Raja Kumari, born as Svetha Yallapragada Rao, is a combination of contradictions. An Indian classical dancer who grew up in California to Telugu parents, Kumari, 37, first shot to fame as a rapper and style icon, before playing her part in Bollywood chartbusters like Allah Duhai Hai (Race 3), Husn Pancham (Zero) and, most recently, the title track of Jawan.
In a freewheeling chat with The Telegraph Online before she kicks off her Bridge World Tour, starting in Hyderabad and going all the way to Los Angeles with a stopover in Kolkata on October 20, Kumari spoke about her Jawan song, why she took the name she did, her connection to her roots and her fashion.
The audience has lapped up and loved your song in Jawan. How do you feel about that?
Raja Kumari: For this song, people have been showing a lot of love and respect for my songwriting, which is important to me, since I want to be recognised as a songwriter as well. In this industry, women usually don’t have much control over their songs. They don’t even know if the song will be in the film until it comes out. For this, I wrote a theme song for SRK fans. I wanted to talk about how much we love him, how Shah Rukh Khan is a feeling and his films just feel so badass. I like how I’m getting messages and calls every day from people who can resonate with this song. I feel I’m opening doors towards more people understanding who I am.
Can you tell us some more about the experience of working on the Jawan title track?
Raja Kumari: As a Shah Rukh Khan fan, I grew up watching his films and have a poster of him in my room. I was inspired to move back to India after watching Swades. Shah Rukh Khan has always been someone I wanted to meet and work with. The experience of working on Jawan has been that and so much more, where I met some of the most awesome, coolest girls from Bollywood. Everyone has been welcoming to me. Working for this movie has been exciting because you know if Shah Rukh Khan is going to be in a film, it’s a pan-India phenomenon. Normally, writing a song about a character limits you. But, in this case, I had to write about Shah Rukh Khan himself.
What are some differences you see in the Bollywood music industry from 10 years ago and now?
Raja Kumari: Bollywood music has been an important part of inspiring the diaspora. It has been our way to connect with India even though we live far away. Bollywood music is exciting and trending and we all want to find some way to make it our own. I do miss some classical styles and soundtracks like Mughal-E-Azam or A.R. Rahman’s beautiful period pieces. All that’s changed. However, I love when there’s a trend of remaking older songs since the younger audiences get introduced to the song. Though I wish they’d go back and listen to the original, too.
Coming to your unique style, what made you combine hip hop with Indian classical?
Raja Kumari: My upbringing is what led to my interest in the fusion of music. I grew up in a traditional home in Los Angeles, where I trained in Indian classical dance. I used to practise five to six hours every day with my guru. After these sessions, I’d go out and explore life in the US and watch a lot of MTV. Combining these worlds is something I had to do to find my identity.
Are there any other music genres you want to explore?
Raja Kumari: I feel like my voice has a raw, tribal vibe and I love songs in Bollywood that have a deep, husky voice. I want to learn to sing something like that. As a musician, you constantly have to be learning and evolving and I want to do that.
When did you realise that music was your calling?
Raja Kumari: I’ve always been a performer. I was on stage when I was seven years old, dancing classical arangetram all over India and the US. I felt like I could express all that I wanted and it wasn’t anyone else but me making sense of two worlds and two identities to which I belonged. Music was a way to decipher it. I realised music was my calling right after I graduated, perhaps even before that. I ended up writing a song called ‘South Asian’ when I was in college, which is about god. I felt like it pretty much wrote itself. That’s when I realised I’m meant to do this. These songs don’t just deliver themselves.
How important is it for you to hold onto your roots in the music industry?
Raja Kumari: People find it surprising that I grew up in the US but have a strong desire to hold onto my roots in Indian classical music. It was my purpose to bring classical Carnatic music to the mainstream. I want to inspire the young generations to continue learning it, because I have a fear that we will lose all the arts if we don’t encourage the youth to pick it up. All the gurus are going to be a thing of the past and it’s crucial we pass their information to future generations.
You have often called yourself a rebel. How important is it for an artist to rebel to bring out their true self?
Raja Kumari: My music is my rebellion. I’m a rebel against genres, norms and what people think women should be. I think you should just be yourself. Authenticity is the key. Fighting for your own authenticity makes sense. Having said that, there also comes a point when you don’t have to fight for it and you can just be yourself. Gradually, people will understand that about you. After all the pushing and the rebelling, it’s important to know when to take a stand while also accepting that not everything has to be a fight.
Your dressing style is bold and confident, and the content you put up on Instagram showcases the idea of self-love in subtle ways. What does self-love mean to you?
Raja Kumari: In this day and age, people are focused on how they can showcase their best side to the world. I definitely have to participate in that since I’m a social media person and I have to post on social media. At the same time, knowing what is reality and what is presentation as part of a brand is important. As a girl, I used to wear really bright prints and busy patterns. I was trying to overcompensate for how I was feeling inside. However, now that I have done lots of healing and have been to therapy and invested adequate time in myself, I’m dressing more chic and simple. I’m not hiding behind neon makeup or huge patterns and costumes. I’m in classic silhouettes and loving where I have come today and who I have become.
Lastly, why did you choose the name Raja Kumari?
Raja Kumari: When I started making music, I needed an alter ego, since I was hardly an accomplished classical dancer. My concern was that uncles and aunties would show up expecting a classical performance and would see me rapping instead. I needed another character who I could grow into. I wasn’t that character yet. Raja Kumari, a Sanskrit name, was already ingrained in people’s minds. Plus, I liked the idea of everyone calling me king!