Legendary Kannada actor Rajkumar, who also excelled as a singer

Veteran actor Rajkumar.

Veteran actor Rajkumar. | Photo Credit: Sreenivasa Murthy V/ The Hindu Archives

At a lec-dem held recently, a konnakkol artiste spoke about the importance of language in an art form. He said, “Dr. Rajkumar was an extraordinary actor and you know why? It was not just his acting skills, it was also the way he spoke Kannada; it was music to the ears.” Rajkumar was mentioned only as an analogy in that presentation, but it served as a springboard to nostalgia. The manner in which the celebrated actor spoke the language was not just a testimony to his love for Kannada, but it also encapsulated a unified vision of the language. Unlike any other actor, he reached out to every corner of the State, thereby merging many Kannada dialects into one. In fact, the late writer U.R. Ananthamurthy used to say Rajkumar embodied what poet Nrupathunga had expressed in his work, Kavirajamarga, he had created one Kannada.

From the Kannada film Doorada Betta .

From the Kannada film Doorada Betta . | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

Flair for music

Rajkumar’s beginnings were in company theatre. No actor then was considered worthy if he wasn’t a capable musician. Most songs in the plays were based on classical music, hence actors were groomed in the rudiments of the art form, some even learnt to play an instrument or two, apart from exacting training in diction and grammar. Rajkumar’s use of language and flair for music proved the kind of training that theatre companies of yore imparted. He not only played a variety of roles — from mythological to social — he also sang songs of diverse styles. His singing had imperfections, but it was soulful and charming.

He was an actor much before he became a singer. He made his debut as a singer with the wildly popular G.K. Venkatesh composition, ‘Yaare koogadali’ from the 1974 film, Sampatthige Saval. Kannada film music industry had some of the best male singers at that time — P.B. Sreenivos, and S.P. Balasubrahmanyam. Yet, Rajkumar became a playback singer, and a name to reckon with.

He was a pious student of the arts. Rehearsals and sadhana were an integral part of his performance. He spent hours practising his dialogues and songs. Those were the days of limited tracks, but of huge orchestras, usually an ensemble of 60-75 musicians. The practice sessions went on for hours, and even if one member made a mistake it was recorded from all over again. “You can imagine how elaborate the process would have been. Even when he had become a star, Rajkumar spent almost the entire day in the studio. He would be there when we demonstrated the tune to the orchestra and while they rehearsed, he would continue to practise in the song booth. Rajkumar was a thorough professional and behaved just like any other musician. One never got the impression of handling a star,” recalls composer Rajan of the Rajan-Nagendra fame. “Sometimes after 20 to 25 takes when would be ready to finalise the song, Rajkumar would ask, ‘Can we do one more take? I feel I could have emoted better in the second stanza…’ he was an extraordinary artiste.” It was very important for him to grasp the manodharma of the composer and every nuance of the composition.”

Unlike P.B. Sreenivos, who Rajkumar came to replace in a big way, his voice could handle a range of emotions — vivacious (‘Naa ninna mareyalaare’ or ‘Ellelli nodali’), romance (‘Neenello Naanalle’), devotion (‘Haalalladaru Haaku’), and sarcasm (‘Rajadhiraja’). Every song he sang seemed to be an organic extension of his persona as an actor.

Apart from purity of note, his versatility and diction contributed immensely to his popularity as a singer. For instance, in songs such as ‘Haalu jenu ondada haage’, and ‘Hrudayadali idenidu’ , he articulates the language impeccably .

Actor Rajkumar in the film Bangarada Manushya.

Actor Rajkumar in the film Bangarada Manushya. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

Rajkumar had exposure to the Carnatic idiom. But, he was also a product of his times. Hindi film music was at its peak, it was also the heyday of the ghazal and bhajan. Theatre companies were trying to grapple with the popular, and hence there was the influence of more than one culture even in their works. The Kannada film industry had composers who brought with them different sensibilities. Hence to look at Rajkumar’s renditions from a ‘raga’ prism or to fit him into a ‘system’ of music, would perhaps be an incomplete reading of the actor’s music. As a singer, he had a liberating sense of style.

He rendered ‘Naaninna aase kande’ from Ravichandra in the qawwali style while ‘Gelathi baaradu inta samaya’ and ‘Kanneera dhaare’ showed the influence of ghazal. Among his best are ‘Jeeva hoovagide’, ‘Anuraga enaytu’, and ‘O premada gangeye ilidu baa’ . The true-blue Kannada actor has also sung numbers with a smattering of English such as ‘Love me or hate me’, ‘Mary Mary Mary’ or ‘If you come today’.

Rajkumarwas an actor, singer, public speaker, and a connoisseur of literature and language, all rolled into one.

The Bengaluru-based journalist writes on art and culture.

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Printable version | Jun 3, 2022 2:30:47 am |