Remember "Chandraleka", a magnum opus even by today's standards and its famous drum dance and the music that enriched it. The creator of that enchanting music was none other than this year's Tamil Nadu Iyal Isai Nataka Mandram's "Kalaimaamani" award winner, Saluri Rajeshwara Rao, a pioneer of light music in South Indian films.
"It took us one year to compose music for Chandralekha. Much of the time was taken for the drum dance sequence. As the dancers performed, we used to rehearse and compose the music. It was done with incredibly few instruments. We used a piano, ten double bass violins and drums from Africa, Egypt, and Persia which we have acquired from an African War troupe." reminisces Rajeshwara Rao, who will be completing six decades of film career next year.
His tryst with cinema came unexpectedly in the form of a talent-scouting Huchins Recording Company to his native Vizianagaram in 1934. A child prodigy, he could identify the ragas at the tender age of four and by the time he was seven, he started giving stage performances. His father, Sanyasi Raju, was a famous miridangam player for the concerts of Dwaram Venkatasamy Naidu and was also a lyricist. Huchins spotted "master" Rajeshwara Rao and took him to Bangalore along with his father.
"I was 13 then. Since then I have stayed put in the field of film music and records," recalls Rajeshwara Rao.
Huchins recorded "Bagavat Gita" in Rajeawara Rao's voice. Soon word spread about his melliflous voice and producers P.V.Das and Gudavalli Ramabramham, visted Bangalore, and impressed by his singing ability, brought him to Madras. Finding that young Rajeshwara Rao had stage experience too, they cast him as Lord Krishna in their "Sri Krishna Leelau" in 1934. The film was released the next year and Rajeshwara Rao became a household name all over Andhra. Later for the same team he played the role of "Abhimanyu" in "Maya Bazar"(1936). The next year he went to Calcutta to act in "Keechaka Vadha".
Though he won appreciation as a singer-actor, the urge to prove himself as a musician was stronger in him. In Calcutta he met such stalwarts as Kundan Lal Saigal and Pankaj Mullick, and got exposed to Hindustani music. He became a disciple of Saigal and learned Hindustani music for a year. He also learnt to play the sitar and the surbahar. He had already mastered playing the tabla, dholak, and miridangam without the help of a guru. Later he learnt the piano, harmonium, mandolin and the electric guitar too. By this time he had acquired the knowledge of orchestration, of how to mix the sounds of different instruments.
Rajeshwara Rao returned to Madras in 1938 and formed his own music troupe, became an assistant to Jeyaramayyer for a Tamil film "Vishnuleela" in which he also played the role of Balarama and sang his own songs. The film was directed by Raja Sandow. This was the only film for which Rajeshwara Rao worked as a music assistant. Later he tuned a few songs for a Kanada film, "Vasantha Sena" (1939) for which R.Sudharsanam provided the music. The same year he became a full-fledged music director with "Jeyaprada" (Pururava) which Chitrapu Narashima Rao directed. Alongside, he continued with his acting in "Balanagamma" and "illalu" in which he acted opposite his famous singing partner, Rao Balasarawati Devi. Bala Saraswati incidently had acted in "Sri Krishna Leelalu" too.
By the time "Illalu" was commissioned Rajeswara Rao was no more interested in acting. His mind was set on film music. Even his father felt his son would shine as a music director. He approached Ramambrahmam. The director was sceptical at first as it was a social film and doubted whether Rajeshwara Rao could do justice to it. Moreover Bhimavarapu Narashima Rao (BNR) was his permanenet music director. After much persuasion and when BNR himself told the director to give the boy a try, Rajeshwara Rao was given a cradle song as an experiment. He composed the music and rendered the song much to the delight of Director as well as the original music director of the film. Rajeshwara Rao got the job he wanted. He also acted in the movie, which was his last as an actor.
"When I entered the industry there was no playback system. We used to sing and act at the same time with the orchestra in the background unseen by the camera. But by the time I was doing "Illalu" the playback system had come into vogue," recalls the veteran.
When the Telugu film song was evolving from stage poetry to modern lyric, Rajeshwara Rao showed thru his private records how light music should be. "Thummeda Oka saari", "Kopamela Radha", "Podarintilona", "Rave Rave Koyila", "Challo Gaalilo" "Paata Paduma Krishna" all of which his father has written.
Rajeshwara Rao, through these songs, set a new trend in light music in Telugu.
Rajeshwara Rao's most rewarding assignments came from Gemini, which he joined in 1940. "I joined Jemini on a salary of Rs. 600 as a music director and by the time "Chandraleka" was made, it rose to Rs. 1500. My association with Gemini continued for a decade and "Apoorva Sagotharagal"(1950) was my last film for them." "Jeevan mukthi", "Balanagamma", "Mangamma Sabatham", and "Chandrelekha" were some of the movies for which he created music while in Gemini. In those days when there were hardly any modern technical equipment he created in "Balanagamma" re-recording effects "on par with any Hollywood film". "And in "Chandreleka" simply because I mixed western music to local taste it was appreciated both within the country and abroad. For music there are no barriers. There is nothing wrong in making use of western tunes, moulding them carefully to our taste and to our form. I have done that for some of my songs in later films like "Iddaru Mithurulu" and "Bharya Bharthalu" during the seventies. Though I have made use of western tunes, no one can say that I have blindly copied them. But today the scene is different. Western tunes are being used as they are in our films. This is very unfortunate" says Rajeshwara Rao.
After leaving Gemini, he got an offer to provide music for B.N.Reddy's "Malleswari" (1950). It was a sensational music hit. Then came "Vipranarayana", "Missiamma" and a host of other musical hits, more than a hundred of them in Tamil and Telugu and a few in Kannada. Some of the films might have failed in the box office, but his music has never let down cinegoers. When Vijaya's "Missiamma" was made into "Miss Mary" - producers AVM in Hindi, Hemantha Kumar provided the music. He changed all the tunes, but retained one - "Brindavanamum Nandakumaranum" which Hemantha liked so much that he took permission to retain it in the Hindi version - an instance of one master's tribute to another.
Among the classical ragas, Rajeswara Rao likes Bhimplas, Sindhu Bairavi, Kafi, Kalyani, Pahad, and Malkauns, which he has used most in his songs. "Generally songs set in these ragas become popular with the audience" feels Rajeshwara Rao.
Some of the memorable films for which he composed music are: "Vikramathithan", "PremapAsam", "Paanai Pidithaval Pagyasali", "Amaradevi", "Iru Sagotharagal", "Aval Yaar" besides "Chadralehka". Tamil-Telugu bilinguals: "Allauddin Adbhutha Deepam", "Mangamma Sabatham", "Apoorva Sagotharaagal", "Missiamma", and "Chakradhari". Telugu: "Chenchu Lakshmi", "Bheesma", "BhaleRamudu", "Iddaru Mithurulu", "Kulagothralu", "Baktha Jeyadeva", "Amarasilpi Jakkannachari", "Baktha Pragalatha", "Rangula Ratnam", "Vipranarayana", "Dr Chakravarthy", and "Chitti Chellue". Hindi: "Chandrelehka" and "Nishan".
Rajeshwara Rao's two assistants for over four decades Rajagopal and Krishnan, both well versed in classical music have proved an asset to him.
Music flows in Rajeshawara Rao's family. His elder brother S. Hanumantha Rao was a music director in his own right in the Kannada & Telugu field. Rajeshwara Rao's eldest son, Ramalingeswara Rao is well known piano and electric organ player in the South. His second son, Poornachandra Rao, is a popular guitarist while his third and fourth sons, Vasu Rao and Koteswara Rao are well-known music directors today. Vasu Rao has preferred to go it alone on the lines of his father's melody, but Koti has formed a team with Somaraju (son of veteran music director T.V.Raju) as Raj-Koti and the duo is the most popular team in Telugu film music today.
On the quality of today's film music, Rajeshwara Rao blames he producers and directors. "It is not the audience, but the producers and directors, who are to be blamed. Today film making and music are like fast food," he says. Among the directors he rates Singgetham Srinivasa Rao , who learnt Carnatic vocal under Rajeshwara Rao, as a man with music knowledge.
Rajeshwara Rao was awarded the honorary doctorate "Kalaprapoorna" in 1979 by the Andhra University. He was appointed "Asthana Vidwan" by Tirumala Tirupathi Devasthanams, during which period he composed music for Annamacharya Keerthanas sung by Ghantasala.
His success formula for film music: "In every film as far as possible there should be a classical song, a folk song, a rock-n-role type of song to appeal to the tastes of different viewers. Variety is important in film music."