Why Rajkumar songs live on

Why Rajkumar songs live on

The actor-singer’s music owes its appeal to his roots in theatre and his collaboration with composers exploring diverse styles

April 24 marks the 91st birth anniversary of actor-singer Rajkumar, and provides an opportunity for music buffs to look back at his legacy.

Rajkumar hailed from an era of singer-actors. Indian cinema no longer boasts actors with his level of musical proficiency. No hero in any Indian language can pull off the kind of songs he did. Naadamaya, the song that won him a national award, is based on difficult ragas in the classical Karnatic tradition. It is difficult to imagine any of his contemporaries, or heroes who came after him, singing it professionally.

Not that today’s actors don’t attempt singing; they do, and produce songs that bank on timbre and spoken-word drama rather than melody. In other words, they are just not in the same league as Rajkumar.

Rajkumar’s proficiency dates back to his stint in company drama, which put actors through rigorous grooming in music and Kannada diction. They were, in effect, preparing to don grand mythological roles. Tunes made for the stage were mostly raga-based, and an actor with no grounding in classical music got nowhere.

Yet, as fellow-singer S P Balasubramanyam recalled in a recent interview on a Telugu TV channel, Rajkumar was reluctant to sing film songs. He shied away from it, saying he was not up to its challenges.

Reluctant entry

Rajkumar was the biggest hero in Kannada cinema for five decades, but he emerged as a singer only mid-way in his career, when he sang the energetic ‘Yaare koogadali’ in the 1974 film Sampattige Sawal.

Ilaiyaraja has gone on record to say he was instrumental in persuading Rajkumar to sing that wildly popular song. Ilaiyaraaja was then an assistant to music composer G K Venkatesh.

P B Sreenivas hits

Till then, P B Sreenivas had been Rajkumar’s voice, giving Kannada cinema some of its most beautiful, stylish songs, all through the ‘60s. Among the most enduring songs he sang for Rajkumar are Nee mudida mallige hoovina maale and Nee bandu nintaaga. They are brooding, intense and lovely.

Once Rajkumar the singer was discovered, Sreenivas all but lost his job. Like Mukesh, Sreenivas sang with a melancholic heaviness: his voice could handle lighter love songs all right, but it excelled in moody, darker numbers. Baadi hoda balliyinda is a fine example in the latter playlist. Rajkumar’s voice was capable of greater vivacity, best seen in songs like Naa ninna mareyalaare, from the 1976 film of the same name, and Thai thai thai thai bangaari from Girikanye (1977). Both films had music by Rajan Nagendra, who produced numbers that became all the rage in the 1970s. Eradu Kanasu (1974), starring Rajkumar but with songs sung by Sreenivas, was one of their biggest all-time hits.

Pensive songs

Rajkumar sang some melancholic numbers too. A hit in this category is Idu yaaru bareda katheyo from the murder mystery Premada Kaanike, whose story, incidentally, was written by the superstars of Bollywood scriptwriting, Salim-Javed.

The similarly pensive Kanneera dhare ideke ideke from Hosa Belaku (1981) is one of his best songs. Based on raga Lalit, its tune is clearly taken from the Jagjit Singh ghazal ‘Koi paas aaya savere savere’. Rajkumar brings to it an intensity all his own. The story goes that M Ranga Rao, who made the music for that film, was moved to tears when he heard Rajkumar’s rendering at the studio, and rushed to hug him.

Flamboyant love

Tanuvu manavu from Raja Nanna Raja (1976) shows Rajkumar at his flamboyant best. His voice soars in Latin style, firmly establishing his versatility. The music is by G K Venkatesh, who often got the best out of Rajkumar. Other notable Venkatesh songs he sang were Beladingalagi baa and Ninagaagi ododi bande.

Over three decades, Rajkumar sang tunes composed by a host of composers: Venkatesh, Rajan-Nagendra, M Ranga Rao, Upendra Kumar, Ilaiyaraja and Hamsalekha. Their styles and orchestral arrangements were diverse, and resulted in creating a Rajkumar musical oeuvre of delightful variety. 

Work as puja

Kamala Hassan once described Rajkumar as a pious man for whom work is ‘puja’. Rajkumar was a believer, and cut albums in praise of several deities. His songs on saint Raghavendra Swami are remembered and sung to this day in religious settings.

At least a part of the success of Rajkumar’s biggest hits should go to Chi Udayashankar, who brought an easy lyricism to Kannada film songs, and provided a contrast to the more Sanskritised register his predecessors were fond of. Rajkumar’s most frequent duet partner was the versatile S Janaki.

Kannada film music has never been the same since the departure of Rajkumar 14 years ago.  We hear more street language and wit in the lyrics, sure, but music programming has replaced live orchestras, and words are broken awkwardly as composers attempt new styles. Amidst all this, older music buffs hark back to an era when waiting eagerly for an album of film songs was a thing.