Rajkumar – The Music of Karnataka

The Hubli I knew was a sleepy town in North Karnataka. There were more wine shops than grocery stores and more cinema halls than medical shops. People walked through the narrow streets of the town as if they were lost in some dream. A person in rags singing in pure Bhimpalasi or negotiating the complexities of Malkauns ragas while begging was not an unusual scene there. After all, Hubli and the nearby Dharwad are known as the centers of Hindustani Classical music in South India. This is the place where great musicians like Bhimsen Joshi, Kumar Gandharva, Mallikarjun Mansur and Gangubai Hangal were born.

One day morning I was traveling in a ramshackle town bus to my office in Kithoor Chennamma Square when traffic got jammed a kilometer before it. People were walking in masses around the arrested vehicles. Since it was already past ten thirty, I tried to reach my office wading through the crowd. As I neared my office the density of the crowd increased. The square with the statue of Kithoor Chennamma had become a massed circle.

In the middle was Kannada Super Star Rajkumar going round and round the square in a bullock cart. He was in a white dhoti and kurta with red waist cloth and yellow headgear. He was lip synchronizing with a folk sounding Kannada song even as he was going around waving the red and yellow flag at the people standing around. The scene was being filmed by three cameras.

To me for a moment, that figure of Rajkumar and the bullock cart and the picture they created in the reflective glass windows of the modern multi-storeyed buildings there, looked like the metaphor of the state and plight of the modern day India!.

“Huttidhare Kannada Nadalli Hutta Beku! Mettidhare Kannada Mannalli Metta Beku!” means ‘If born, you must be born in the land of Kannada! If the foot touches soil, it must touch Kannada soil!’ was the song in the air. It was an attractive tune. The voice that sang the song was highly emotional. Rajkumar himself was the singer. Later, this song and the film ‘Aakasmika’, for which it was picturised, created waves in Karnataka. It became more or less, a Kannada national anthem.

India has a long tradition of Singer-Actors from the days of Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani. K.L. Saigal, Geeta Dutt, Kishore Kumar, Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, T.R. Mahalingam to Kamala Hasan, there is one long list. But none of them reached the heights that Rajkumar did. Undoubtedly, he is Indian film industry’s most successful Singer-Actor. He achieved great successes at levels, singing as well as Acting.

Rajkumar belonged to an age when it was not possible to enter the stage without being able to sing as well as act. In fact, Rajkumar started his stage career as a singer. He learnt his acting on the stage. He emerged from the drama company tradition, where the company took great care to train its actors in traditional singing style and to pronounce the dialogue clearly while acting. The tunes of songs, in those days, were Carnatic Raga based. No actor could hope to gain acceptance without the ability to sing them well. This was how Rajkumar formally trained in Carnatic music.

As a hardcore Rajkumar fan says, it is difficult for a non-Kannadiga to understand the phenomenon called Rajkumar. He was not like Amitabh Bachan who became the star of the century through a lot of feature films, publicity and advertisement films, stage shows, documentaries and voice overs for countless films and advertisements. Unlike N.T. Rama Rao and M.G.R. he did not bring his film stardom to political arena. He did not act in hundreds of films like Prem Nazir, creating world records. He did not act in other language films like Kamal Hasan, Vishnu Vardhan, Rajnikanth or Chiranjeevi. He did not know English very well. In fact he was not even very good in verbalizing his thoughts.

In a film career lasting 45 years he acted in 205 films. He achieved recognitions like 10 Filmfare Awards, Nine State Awards, Padma Vibhushan and Dada Saheb Phalke award. But there were other factors behind his becoming Annaavaru (The Elder Brother) to his fellow Kannadigas.

Another staunch Rajkumar fan observes: “The honesty, the discipline and a certain élan he demonstrated in his choice of films, his personal and public life, the calm with which he faced his successes and failures and the organised manner in which he faced everything in life were the foundations on which his unbelievable fan following rested. In a film industry where honesty and civility were scarce, he personified them. His sense of discipline, his ability to learn as he went, his absolute dedication to his profession and an ability to grasp the sophistications that could not be acquired through formal education took him to the peak.” Rajkumar was formally educated only up to third standard.

Rajkumar’s first film was ‘Bedara Kannappa’ produced by AVM in 1956. Rajkumar’s film ‘Ranadheera Kanteerava’ is often cited as the first step towards establishing a struggling Kannada Film industry. Generally he chose themes that had a message against prevalent social evils. Barring a few early films of his career, he did not smoke or drink in his films. He did not enter politics in spite of repeated calls and persuasive pressures that emerged from his huge fan following. He restricted his activities apart from cinema to Music, Drama, Cultural activities and Charity Trusts.

In his earlier films, others sang playback for Rajkumar. This is an example of his remarkable character. Even after becoming a famous star and in spite of knowing that he can do an excellent job of singing, he never asked his producers or directors for the opportunity to sing. He did not want to hurt the feelings of the singers who sang for him. C.S. Jayaraman sang for him in his first film. Many singers followed. In the early days Ghantashala was his singing voice. Later, P.B. Srinivas emerged and stayed as Rajkumar’s own voice till 1974. He had sung beautiful and evergreen hits of Kannada film music like ‘Nee Moodida Mallige Hoovina Maale’, ‘Aakashadha Lokadhe Doora’, ‘Oduva Nadhi Sagarava’ ‘Nee Bandhu Nindhaga’ and others.

Earlier in 1950s Rajkumar had sung a few songs in some films like ‘Mahishasura Mardhini’ and ‘Ohileshwara’. As Ghantashala, who was to have sung for him in the film ‘Ohileshwara’ was abroad; Rajkumar was persuaded by all to sing. It was much later, almost 20 years after entering the film field, in 1974 that he sang the much acclaimed super hit song ‘Yaare Koogadali’ for the film ‘Sampathige Savaal’. It was Music Director G.K. Venkatesh who compelled the Super Star to sing ‘Yaare Koogadali’. As P.B. Srinivas was out of town, Rajkumar agreed to sing the song. This song established him as the important singer of Kannada Films. And with this P.B. Srinivas lost his prime in the Kannada Film Music. He was called in to sing for Rajkumar when did two or more roles in his films.

Rajkumar had a smooth voice and with his precise pronunciation supported the depth of emotion, it was just great. From virtuoso classical singing to modern love song, he sang everything with great aplomb. He brought to his voice the mindsets needed to sing of love, emotion, devotion, disco and folk, turn by turn with clarity and distinction. His Drama career background greatly helped him in this remarkable diversity. His songs on Kannada language and Kannada tradition were all big hits. He has sung Kalidasa’s Sanskrit slokas and mantras with precise pronunciation to much acclamation. His ghazal-style songs ‘Sada Kannalli’, ‘Gelathi Baaradhu’ and ‘Yaava Kaviyu’ were all big hits.

A moving ghazals-style song in ‘Hosa Belaku’, ‘Kanneera Dhare Ideke’ sung in Raag Lalith, was based on a Jagajit Singh ghazal. But Rajkumar brought to this song a unique depth. M. Ranga Rao, who scored the music for this, was in tears as he ran to hug him after the recording, the reports say. Rajkumar has sung many immortal songs like ‘Idu Yaaru Bareda Katheyo’ sung for ‘Premada Kaanike’.

Chi. Udayashankar wrote the screenplays and lyrics for most of Rajkumar’s films. His simple but captivating lines were also an important factor behind the success of Rajkumar’s songs. G.K. Venkatesh composed the music for Rajkumar’s best songs. G.K. Venkatesh’s neat compositions and the obligatos that ran amidst them lent his songs a rare beauty.

An example is the obligato that runs in the song ‘Athey Kannu’ in Rajkumar’s film of the same name. My friend Chi. Dattaraj, the younger brother of Chi. Udayashankar, directed this film. He has directed four Rajkumar starrers. Ilayaraja, who was then an assistant to G.K. Venkatesh, had scored a rare background music for this song, a score that evokes fear and terror. My favourite Rajkumar song by G K Venkatesh is ‘Beladhingalaagi Baa’ from the film Huliya Haalina Mevu.

Rajkumar’s ‘Sanaadi Appanna’ was a milestone in Kannada film industry. Shehnai Maestro, the late Ustad Bismillah Khan had played the Shehnai for this film. Shehnai is called Sanaadi in Kannada. This film which was released in August 1977 is about the life of a village Shehnai player. G.K. Venkatesh composed music for this film also. Bismillah Khan had no interest in film music. It was on the personal request of Rajkumar that he came to play the Shehnai. Rajkumar had already declared that he will not act in the film unless Ustad Bismillah Khan played the Shehnai. Ustad Bismillah Khan’s only other film was ‘Goonj Uthi Shehnai’ in Hindi.

Ustad flew into Chennai from Kasi and took part in the song recording of ‘Sanaadi Appanna’ at Prasad Studio. He stayed in Chennai for nine days, playing the Shehnai for the film. To this day, ‘Karedaru Kelade’ sung by S. Janaki in raag Behag for this film, is a song that captivates Kannada film music lovers. Ustad had played magical interludes in this song. Throughout the film one can hear the rich music feast by the Ustad.

Rajkumar came to Prasad Studios on all the nine days and saw the recording of songs. Apart from listening to the Ustad’s grand music, it was his intention to study his body language and facial expressions as he played the Shehnai. He believed that it will enable him to play Sanaadi Appanna with credibility.

The film ran for 100 days. Ustad too participated in the 100th Day celebrations. Rajkumar remarked: “I only acted in the film. Its soul was the contribution of Ustad Bismillah Khan. He gave life to the role of Sanaadi Appanna.” In return the Ustad gave unstinted praise for Rajkumar’s humility and devotion to music.

Ilayaraja composed music for a Rajkumar film ‘Nee Nanna Gellalare’. Two songs in this film ‘Anuraga Enaythu’ and ‘Jeeva Hoovagidhe’ became famous for tunes that transcended the traditions with rare obligatos.

Upendra Kumar is another composer who gave Rajkumar many tuneful hits. ‘Premada Kaanike’ and ‘Shankar Guru’ were his super hits. ‘Jeevana Chaitra’ which got Rajkumar the National Award for the Best Singer had music composed by Upendra Kumar. Composers like D.G. Lingappa and Rajan Nagendra were also Rajkumar’s favourite composers. Rajkumar’s last film ‘Shabdavedi’ had music composed by the younger generation composer Hamsalekha.

Rajkumar has sung many western music songs. He has sung ‘If you come today’ with English lyrics for the film ‘Operation Diamond Racket’. There are quite a few songs with English lyrics like ‘My Name Is Raj’ for ‘Haavina Hedhe’ and ‘Love Me or Hate Me’ for ‘Shankar Guru’. The same Rajkumar has sung ‘Manikya Veenam’, ‘Aaradhisuve’ and ‘Yaaru Thiliyaru’ in classical music style. He got the National Award for the Best Singer for ‘Naadhamaya Ee Lokavella’ in ‘Jeevan a Chaitra’. Starting with Raaga Todi it continues as a Raagamaalika through many Raagas. Like a classical singer he was able to effortlessly move from Raaga to Raaga.

‘Raaga Anuraga from Sanaadi Appanna, ‘Cheluveya Notta’ from Shankar Guru, ‘Entha Soundarya Kande’ from Ravichandra, ‘Na Ninna Mareyalaare’ from the film of the same name, ‘Haalu Jenu Onthandha’ from Haalu Jenu and ‘Aadisi Nodu Beelisi Nodu’ from Kasthuri Nivasa are all extremely famous Rajkumar songs.

Rajkumar was deeply religious and interested in talking about spirituality. He has released many albums in the name of different Gods. Towards the end, Rajkumar had lent his voice to other actors. He sang many hit songs. Remarkably when S.P. Balasubramaniam acted in the film ‘Muthina Mava’, Rajkumar sang for him.

A good part of his earnings from his songs were apportioned for various charities. He ran an Ashram for widows and children. He traveled the length and breadth of Karnataka to raise funds for Kargil War Relief. But he never talked about his charity. He had barred reporters from publishing such news. He had donated liberally to Eye Donation Camps and Blood Donation Camps and had himself conducted many of them. He donated his eyes. After his death, his eyes were fitted to another person, anonymous. He says in his song ‘Janarinda Naanu..’ from his last film ‘Shabdavedi’, “I rose to fame from among humble people. The success of the people who supported me is my success.”

On 30th July 2000, at the age of 71 Rajkumar was kidnapped by the forest bandit Veerappan. He was rescued on 1st November after being subjected to 108 days of hard life in the forest. To this day his kidnapping and rescue remain mysteries yet to be unraveled. Former Chief Minister of Tamilnadu, Jayalalitha, had accused that Karnataka Government had rescued him after paying a ransom of Rs.30 crores through intermediaries. It is said that the Advocate General of Tamilnadu released a statement later mentioning Rs.40 crores as the ransom amount. Whatever the truth, the world of Kannada music will remember delightful memories of Rajkumar as a rare and cherished treasure. And there his voice will remain worthy of many many mega millions.