Dr Rajkumar, the singing star of Indian cinema

Dr Rajkumar is Karnataka's most-beloved actor and a Kannada icon. The winner of the 1995 Dadasaheb Phalke award for his contribution to cinema, Dr Rajkumar remains the only actor in India to ever win a National Film Award for singing. On the occasion of Dr Rajkumar’s 94th birth anniversary, Chetan Nadiger tells the story of how Dr Raj came to be first superstar singer of Kannada cinema.

ByChetan Nadiger

Published Apr 24, 2023 | 8:45 AMUpdated Apr 24, 2023 | 2:47 PM

Rajkumar riding in a horse cart during the shooting of 'Akasmika'

Much has been said about the acting prowess of Dadasaheb Phalke awardee Dr Rajkumar. His passion for the Kannada language, his legacy, style, diction, humility and large-heartedness have been talked about in detail.

But Dr Rajkumar was not only a great actor, he was also a great singer.

One of a handful of actor-singers in Indian cinema

Photo of Dr Raj from 'Girikanye'

A still of Dr Rajkumar from the film ‘Girikanye’ (Chetan Nadiger)

Barring three or four exceptions, not many actors in Indian cinema have been good singers. Dr Rajkumar sits in the company of KL Saigal and Kishore Kumar as actors who charmed the audience not only through their performances but also through their singing. 

While KL Saigal and Kishore Kumar sang for films right from the beginning, Dr Rajkumar emerged as a singer only midway through his career.

A background in company theatre

The reason behind Dr Rajkumar’s successful singing was not just his unusual voice, but his humble beginnings in a company theatre.

Dr Rajkumar’s career started off in theatre in the late 40s. In that era, actors were not only trained in acting, but also in music. Because most roles required live singing on stage, no actor was considered worthy if he wasn’t a good singer too.

Apart from diction, grammar, and expressions, actors were groomed in music too. So, despite Dr Rajkumar not being a formally-trained singer, his basic knowledge of music and his training in theatre catapulted him to becoming one of the best-known playback singers in the country.

Shivappa Kaayo Tande‘, the superhit song from Dr Rajkumar’s debut film, ‘Bedara Kannappa

A grand entrance with ‘Bedara Kannappa‘

Dr Rajkumar made his debut in the film ‘Bedara Kannappa’ in 1954. The film was a superhit and the Kannada audience welcomed a new acting sensation through that film. Though Dr Rajkumar was capable of singing his own songs, they were rendered by stalwarts like CS Jayaraman.

The songs sung by Jayaraman for Dr Rajkumar in the film, including ‘Shivappa Kaayo Thande’ and ‘Kaayo Thandeye’, were huge hits and remain evergreen classics of Kannada cinema. The songs from his next movies, like ‘Sodari’, ‘Bhakta Vijaya’ and ‘Bhakta Chetha’, were sung by AM Rajah, Ghantasala, and others.

Also read: Language protests in Karnataka: Rajkumar and the Gokak agitation

Debuting as a film singer in ‘Ohileshwara

It was in ‘Ohileshwara’, released in 1956, that Dr Rajkumar sang a film song for the first time. The film was directed by TV Singh Thakur and GK Venkatesh was the music composer. GK Venkatesh, who knew Dr Rajkumar from his company theatre days, got him to sing the song ‘Om Namaha Shivaya’.

A duet with S Janaki in one of the first pan-India films

Photo of Dr Raj from 'Huliya Haalina Mevu'

A still of Dr Rajkumar and Jayachitra from the film ‘Huliya Haalina Mevu’ (Chetan Nadiger)

Three years after ‘Ohileshwara’, Dr Rajkumar once again stood in front of the microphone. This time, it was for ‘Mahishasura Mardini’ and the song was ‘Tumbitu Manava Tanditu Sukava’, a duet with S Janaki.

This film has been identified as among the first pan Indian films and was dubbed in seven other languages. GK Venkatesh, the music director of the film, convinced Dr Rajkumar to be a part of the romantic duet and the song became one of the memorable songs of Kannada cinema.

Though Dr Rajkumar proved his singing prowess early on in his career, his audience had to wait another 15 years for him to turn into a full-fledged playback singer in films.

Dr Rajkumar and PB Srinivas — a combination of body and voice

After ‘Mahishasura Mardini’, Dr Rajkumar stayed away from playback singing not only because he was a very busy actor at the time, but also because PB Srinivas had become his voice by then.

A video clip of ‘Baagilanu Teredu‘, one of the numerous hit songs of the Dr Raj–PB Srinivas combination

Just like Mohammed Rafi became Shammi Kapoor’s voice and Mukesh became Raj Kapoor’s voice in Bollywood, PB Srinivas became Dr Rajkumar’s voice in Kannada. PBS’s voice gelled perfectly with Dr Rajkumar’s acting and it seemed like Dr Rajkumar himself was singing. 

The audience too liked their combination very much. PB Srinivas’s renderings for Dr Rajkumar include ‘Baagilanu Teredu’, ‘Binkada Singari’, ‘Eetaneega Vasudevanu’, ‘Olavina Priyalathe’, ‘Mounave Aabharana’, ‘Jayathu Jayavitala’, ‘Naane Rajakumara’, ‘Nee Mudida Mallige’, ‘Aadisi Nodu Beelisi Nodu’, ‘Nagu Naguta Nali Nali’, ‘Endendu Ninnanu Marethu’, and ‘Navaduva Nudiye Kannada Nudi’ and are considered classics to this day.

Meanwhile, other singers such as Ghantasala, TM Soundararajan, KJ Yesudas, and SP Balasubramaniam also sang a few songs for Dr Rajkumar in some films. However, the combination with PB Srinivas gave Dr Rajkumar great mileage.

If the songs of Dr Rajkumar from the 60s and 70s are remembered even today, it is because of PB Srinivas. Dr Rajkumar himself said in many interviews that he was just the ‘shareera’ (body) and that PB Srinivas was his ‘shaareera’ (voice).

Successfully overcoming the ‘sawaal (challenge) of PB Srinivas’s absence

This combination gave a number of great hits to the Kannada audience until 1974. However, during the making of ‘Sampattige Sawaal’, PB Srinivas was unavailable because he was in Singapore for a concert

The team urgently needed to record a particular song and shoot the accompanying scene. In the absence of PB Srinivas, GK Venkatesh is said to have requested Dr Rajkumar to sing that particular song. Left with no choice, Dr Rajkumar sang ‘Yaare Koogadali’ and the song was an instant hit with the masses.

Becoming a regular singer to satisfy his adoring fans

Phto of Dr Raj from 'Naa Ninna Mareyalaare'

A still of Dr Rajkumar from the film ‘Naa Ninna Mareyalaare’ (Chetan Nadiger)

After this song, Dr Rajkumar wanted to stick to acting and let PB Srinivas sing for him, but his adoring fans found their idol’s voice fresh and unique and wanted him to continue to sing.

Slowly, Dr Rajkumar started singing more songs. After ‘Yaare Koogaadali’, Dr Rajkumar sung ‘Krishna Murari’ in the film ‘Daari Thappida Maga’ which was released in 1975. ‘Naaniruvude Nimagaagi’ from the film was a success and the actor sang four more songs in the film ‘Trimurti’ which came out the same year.

Gradually, Dr Rajkumar turned into a actor-singer in his films. Though PB Srinivas continued to sing for Dr Rajkumar until the 80s, Dr Rajkumar had formally become a film singer by then.

Girikanye’, released in 1977, was the first film for which Dr Rajkumar sang all the songs. The film had five songs in it, composed by the music director duo Rajan-Nagendra. The songs were ‘Yenendu Naa Helali’, ‘Thai Thai Bangari’, ‘Nagunagutha Nee Baruve’, ‘Koodi Balona’ and ‘Yaaru Neenu’. With this film, Dr Rajkumar proved he was not only a versatile actor but also a talented singer.

A video clip of Dr Rajkumar singing ‘Yenendu Naa Helali

Also read: A celebration of Puneeth Rajkumar and Karnataka’s wildlife

A versatile singer who sang all types of songs

Photo of Dr Raj from 'Jeevana Chaitra'

A still of Dr Rajkumar from the film ‘Jeevana Chaitra’ (Chetan Nadiger)

Dr Rajkumar continued to sing all the way up to his last film, ‘Shabdavedi’, released in 2000. He also sang a variety of songs.

There was the devotional ‘Manikya Veena’ from ‘Kaviratna Kalidasa’, the English song ‘If you come today’ from ‘Operation Diamond Racket’, the pathos-filled song ‘Anuraga Enayitu’ from ‘Nee Nanna Gellalaare’, and the ghazal-based ‘Yaava Kaviyu Bareyalara’ from ‘Bhagyada Lakshmi Baramma’.

A video clip of Dr Rajkumar singing ‘Anuraga Enayitu

There was also the classical ‘Nadamya Ee Lokavella’ from ‘Jeevana Chaitra’ (for which he won the National Award) and the fast beats-based blockbuster hit ‘Huttidare Kannada Naadalli Huttabeku’ from ‘Aakasmika’. By singing all types of songs, Dr Rajkumar carved a niche for himself as a singer.

The first and only actor to win the National Award for Best Playback Singer

Dr Rajkumar was awarded the state-level best playback singer twice — once for the song ‘Arishina Kumkuma’ from ‘Thayi Illada Thavaru’ and once more for ‘Huttidare Kannada Nadalli Huttabeku’ from ‘Aakasmika’. 

He also won the National film award for Best Male Playback Singer at the 40th National Film Awards. To this day, Dr Rajkumar remains the only actor in the country to win a National award for his singing.  (Though Kishore Kumar sang several nationwide hits, he never won a National award.)

The voice of other Kannada actors

Dr Rajkumar did not sing for just his films, but also for the films of several other actors of the Kannada film industry. His chartbuster songs for other actors included ‘Bramhananda Omkara’ from ‘Om’, ‘Hrudaya Samudra Kalaki’ from ‘Ashwamedha’, ‘Deepavali Deepavali’ from ‘Muddina Maava’ and ‘Megha Bantu Megha’ from ‘Mannina Doni’.

Hey Dinakara‘, a song where Dr Rajkumar sang playback for his son, Shiva Rajkumar

A singer of folk songs and other devotional songs

The actor-singer who sang more than 200 songs for films also recorded a number of folk and devotional songs. As an ardent devotee of Sri Raghavendra Swamy and Hanuman, Dr Rajkumar sang many devotional songs.

Some of these songs were ‘Mantralayake Hogona’, ‘Haadu Kogile’, ‘Elli Hanumano Alli Ramanu’, ‘Akasha Bhoomigala’, and ‘Entha Anda Entha Chanda Sharadamma’. Dr Rajkumar also performed at musical nights where the proceeds of the event were given to charities.

The singing star might have left for his heavenly abode 17 years ago, but he lives on in the hearts of Kannadigas — not only as the Natasarvabhouma (emperor among actors), but also as a wonderful singer.

Also read: Raju Ananthaswamy, a charismatic star of Kannada’s Bhavageete tradition who blazed brightly but too briefly

(Chetan Nadiger is a journalist with 22 years of experience in Cinema Journalism. He has worked as a cinema journalist for popular newspapers like Udayavani, Vijayavani, Kannada Prabha, and Vijaya Karnataka besides contributing to various other magazines and websites.)