memorabilia or object that you have been asked to sign?
One of the strangest things I've signed is a T-shirt for a man who happily took it off in front of everyone and said "sign it." First, he had turned his back on me and said "Please sign on my back." I said I am not going to do that at all. There were millions of photographers present. Not that I would've done it if there were no photographers. I said it's not possible for me to do that. If he were a young school lad or something, it might have been a little better but I refused to sign on his back. He was a fairly hefty and tall gentleman. So I would have to really get close to him and take support of his shoulders and I was definitely not going to get into that. So I said, "How do you expect me to sign on your back like this?" So he happily took his T-shirt off. And he didn't have a vest or anything like that. He just took the T-shirt off and said would I sign. And before I could say anything, the security had taken him away and his T-shirt lay over there. So, the security people told me that I would have to wait for sometime. Since I sat for a bit, I told somebody to pick up the T-shirt and put it on a book, and I signed his autograph. So hopefully, he would've got it when he came back for it.
Do you recall any strange or quirky requests from fans seeking autographs?
I had a girl and a boy who came up to me with their hands held out and said they wanted me to write on their hands because they wanted to get it tattooed the next day. So I said: "Most certainly not. I will not do that because I don't want my name being tattooed on your hand just like that because I don't want to be part of a fight later on in your life. So they both laughed and asked why there should be a fight. And I said because if you have some disagreement, I don't want this to be the cause of it. So I definitely won't sign on your forearm and definitely not for a tattoo. So they said, "okay, then give it on our palm." I said no way. "You will wash your hand just after you go from here. There's no way I am going to do it. So they were sweet enough to go and get a piece of paper. And I signed on that. In fact, it was the two concert tickets which they had.
Is your experience with autograph seekers in India different from that of autograph seekers abroad?
Abroad, I don't see so many autograph seekers at all. It's much more in India. If at all there are autograph seekers abroad, they would all be probably Indian. And they are very systematic. They stand in a line. It's quite different. It's very exciting. I performed in London recently. It was great fun. A bunch of formally-dressed people came to my table and all stood in line. I said "this is too formal for me. Why don't you just sit around at the table and I'd be happy to sign for you" because there were some elderly people as well. So I would say, there is not much difference in people's sincerity and honesty and eagerness to get an autograph but it is cosmetically different. Depending on the place where I am performing, be it in India or abroad, the people are also different. Say, if I am performing in a rock show, then it's totally different. But abroad, people are not allowed backstage and there are a lot of systems in place. so it's different.
Why do you think the hobby of autograph seeking is dying? Is this merely a consequence of technology or the changing nature of fame/actor-fan dynamic or something else?
Oh yes. Taking autographs with a book and pen is definitely dying. And I think artists are also happy to pose for a selfie. I am not. Though I never say no when people ask me and definitely I am not rude and I never get angry.
Do you miss giving autographs in these times of social distancing?
I do miss giving autographs nowadays because I've never been out for a year since Covid started. I think at the time when I did the show at Victoria Memorial, there were people who stood a little far and the organizer collected all the books and papers and I signed on that. There was social distancing but that was the only time. No problem at all. I still love it.
Are you particular about what pen you use while giving autographs?
Oh yes! I'm an absolute sucker for a good pen and for stationery. So, if I get a pen with a white nib and if I get an ink pen, I am really thrilled. I love pens. But everybody comes with a ball point pen but it's okay. But I love writing with pens. I have a huge collection of fantastic pens.
What according to you are strict no-nos when it comes to giving autographs?
When people come very close to me and sit down and have someone else take a photograph when they are almost sitting on my lap. That is absolutely a no-no. I don't appreciate that at all. I am happy to sit with somebody. There has got to be a decent distance. In these days of morphing, it's quite dangerous. That's half the reason I am not comfortable posing for selfies at airports.
How would you like to sign off this interview?
There are some very serious autograph hunters in Calcutta and Bombay. They have got really amazing autographs of different artists and they show me their albums. And to be a part of that, I feel really thrilled. I still can't believe any artist who is not happy to give autographs. I love giving autographs and I love taking photographs. That's one way of people showing appreciation and love and respect. I would request all of you to give me a prayer that would give me more energy to carry on like this. People want to know how I carry on. Where do I get the energy from? I get the energy from each and every one of you. I must tell you I am very proud of my handwriting. If I get a good pen while signing an autograph, I feel like writing more. Then I write "I believe in music" and then I feel like writing, "I believe in love" and then I feel like writing "Music is the universal language and I feel like writing some more. "And love is the key. Usha Uthup".
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