HT Brunch Cover Story: Rise of the Rani
We all have that one friend whose very name convinces our parents to let us go to a party or on a trip, whose presence in our lives helps validate our career choices in our parents’ eyes.
Raja Kumari, 35, also has friends like this. The only difference is that in Raja Kumari aka Svetha Yallapragada Rao’s case, the friends are Madhuri Dixit and AR Rahman.
“I used to think that if I ever got to work with AR Rahman, he would understand me and everything would change. That’s what happened in 2015 when I met him,” she gushes. “Once I started working with him, my mother was like, ‘Finally my daughter is doing something’. And mind you, this was after my Grammy nomination. He knows this and cracks, ‘Do I need to call your mom’ jokes!”
Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon
Raja Kumari grew up in Los Angeles – her parents moved to the US in 1970 – but she made annual trips to her paternal grandmother’s house in Hyderabad and anyway had a pretty traditional Indian upbringing.
Like other expat Indian kids, she grew up on Bollywood – it was a way to synthesise her Western environment with her traditional Indian upbringing. And thus she fell for Madhuri Dixit, who she watched in Hum Aapke Hain Koun (1994) every day. “Whoever watches me closely can see me copying Madhuri’s expressions even when I speak. I want to be exactly like her,” she laughs.
Whenever her strict Bharatanatyam dance teacher wasn’t around, her father would ask her to ‘do the Madhuri dance’ “And I would go ‘Kukuk Ku Kukukukukuk’,” she sings the opening bars of Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai.
When her mother tried to get her to watch Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), she refused. Madhuri wasn’t in it. But when she did finally watch it, she discovered her first love, along with millions of other girls: “SRK!” she giggle-gasps.
Madhuri Dixit was instrumental in getting Raja Kumari’s parents let her stay in Mumbai. “My parents are very protective and only let me live on my own and figure out India because I was with her. I always tell her that I credit my personal freedom to her,” she laughs.
Her parents of course did stay with her for a month when she toured India for the first time. Something she’s happy about as it exposed them to the vibrant arts and culture scene she was diving into, which didn’t exist in the 1970s.
“I always tell dad that isn’t it a great testament to India that you left India 40 years ago for the US for opportunities in the ’70s, and now I am coming back for an opportunity? I mean, I have a great life in the US but it’s a more fulfilling one in India,” she says.
Hi Raftaar chacha!
Having lived in Mumbai for three years before Covid-19 hit, Raja Kumari insists her life is here. But she did manage to shift back to LA just before the lockdown stopped all flights. However, Kushwant Kumar, her French bulldog puppy, remained in India, being cared for by rapper Raftaar, who is fondly called ‘Raftaar chacha’.
In LA, she’s been living an hour away from her parents, “just the right distance!” she says, adding that she’s been home a lot during the pandemic, given that her father is home, a rare treat. She’s also finished her new album, her third, besides working on her first Telugu release (her grandmother will be thrilled).
Apart from that, she’s found herself in solitude for the first time in years, which has made her reflect and try therapy for the first time as a means of self-care and finding peace.
“Everybody in India will say, ‘Oh my God, what’s wrong with you?’ But nothing is wrong with me. I now have time to deal with my patterns, triggers and trauma, which every human experiences. If I better myself then I’ll just be a better Raja Kumari,” she explains, adding that she’s also gone vegan (from vegetarian), and is getting back to yoga, conscious eating, mindful action and meditation.
It isn’t only everyone in India. Her parents in LA will also be suspicious. “My family is like every other Indian family – therapy is not even a suggestion. But mental health is what we need to talk about in India. Look at what happened with Sushant Singh Rajput! Let’s take care of each other, remove the stigma. If people think that therapy is only for when you are a mess, we’ll all just be a mess,” she says, referring to her Peace Project series on YouTube and Instagram, where she talks about her pursuit of peace, hoping to inspire people.
Her months of lockdown reflection have led her to realise that she’s turning into her mom. For starters, she started cooking and enjoys watching others eat! “I’m sending people videos of my garden saying, ‘Look the chillies grow,’” she laughs, adding that her dad just teases her with, ‘When are you going to cook for me?’”
But even the iconic Raja Kumari can’t escape her Indian parents’ dream of getting their daughter married off. Joking that her mother is happy that she’s vegan and cooking as it’s improving her biodata, the 35-year-old adds, “Like every Indian mom, mine also wants me to get married. My mom is worse than Sima aunty!”
Would she want Sima maasi’s help?
“Just give Sima aunty my number… I want to see her clientele!”
While Raja Kumari is known for her bold lyrics and addictive groove, her make-up and outfits have made quite a few heads turn in the recent past. But comfort is important, so streetwear is her go-to – she tends to pick sneakers over heels.
“It’s about being who you are and being bold. If you like something, try it out. That’s what I did - I probably saw Britney Spears!” she says.
Her self-declared “obsession” for jewellery stems from being able to carry around a part of her history with herself. “Jewellery is the best way to tell the story of our culture. And you can pass it down,” Raja Kumari says, confessing that she borrows jewellery from everyone, including her grandmother, whose ring she wears for our interview call. “It’s adorning yourself and an act of self-love.”
Another Raja Kumari signature is the bindi, which she introduced to her look as a conscious effort to stay connected with her past – her mother never took the bindi off though she switched from saris to Western clothes. Raja Kumari’s song, City Slums, which introduced the look, had 60.5 million impressions. Girls all over the world were wearing bindis and jhumkas and copying her expressions (yes, you do get a glimpse of Madhuri).
“I didn’t know being myself would cause such a revolution. I feel each girl is inspiring others to be bold, just like I did. That’s the sisterhood we need to build,” she says. “When I came to India, I kept saying I want to see more girls in the scene. People keep trying to convince us that there’s only one seat at the table for a woman and we all have to fight for it, while there are hundreds of men! Not if I have anything to do with it! Things are changing now. There are so many all-women crews getting the job done. This is the era of the fall of patriarchy in India,” says Raja Kumari.
Make way for the queen!
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From HT Brunch, June 6, 2021
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