Usha Timothy is a name to be reckoned with. She is one of the Bollywood singers still alive, who got the chance to sing with stalwarts like Mohamamd Rafi. She sang her most famous Tu raat khadi thi chat pe… song from Himalay Ki God Mein, with Rafi Sahab when she was 13. She was inspired by her brother Madhusudan Timothy to join Bollywood. Post that, there was no looking back. She won the acclaim of the established singers and music directors in no time.
Usha Timothy married into Chandekar family. Her husband was deputy commissioner – Sales Tax. He expired in 2013. We contacted her for a short interview. All through the interview, she sang quite a few songs for our benefit. Excerpts:
Inspiration to Join Music Field: Her brother Madhusudan was her inspiration to enter into the music field. She informs, “Music was filled in our family for such a long time. We were 11 siblings. I was the youngest. My father had 12-13 siblings and even they had interest in music. All of them were crazy about music and all of them sang well. My father was in the CBI. But, we would have regular musical get-togethers in our large bungalow. I am from Nagpur. Whenever a musician visited the city, we would have a large get-together for them. Our entire family would assemble only to listen to them and appreciate them. Thus, music was in our blood. But, I am the only one singing in Bollywood. My brother Madhusudan Timothy was a violinist in All India Radio, Nagpur. My nephew works with Ashaji. Another one of them worked with late Kishoreda.”
Bollywood and Usha Timothy: Usha Timothy attained fame with the song Tu raat khadi thi chat pe… from Himalay Ki God Mein (1965). But, that was not her first work in Bollywood. Before that, she had recited 64 verses of a Sanskrit devotional poem in a mythological movie called Durga Pooja (1962). Those were the times when the songs had to be sung in one go without mistakes. If there is a mistake anywhere, the entire recording had to be redone. Of the experience, she says, “Shivramji was the music director. He had told me if I could sing the entire poem then it was well and good. Otherwise, they would cut and edit the entire poem. But, I sang the entire poem, at one go. This was my first experience with the mike.”
According to Usha Timothy, the technology of editing songs was present at that time as well. Once she had rendered the Sanskrit poem unerringly, the news spread in the entire film industry. Though she knew Kalyanji-Anandji for some time, the chance to perform for them came only after the Sanskrit poem became famous.
Usha Timothy and Kalyanji-Anandji: Usha Timothy’s connection with Kalyanji-Anandji as early as she was 7. Her brother Madhusudan had participated in a program organized by the government. She sang the Lata Mangeshkar song from Chori Chori called Rasik Balma… in front of several dignitaries and stalwarts of the music industry. She was a replacement for Suman Kalyanpur, who could not make it to the show on that day. They told her to sing during the interval because they did not have any confidence in her. The performance was a hit and Kalyanji-Anandji made her sing with the male singers and the orchestra in the rest of the program.
There is a poem before the proper song in Qaid mein hai bulbul… Kalyanji-Anandji underestimated her and told her to sing only the song proper. But, the little girl insisted that she start with the poem and she gained the confidence of the big guns like Mohammad Rafi, etc.
She trained in Classical Hindustani Music beginning the age of 10. At the insistence of Rafi Sahab and Mukeshji, she was brought to Mumbai, the foreground of the film industry in India by her brother. She was welcomed with open arms and began singing as a child wonder with the S Hazara Singh’s orchestra. She got a chance to sing with the who’s who of the industry during shows. This helped them financially and helped her gain experience.
Her brother, who was with the railways, requested the authorities to allot quarters for them to stay and they complied with their wishes. Usha and her siblings shifted there. Then, she bagged the song from Himalay Ki God Mein. Due to a lot of work, she could not attend school. She insists that she is uneducated though she studied privately.
Singing with Mohammad Rafi: Usha Timothy has always been a fan of Rafi Sahab. And she got to sing with him at the very beginning of her career. Asked, how many songs she had sung with Rafi Sahab, she replied that she hadn’t counted. But the count must be 20-25. Vidhyarthi, Zorro and Mera Salam are some of the movies for which they had sung together. She has sung with him even in regional movies like Punjabi, Gujarati, etc.
She reminisces, “Rafi Sahab would have at least 2 international tours every year and I would participate in them. Rafi Sahab considered me as dear as his own daughter. Whenever we would go out of the city, Rafi Sahab and his wife would keep an eye on me and would not allow anyone to misbehave with me.”
Landmark Songs: According to her, she had the opportunity to sing some landmark songs. One of them is Jab jab bahaar aayi aur phool muskuraye… (Taqdeer – 1967). Usha Mangeshkar, Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammad Rafi and Mahendra Kapoor sang this song with her. She says, “So, the credits were distributed between us. It is difficult for the audience to decide where I have sung. On the other hand, Tu raat khadi thi chat pe… was sung by one male and one female singer. So, the credit for the female voice was given to me.”
She had delivered the dialogues in the song Raafta raafta dekho ankh meri ladi hai… (Kahani Kismat Ki – 1973). But, she requested the makers not to give credits to her because she was worried Rafi Sahab would scold her for taking credits for a few dialogues. But, contrary to what she thought, Rafi Sahab told her that she should have asked for the credits. Even he had sung just Ho ji ho… in the song Door koi gaye… (Baiju Bawra – 1952) and taken the credits for the same.
Recent Work: Recently, she sang 8 songs for the new movie Lakhon Hain Yahan Dilwale (2015). We asked how the experience was compared to the olden days. She replies, “Previously, we would sing with music directors, other singers, orchestra and everything together live. It would take 2-3 hours to record one song. If there is a mistake in the beginning or the end, we had to record the whole song from the beginning till end once again. With practice, the song became so good that it touched the hearts of the listeners. Those songs were so soulful that people remember them even today.”
She adds, “The songs of today are forgotten the moment a new catchy number catches the attention of the people. Till the era of late Rajesh Khanna, melodious songs were made. Once fights took prominence in the movies, music and songs took a back seat. Even today the same trend continues.”
She has recently sung 3 songs for a new movie Rishton Ki Zanjeer. She affirms, “I don’t go to anybody for work. If people, who see my interviews or my shows, ask me to sing for them, I do. My shows become super-duper hits. I have an international show coming up. I sing even Rafi Sahab’s songs in my shows.”
Today’s works in the film industry are disappointing, though good music is heard even today but rarely. She insists, “The industry need good music directors and singers. People should be inspired by the songs of the olden days. If people say that those songs have become old, they have to realize that they are classics and will be remembered for ages.”
That she has not been given the right place in Bollywood is a disappointing thing for the industry. She says, “If I am ready to do work, it should be given to me in a dignified manner. I don’t want songs like Munni badnaam hui… I expect some decent ones coming my way. The movies being churned out today are also not up to the mark. Only fights, murder, mystery, etc. Dil Apna Aur Preet Parayi was a beautiful movie. They showed love, but the love was covert, not overt. The song Ajeeb dastaan hai yeh… says that the heroine is in love with the hero. Otherwise, nobody gets to know about it.”
Awards: She has bagged a few awards in her career as well. One was Sur Singar Award for Ghazal singing. The second was the President’s award. She informs, “The judges of this competition were Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Pandit Omkar Nath Thakur and Ustad Aamir Khan. I was chosen from among 5000 candidates.”
One award was for Tu raat khadi thi chat pe… from Cine Music Director’s Association to both Rafi Sahab and her. She adds, “This song was also nominated for the Filmfare Award that year. But, in those days, duets were not awarded. So, we lost the chance to get that award. There used to be Murfy Sahgal contest, which was won by Mahendra Kapoor, several years senior to me and I won that also. More recently, I won the Mohammad Rafi and Kishore Kumar Awards.”