M. Ranga Rao’s wide musical canvas

M. Ranga Rao composed some of the best Kannada film songs

The contribution of Telugu land to South Indian film music is enormous. S. Janaki, P. Susheela, Vani Jairam, P.B. Sreenivos, S.P. Balasubrahmanyam, Ghantasala — the list of singers from this region who became household names is long. Similarly, composers such as G.K. Venkatesh, S.V. Venkataraman, Satyam, M. Ranga Rao and others made significant contribution to southern film music.

The story of M. Ranga Rao, who composed music for nearly 100 Kannada films is interesting and moving too. Armed with a mechanical engineering diploma, he got a job in HAL, Bengaluru. Along with his wife, he moved from Kakinada to Bengaluru. Circumstances were so tough he could not even afford a bus pass. Ranga Rao cycled to work every day. N.S. Shridhar Murthy, a chronicler of film music, in his essay on the composer, writes of how this took a huge toll on his health. He quit his job, but very soon S.V. Venkataraman, the musician who composed for M.S. Subbulakshmi’s Meera, asked him to play the veena for the Telugu film Tyagayya. Without thinking twice, Ranga Rao took up the assignment. Little did he know that his music would immortalise him.

As composer

He made a grand debut as composer in the film Nakkarade Swarga (1967). Songs like ‘Balondu bhavageethe’ and ‘Kanasido nanasido’ had a modern, youthful appeal, and used instruments like accordion and piano along with flute and tabla. The background score was stylish, with techniques like scale changing used to subtle effect. The next year, he worked on Hannele Chiguridaga and established himself as a composer who was melody personified. This film’s songs continue to charm music lovers: ‘Baara olidu baara’ is a beautiful lullaby sung by P. Susheela; and ‘Hoovu cheluvella’ remains very popular; its tabla portions impeccably counter the melodic movement. They won him the State award for best music director.

Ranga Rao had an extraordinary range, and could compose songs of different kinds. His ‘Baale prema geethe’ from Jwalamukhi, sung by the iconic actor Rajkumar, has overtones of ghazal. The orchestra is grand and innovative. The opening passage with violins and rhythms, followed only by the guitar both as melodic and rhythm instrument, is magical. ‘Akasha kelageke bantu’ from Samayada Gombe is yet another unusual song — the combination of melody and spoken word creates a unique texture.

From Nakkarade Swarga

Ranga Rao composed some of his best songs for Rajkumar, for instance, ‘Neenade baalige jyoti’. He did his own music arrangements too, and the use of several instruments in the background score of this song created an unforgettable impact. ‘Haayada ee sanje’ and ‘Ravi neenu agasadinda (the gushing opening violin passage and the stylish rhythm sections) are masterpieces. Ranga Rao reveals a completely different side of himself in ‘Kavirathna Kalidasa’. From a rustic ‘Belli moodito’ and a traditional kanda padya style ‘Manikya veena’ to the euphonious ‘Priyatama’ — his versatility sparkles. You can see that Jagjit Singh was his favourite. His songs ‘Kannera dhaare’ (‘Koi paas aaya’) and ‘Anuraga geeteyalli’ (‘Milkar juda huye’) are some examples.

He used all the top voices of his time, but also gave prominence to Bangalore Lata, a musician from Bengaluru. In a way, one can say that the bhavageethe form borrowed several elements from Ranga Rao’s music. For instance, one sees the sound of songs like ‘Nanage entha anandavo’ in the album Maavu Bevu, which came much later. Also, songs like ‘Teredide mane’ has its moorings in the bhavageethe tradition.

Songs from his devotional albums have become cult numbers, with perhaps nothing to this day that betters it or is on par. He composed albums like Bhakti Ganamruta, Mookambika Geethegalu, Guruvaara Bandaaga and set to tune songs that extolled the philosophy of Ramana Maharshi.

Ranga Rao, died at the early age of 57, was, N.S. Shridhar Murthy writes, a very hardworking composer, often sleeping in the studios and eating frugally.

How could a veena player and HAL inspector produce such great work? How did he grasp the music trends of the times and also harvest ideas for the future? These are questions that cannot be easily answered. Ranga Rao, like many others, was far from the happening Bombay or Madras, but in his music one finds shades of all the top composers of his time. He drew ideas from everywhere and made them his own.

The Bengaluru-based journalist

writes on art and culture.

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