Friday, July 31, 2015

A Light In The Darkness

Rakesh Rajnikant was born autistic and blind. But that has not prevented him from having a successful career as a singer of devotional songs

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: By Albin Mathew. Rakesh's family: (from left): Mother Kusum, father Rajnikant Ramji and uncle Krishna Kumar 

On the evening of June 3, 2005, a wedding reception was being held for Arati, the daughter of Rajnikant Ramji, a senior bank employee, at the Sumangali Hall at Kollam. “Since it was the first marriage of the second generation, many relatives from Gujarat had come,” says Rajnikant.

There was a suggestion from some family members that Rajnikant's 22-year-old son, Rakesh, should be allowed to sing. Rakesh is autistic and blind, but had been listening to songs from his childhood. “When we gave the mike to him, the first song he began to sing was Kishore Kumar's 'Yeh Sham Mastani' [from the Hindi film, ‘Kati Patang’ (1971)].” About 70 bank friends of Rajnikant who were preparing to leave, stopped and decided to listen to this song. In the end they stayed and listened to the entire set of eight songs.

That was the turning point,” says Rajnikant. “Thereafter, Rakesh began singing devotional songs in temples.” Some of the temples Rakesh has sung in include the Sree Padmanabhaswamy at Thiruvananthapuram, the Krishna temple at Guruvayur, the Mannarasala Sree Nagaraja Temple at Haripad, and the Shirdi Sai Baba temple in Pune. So far, he has done about 800 performances in different languages: Gujarati, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Punjabi, and Hindi. Rakesh is accompanied by the Kollam-based Adi Shankara orchestra.

The unusual thing about Rakesh is that he does not know the meaning of the words,” says his uncle, Krishna Kumar, who is his perennial companion. “But he has a tremendous memory. He can learn a new song within a day.”

This memory comes to the fore at an apartment in Kochi when Krishna Kumar tells Rakesh to sing a Mohammed Rafi song. Immediately, Rakesh launches into a song. After four lines, Krishnakumar mentions the name of KL Saigal and Rakesh immediately moves to a Saigal song. Then it is on to Hindu, Christian and Muslim devotionals, all at the suggestion of Krishna Kumar. Rakesh also sings a Lata Mangeshkar song. “It is as if he has a computer chip in his brain,” says Krishna Kumar.

But for many years, since his birth, the family went through turmoil. Like any anxious parent, Rajnikant had taken his son to various institutions all over India in a bid to cure his son. But there was no hope.

Initially, Rajnikant felt ashamed and did not want to take his son outside the house. He was the manager of a branch of the State Bank of India, very close to his home at Kollam. “I did not want my colleagues to know about my son's disabilities,” says Rajnikant. “But, subsequently, I realised that God has given me the chance to take care of Rakesh. He is a higher soul and that is why he is in a family that can take care of him physically, financially and emotionally.”

To keep him emotionally engaged, Rajnikant's father, Giridhar Lal Ramji, bought a tape recorder so that his lonely grandson could listen to music. “That was how Rakesh developed a liking for songs and began imitating all the singers,” says Rajnikant.

However, Rakesh has no other skill. “For all his primary needs, somebody has to be with him all the time,” says Rajnikant. “To take food, my wife, Kusum, has to feed him. He is unable to express anything. If he has stomach pain he does not know how to express it. He will start shouting and get angry. When he is hungry, he cries like a baby. But now Kusum can anticipate all his needs. And she travels with him everywhere.”

But on days when there are no concerts, Rakesh can get fidgety. “He can also become violent,” says Krishna Kumar. “He throws things and bites his arms.” Indeed, there are visible teeth marks on Rakesh's arms.

But now the family has found a way to calm him. “Since Rakesh is afraid of the sound of crackers, we just shake a match box,” says Rajnikant. “Then he becomes quiet because he thinks that we are going to burst a cracker.”

But these are rare moments. Most of the time, he is in a happy mood. And Rakesh has great moments, too. On January 10, which is Yesudas's birthday, Rakesh, Rajnikant and Krishnakumar went to meet the singer at the Mookambika Temple, at Kollur, Karnataka. When they came face to face, Yesudas hugged the young singer. Then Rakesh sang two of Yesudas' Ayyappa songs. “Yesudas was very happy,” says Rajnikant. “He said, 'Very good, very good.' He called his wife and children to listen to Rakesh songs.”

Another eminent singer of Ayyappa songs, who is a fan, is Veeramani. After Rakesh sang a few of Veeramani's songs, during their meeting at Kollam, a moved Veeramani told Rajnikant, “Take care of his voice. And God will come to meet him.”

Meanwhile, at his home, many relatives and friends come to meet him. One friend is businessman Jaylal Divakaran who comes every evening. Their friendship began two years ago, when Jaylal took Rakesh to Sabarimala for a pilgrimage. “Ever since then, there is a connection between the two,” says Krishna Kumar. “Rakesh will wait for Jaylal. When he comes, Rakesh will sing the Ayyappa songs. In case Jaylal cannot come, he will wait for his mobile call telling that he is not coming. Only then will Rakesh go to sleep.”

And while Rajnikant is thrilled at his son's blooming career, at the back of his mind, he has an unshakeable worry. “I always think about what will happen to Rakesh once I die,” says Rajnikant. “Although, I am sure that my brothers and their families will take utmost care of him.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

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