Karnataka’s Reluctant Politician: The Life and Times of Annavaru

Remembering Rajkumar on his 90th birthday: The superstar who represented Kannada pride but refused to join politics.

4 min read

Superstars are not just actors or mortals in most South Indian states. They are not even demigods. They are gods. Their birthdays are festivals. Their films are a celebration and their ‘darshan’ can send fans into a tizzy. And, because of the fierce influence they have on the imagination of the people, they inevitably are intertwined with the state’s socio-political churning.

This is not about a Rajnikanth or a Kamal Hassan in 2018. This has always been the case, whether it was an MG Ramachandran (MGR) in Tamil society in the 1960s or NT Rama Rao (NTR) in Telugu society in the 1980s. This is not about electoral politics, it’s about social realities.

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Is there a political equivalent to an MGR or NTR in Kannada society? Yes, but one who refused to be a politician.

The life and legacy of Dr Rajkumar – ‘Annavaru’ (elder brother) as he was and is fondly referred to – was inevitably intertwined with the social churning of Karnataka. He represented Kannada pride as much as he represented mass stardom of that uniquely fierce kind with a southern signature.

Remembering Rajkumar on his 90th birthday: The superstar who represented Kannada pride but refused to join politics.
Graffiti of Kannada Superstar Dr Rajkumar in Bengaluru.
(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)
Now, as Congress Chief Minister Siddaramiah hoists the ‘state flag’ as a reassertion of Kannada identity in an electoral battle against the Bharatiya Janata Party, the question that has been raised is: can linguistic pride turn into a recipe for electoral success in Karnataka?

That question has had no answer till now, only because Rajkumar never entered electoral politics. The Janata Party wanted to field him against Mrs Indira Gandhi in the by-elections to the Chikkamagaluru parliamentary seat in 1978. They firmly believed he was the icon who could defeat her.

Had he contested and won, he could have re-written political history in Karnataka, but he refused. She won, perhaps because he refused. That is how powerful the Rajkumar image is in Karnataka.

Remembering Rajkumar on his 90th birthday: The superstar who represented Kannada pride but refused to join politics.
Dr Rajkumar seen in the photo with former prime minister Indira Gandhi, at a Sangeetha Music event.
(Photo Courtesy: Sangeetha Music)

Superstardom Does Not Have to Culminate Into Political Legacy

A few years later, in 1982, Rajkumar was asked to lead the ‘Gokak Movement.’ The movement was to seek the implementation of the Gokak Committee report which recommended that Kannada be made the mandatory first language in educational institutions in the state.

He led the movement and a march from Belagavi (then Belgaum) to Bengaluru (now Bangalore), but categorically refused to enter politics after the movement.

This is a rare example of such a popular personality refusing to enter politics despite tremendous pressure. It also meant that linguistic pride did not mix with electoral politics as a recipe for success like it did in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh with the Telugu Desam Party, and the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu.

His life is also a testimony that super stardom does not have to culminate into a political legacy to leave behind a social legacy. He sparked off a dynasty in the film industry and his sons are all actors.

Rajkumar’s fan clubs defended Kannada pride aggressively on the streets of Bengaluru and perhaps was the genesis of the culture of use of muscle power to espouse linguistic identity.

Remembering Rajkumar on his 90th birthday: The superstar who represented Kannada pride but refused to join politics.
File photo of Rajkumar addressing a meeting.
(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

Some observers even argue that his star appeal helped bring together the diverse regions of Karnataka.

The state was carved out in 1956, bringing together different regions like Hyderabad Karnataka, which were areas ruled by the erstwhile Nizam of Hyderabad; Mumbai Karnataka, which has a strong Marathi influence; Old Mysore region ruled by the Mysore royal family, and the hilly regions and coastal belt.

Each region has a distinct identity within the state, and Rajkumar was accepted as a Kannada icon across all regions. He spoke Kannada in the distinct way it is spoken in the Old Mysuru region, where he hailed from, but it had a universal appeal across the state. This was important as his career played out when the state’s identity was evolving.

On his 90th birth anniversary, as he is remembered in election season, imagine what could have happened had he entered the political stage. It’s an irrelevant thought, but could be interesting to imagine.

(The writer is an independent journalist. He can be reached @TMVRaghav . This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same)

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