Film historian VAK Ranga Rao has over 42,000 gramophone records of various languages and dialects in his collection. In fact, this trained dancer is also responsible for triggering an academic interest in film dance
If not many people know of VAK Ranga Rao it's quite understandable. This walking encyclopaedia, who compiled the ten-volume CD of the millenium's Kannada songs, is in his own world of dance, music, and films, happily oblivious to the publicity hungry ways of the world. Ask the maverick collector of 78 rpms about his unusual predilection, and he says: "It is my childhood obsession and I'm not worried if people are interested in it or not," avers Ranga Rao, who has a veritable treasure trove of over 42,000 gramophone records of forty Indian languages and dialects as well as 30 foreign languages. Simply because he goes around hunting for gramophones, if you're already beginning to fit him into an era bygone, he'll startle you with: "I like the choreography for the song `Chuku Buku Raile' better than `Chandralekha'" or "I don't think much of Ilaiyaraja. He doesn't understand the cadence of Telugu language." For Ranga Rao, there's nothing called "there existed a past", it's all one continuum. Ranga Rao is a man of many interests. His insatiable thirst for cinema got him hooked on to film facts and documentation. His incredible interest for dance took him to one of the pioneers of dance in South India, Bangalore Nagarathnamma. Ranga Rao's devotion for dance was nurtured by two Devadasis Gaddibhukta Sitaram at Bobbili and Saride Lakshminarasamma of Vijayanagaram. Gaddibhukta Sitaram was serving at the Venugopala temple, apart from the Raja. She had her regular chores like cleaning the temple and making preparations for the decoration of the idol. "I would hang around till she would finish stringing the flower garlands for the gods and then take lessons from her," says Ranga Rao, reliving those moments. This fervour for dance later on made him a keen observer of film dance too. In fact, when he delivered a lecture on dance in cinema decades ago in Chennai, he was responsible in triggering off an academic interest in film dance. "I think Helen is the greatest dancer we've ever had," Ranga Rao's face glows. He waxes eloquent on every movement of Helen and vows that "nobody can be as graceful as her." "My favourite dance composer is Bhagwan. Once, when I interviewed Helen, I asked her who her favourite was and when she said Bhagwan, I can't tell you how thrilled I was," says an elated Ranga Rao. "Do you remember the way Helen used to so charmingly move her eyebrows? I went up to her and asked how she managed to do it?" Helen, with the same naive enthusiasm, had asked Ranga Rao: "Do you want to learn?" Of course he wanted to. "I had been told by my guru that if I coveted an art, I must lay my head on the performer's feet and master it. Would I refuse such an offer?" For him, she was also the ultimate symbol of sensuality. "All that no-holds-barred baring on the big screen today is hardly sensuous according to me. Have you heard that song `Saari raat jaagi sone do balam' from the 1942 film Ratan? It's so intense. I'm someone who's always believed that sensuality is something that exists between the ears... " asserts Ranga Rao, as he moves into a distant past. Till date, he says, there isn't another dancer who can match Helen's elegance. For this man with an amazing memory for facts and figures, nothing ever stops at mere admiration. He delves into the depths and masters it thoroughly. He once had a lemon tart at a five-star hotel and had loved it. Touched by his appreciation, the chef offered to teach him how to make it. Ranga Rao, diligently, spent an hour every evening for a month with the chef, before he perfected it! While connoisseurs love him for his fixation with perfection, fellow historians and writers on cinema don't think much of his unsparing ways. A recent encyclopaedia brought out by OUP, British Film Institute of London, and National Film Archives of India had 255 errors. Ranga Rao brought it to the notice of the concerned person, but the second edition too came out with 150 mistakes. The persistent man called again. "We didn't have the time to make those corrections," was the casual answer from the other end. Ranga Rao feels that much of his expertise came from the repeated listening that he indulged in during childhood. "We had practically nothing to entertain us in Bobbili. The village had hoards of dogs and peacocks, but that apart, the only other amusement for my sisters and me was the winding gramophone. All day we kept listening to Hindi, Tamil and Telugu songs. My father was a great connoisseur of drama and he would buy a number of records. When my parents went abroad, they brought loads of gramophones of French, Latin and different kinds of music," he recalls. "As a kid when I was listening to them all day, nobody told me what is good, what is bad. They just left me alone, to myself. I listened to everything and it became a passion." It was this penchant that later took him to Bangalore, Lucknow, Allahabad and Benaras, where he would place an ad in the local newspaper and buy old records. For a long time, Ranga Rao, who wrote scholarly pieces for many journals and newspapers, failed to realise that he had such a wonderful collection of gramophones. Neither was the world aware of such a man. His authoritative book on the Telugu singer Ghantasala, the millennium compilation, put him under the spotlight. "`Ide mahasudina' is my favourite song," he hums and soaks in it. "It is a genuine passion and has lived on its own. I neither considered myself a chronicler of history, nor did I imagine that I was doing something of great importance," he says modestly, as he rushes off to catch a film.