Friday Review

He captured the drama in the song

It is ten years since Kannada’s iconic actor Dr. Rajkumar passed away, also ten years since Kannadigas are celebrating his birthday in his absence. For Karnataka, April 24 is as huge as Rajyotsava – simply because everything that signified and constituted the idea of Kannada, culminated in the legendary actor, Rajkumar. The manner in which he spoke Kannada, sang Kannada, and epitomized Kannada was not just a testimony to his love for Kannada, but it also encapsulated a unified Kannada vision. Unlike any other actor, Rajkumar reached out to every corner of the state, thereby collapsing many Kannadas into one. In fact, the late writer U.R. Ananthamurthy said that Rajkumar was an embodiment of what thousand years ago the poet Nrupathunga had expressed in his work, Kavirajamarga – he had created one Kannada.

Rajkumar’s persona was multi-dimensional. A versatile actor, and also a gifted singer. If you are a purist, you may complain of certain imperfections like pitch and shruti etc, but you wouldn’t deny that Rajkumar’s singing had soul. Just like he could play a variety of roles – from mythological to social, he could sing every kind of song in the most convincing way. In fact, in an industry where there are hardly any singer-actors, Rajkumar retains this unique distinction.

The reason for this is certainly Rajkumar’s beginnings in company theatre. It was that period in the history of theatre when an actor could not survive if he didn’t know music. Since most tunes that were sung in the plays were classical based, they were groomed in the rudiments of classical music, at times an instrument or two, apart from exacting training in diction and grammar. Rajkumar’s use of language and rendition of music is a clear reflection of where he comes from and his schooling.

Rajkumar’s acting career in cinema had taken off long before he emerged as a singer. With the wildly popular G.K. Venkatesh’s composition “Yaare Koogadali” he made his entry as a singer in the film Sampatthige Saval in 1974. It was a time when the Kannada film music industry had the best male singers, there was P.B. Sreenivos, and S.P. Balasubramaniam. Yet, Rajkumar became a playback singer, a name to reckon with.

Among the greatest music directors of those times were the duo Rajan and Nagendra, who composed for both Kannada and Telugu. They were associated with Rajkumar for nearly thirty years.

Ask Rajan (Nagendra passed away in 2000) about the actor who sang some of the most beautiful of Kannada film songs, and here’s what he says: “Rajkumar was a stickler for perfection and was capable of tremendous hardwork. That is what made him very special,” remembers Rajan. When he heard the song first, he would record it on a cassette, take it home, and till the day of recording kept listening and rehearsing. “The skeletal tune would be improvised and polished in the studio. Rajkumar would keep practising without wasting a minute.”

Once Rajkumar had his own production banner, during the Chennai years, all film discussions would take place at his residence. “They would summon Chi. Udayshankar, my brother Nagendra and me, and the director – we would all assemble at Rajkumar’s house. Film discussion, lyrics, and music composing -one by one everything would fall in place. Rajkumar made sure that he was part of each of these processes. So, much before we stepped on the floor of the studio, he had an idea how the songs would sound.”

Rajkumar was a pious student. Those were days of limited tracks and orchestras were huge, usually an ensemble of 60-75 musicians. The rehearsals were extensive, and even if one member made a small mistake it had to be recorded from scratch. “You can imagine how elaborate the process was. Rajkumar, even when he had become a star, sat from morning till night in the studio. He would be there when we demonstrated the tune for the orchestra and distributed parts to the various instruments. While they rehearsed, he would continue to practise in the song booth. Everyone had to be perfect, and it demanded total involvement. “Rajkumar was a thorough professional, he behaved just like any other musician. One never got the impression of handling a star,” explains Rajan. “Sometimes it would be 20 to 25 takes before we got it right, and Nagendra and I would be willing to finalise it. But Rajkumar would say, ‘Can we do one more take? I feel I could have emoted better in the second stanza…he was an extraordinary man.” For Rajkumar it was very important to grasp the manodharma of the composer. He wanted to catch every nuance as much as possible. “He used to try very hard and never took liberties. A picture of humility,” he says.

Rajan-Nagendra’s first encounter with Rajkumar was when they made music for Sati Sukanya in 1967. He was not singing in the film, yet he came for the music rehearsals, sitting quietly through all the sessions. “Once we had finished composing, he came up to us and said he was very pleased with the music.” For the next 25 years or so, they worked together for several films such as Bangarada Hoovu, Svayamvara, Nyayave Devaru, Shrinivasa Kalyana, Chalisuva Modagalu and more.

Rajkumar was the only star who unfailingly turned up for music composing sessions, even in those days when he was not singing his own songs. “Those were golden days. There would be discussion, exchanges, and only after a consensus we would head for the studio. I cannot remember a single incident of a producer or director of those days asking me what the recording budget would be or about the orchestra size etc. We had complete freedom. After we had finished recording, we would give them the bill and they would pay it. That’s all. The final product was very important and no one asked us to make compromises.”

Rajan has many stories to tell about their days with Rajkumar. “Most stars would want to stay in five-star hotels, and expected special treatment. But Rajkumar was always the opposite. He was so down to earth that he would stay in Highlands, a very moderate hotel. Heroes would be full of themselves, have an exclusive lunch table, attendants at their beck and call, but not once did Rajkumar behave that way. He would sit down with the entire unit and eat.” For Shrinivasa Kalyana, it was decided that they would shoot in Tirumala. The entire unit was taken and even music composing took place there. Rajkumar sat with Rajan-Nagendra for one week while they composed. They would wake up at 4 a.m., go to the temple, and go in the night for the last darshana as well. “We were a film unit, plus we had a star on board, we were fed with the choicest prasadas. I have never tasted such a variety of prasadas in my life!” Rajan joyfully reminiscences.

Unlike P.B. Sreenivos who Rajkumar came to replace in a big way, his voice could handle a range of emotions. It had a vivacity as expressed in Naa Ninna Mareyalaare, Ellelli Nodali, the romance of Neenello Naanalle, the devotion of Haalalladaru Haaku – Rajkumar captured it all. He did it with flair, but it was the outcome of dedication for the art he practised. His music was invariably an integral part of the role he played.

“Once the song was recorded, the entire group would rush to the console. It was such a collective effort and shared happiness. Now all that is gone. Everyone does their bit and leaves the studio. They don’t even know what the song sounds like. I miss people like Rajkumar, who did his work with such remarkable involvement…,” says Rajan.

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Printable version | Jun 22, 2021 12:15:59 AM |

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