A highly skilled composer, arranger, conductor, re-recordist and mixer, Rajagopala Kulashekhara Shekhar, popularly known as R K Shekhar, was one of the most prominent and revered artists in the Malayalam film music industry. Father of the contemporary musical legend A R Rahman, it is believed that Rahman followed on the footsteps of his father’s, R K Shekhar’s legacy. An equally talented musician, R K Shekhar was an experimental artist and an innovator, who brought and introduced new sounds in the industry.
R K Shekhar was born on 7 November, 1933 in Mudaliar family in Tiruvallur, British India. His father K Rajagopala, was a school dropout who took up the job of an electrician and was also a part-time Bhagavathar – someone who composes and sings Hindu religious songs. Shekhar inherited the musical talent from his father and he later learnt to play Harmonium with the help of his paternal uncle. After mastering the instrument, he used to teach other kids in the neighborhood as well. Shekhar used to play at Carnatic concerts in the halls of Mylapore in Chennai, then called Madras. His performances at these concerts made him get picked up by the drama troupe R S Manohar. In 1959, V Dakshinamoorthy, a veteran musician and composer, heard Shekhar play and decided to offer work to Shekhar as an assistant. Under the mentorship of Dakshinamoorthy, Shekhar learnt the art and craft of arrangement, composing and reading music. Shekhar’s relationship with his mentor went on to define his musical career in later years.
Before beginning his musical career as a composer, Shekhar assisted many individuals and film composers within Malayalam film industry. He was a dream assistant to all the composers he worked with by all the accounts. He was also sought by some of the biggest names in the South Indian film industry such as Devarajan, Arjunan Master and Raghavan Master. Shekhar’s musical career finally began in 1964 when he composed songs for the film Pazhassi Raja (1964). The song Chotta Mutthal Chudala Vare from the album went on to become a massive hit and helped Shekhar put a mark for himself in the industry. His musical career went on for the next 12 years as he went on to compose music for around 24 films. He would have worked even more as a composer had there been a case where not so many Malayalam music directors were present. He nevertheless assisted and worked with many Malayalam film composers and is reportedly to have worked in around 100 films as an instrumentalist, conductor, arranger and other roles. Shekhar worked as an assistant and conductor to the great Salil Chowdhury who composed music for the film Chemmeen (1965). In the early days when Illayaraja used to play organ and guitar for composers like Salil Chowdhury and Devrajan, it was Shekar who used to arrange and conduct it. While working as a conductor and arranger, Shekhar used to improvise and even replace few tunes with his own creations however, he never took due credit for any of it. Kamini Mathai mentions in her book ‘A R Rahman: The Musical Storm’ that Shekhar also used to sing on occasions and was incredibly resourceful.
Master innovator, experimentalist, ambitious and curious, (adjectives which are usually associated with A R Rahman) it is no surprise to know that Shekhar held these traits while working and composing music. Shekhar was the first one to introduce electronic music instruments which he brought in from Singapore and introduced it to South Indian music. He bought a keyboard as well which A R Rahman recalls watching as his father played with it into making all sorts of sounds.
After his hit music album Pazhassi Raja (1964), he composed songs for the film Anaathashilpangal (1971). He did his final work while he was undergoing treatment. He composed a romantic song Manasu manasinte kaathil for the film Chottanikkara Amma (1976).
Shekhar got married to Kasthuri Shekhar who later adopted the name Kareema Begum. They both had four children namely A R Rahman (formerly Dileep Kumar), A R Reihana, Ishrath Qadri and Fathima Rafiq.
Shekhar used to work hard. He was dedicated to his work to such an extent that he had very little life outside work. He is busyness and dedication to his work took a toll on his health. His health worsened with time and he passed away on September 30, 1976 at the age of 42. Post his death, his family including his wife Kasthuri, adopted Sufism as a way of life and became Kareema Begum. Their son AS Dileep Kumar went on to be known as the maverick music composer Allah Rakha Rahman.