Singer V. T. Rajagopalan
For a few years before his illness made him retreat into his shell, V. T. Rajagopalan’s spirited voice used to greet me over the phone with the signature entry, ‘VTR speaking’.
I had been on the trail of the yesteryear composer G. Ramanathan, and VTR, one-time Man Friday was a living channel of information for me. I came to know that he was in Coimbatore, and immediately wrote to him. Our decade old association started with that. I had written saying that I yearned to meet him. He wrote back to say that his desire too was strong. Ramanathan had been dead for about thirty years when I first met VTR…and to somebody who wanted to relive his times, VTR was a heaven-send.
VTR would be vibrant and happy on the phone, and whenever he came to Madras to attend some function, I would manage to meet him and spend time with him. Full of stories and reminiscences about the past, he would also recount incidents that exposed his personal life and could be misconstrued by others as improper conduct. Perhaps he knew that my respect for him transcended such little things that occur in the lives of most of us. He invited me to his son’s marriage in Ranipet, and was even more outgoing then. When he got into fine fettle, he narrated spicy tales of life in the ‘in’famous Krishna pictures at Pondy Bazaar.
As illness began to overtake VTR, he hung up quietly. My efforts to draw him out were fruitless. Not only was his memory failing him, but his hands shook visibly. Even then some phone calls did come…he could still enunciate his greetings. He had a fantastic wife, a petite Iyengar lady. His sons were very supportive …I knew Prabhu, in particular: a gem.
Rajagopalan was from Kumbakonam and was born in 1929. His mother Senkamalam was a musician, one of the early women who had taken to the violin (She was called ‘fiddle’ Senkamalam). Singing seemed to come naturally to Rajagopalan…but some training under Tirunageswaram station master Ramaswamy Bhagavathar steadied his voice and made it perfectly musical.
Rajagopalan grew up hearing the songs of the first decade of the Tamil talkie, and when he was in his early teens the songs of films like Uthamaputhiran (1940), Aryamala (1941), Sivakavi (1943) and Haridas (1944) became a passion. VTR, when he met me in the late nineties, used to reel out these songs with great enthusiasm. His voice was pitch perfect even in his seventies, and the modulations and inflections he brought to musical phrases were incredible. He would in turn be Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, composer Ramanathan, or Nagercoil Mahadeven, the Narada of the forties, or whoever else came on his musical antenna. He took obvious pleasure in singing. In fact, his song was the secret of his verve. For me too song was the only reason for being alive. In fact it was life itself.
VTR would recall his boyhood days near the Sarangapani temple in Kumbakonam. Outside the Diamond cinema nearby, he would often see the temple pipers congregate to hear some particular song for its rich Carnatic flavour. They would know at what time the song would occur, hear it and then disperse. It was a time when even the custodians of the richest traditional music were inspired by film music.
In 1944, VTR’s schooling ended without his securing a pass. He was a young handsome lad with a soaring musical voice. He set off to Madras with ambitions of making it in Tamil cinema. He did get a chance to enlist in the Gemini studios as an actor when he presented himself in response to an ad calling for actors. But when he was offered Rs. 25 a month, with free boarding and lodging and a two-year contract, he demurred. He had thought actors earned in the thousands. When he brushed aside the initial hesitation and tried for the job again, he found Gemini’s doors tightly shut : the studio was a jealous employer.
After a stint in Krishna pictures, T. Nagar, VTR was at a loose end. One day as he walked past a bungalow near Gowdia Math in Royapettah, he heard somebody singing. It was the famous music director G. Ramanathan composing for the film Ekambavanan.
In VTR’s view, it was celestial music seeking him out. That started off a more than 15 year romance of VTR with GR. It would be a relationship that would even make GR’s wife Jaya jealous. GR would wake up with ‘Rajagopala’ on his lips. The composer was always a late riser, and only VTR knew his itinerary for the day!
VTR was GR’s de facto manager, though he never got a single paisa from him for his work. His remuneration would have to be recovered from the producers. That was the tacit understanding. ‘GR never asked me whether I had been paid…and I never spoke about money even once’.
VTR mingled easily with all sorts of people. He was the right public face of GR in the film world, while being a dutiful personal assistant all the while. Actress Padmini and dance master Hiralal would pull his leg on his rushing to GR’s side whenever the latter called out for him.
VTR sang about a score songs in GR’s films…In Modern theatres Digambara Samiyar, it was Kannuvali Poove. In Jamindar, it was Nallavargal Vaazhvile Ennaalum Thunbama. ‘Megathirai Pilandhu’ in Sarangathara. In V. Kattabomman, he figured in three songs. In Rani Lalithangi, he sang with Ratnamala, ‘Bhajanaikku Nerum’.
But generally, VTR figured an one of the singers amid an array of voices. I don’t think he made an impression as an individual singer, despite being talented and being a great composer’s sidekick! In fact, GR was known to have come in the way of his singing many a time. VTR also acted on the stage with the great M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar and has narrated many personal details to me about the latter.
I could gather from VTR that he was actuated by a real and magnificent passion for GR and his music. He was also a man who liked the good things of life and got on well with the front ranking producers and directors. For some time he was also involved in getting them finance for their projects. Filmmakers realised that he was a good man to have around and would do his job with a smile. But once GR died suddenly in 1963 due to cirrhosis of the liver, VTR quit the film world. He took up some business dealing with coke. He shunted between Calcutta and Coimbatore where he finally settled.
From the happy times I spent with him, I like to think of him as a ray of sunshine…or a cool breeze flowing past the greenery. I believe that life never ends…and wish him well wherever he is now. VTR Sir…I hear you speaking.