Radio presenter, singer, actor, host, voice over artist, musician, dancer, stand up comic. He has done it all. Anand Rajaram, or Aanantha, is one of the few Malaysian Indian celebrities that need no introduction. His 12 year stint on THR Raaga as one half of the Kalakal Kaalai morning crew has made him a household name, and a recognizable voice. 2019 marks a new start for the radio presenter, having stepped down from the popular morning show.

Aanantha opens up to Varnam about his childhood, what drives him, his decision to move on from the morning show, and what lies ahead.

His childhood was filled with melodious Tamil songs.

His home was filled with more music than television. Aanantha grew up in a large family, he is the youngest of 8 siblings. “I used to sing at home a lot as a child,” he tells us, quickly adding a disclaimer, “But my Tamil wasn’t great,”

“My father loved music. He would buy tapes of live concerts, those of SP Bala and Illayaraaja. I used to wonder what it was, all these people singing so seriously on stage, without moving an inch. I adored the songs, the music. The real knowledge was in each song like the raag incorporated. It was lovely. Among my siblings, I enjoyed it the most, I think,”

He credits his dad for his excellent Tamil

It is no secret that Aanantha has an excellent command of Tamil. “Because of my love of singing, i picked up Tamil. We couldn’t Google lyrics then, you had to sit down to listen and write the lyrics out,” In his formative years however, he tells us that his father gets full credit for guiding him with the language. “I didn’t speak Tamil well as a child, nor am I Tamil educated. My father was excellent in Tamil. He was a voracious reader, he loved reading Tamil books. Dad helped me to read and write Tamil, and he would correct me when I misread the Tamil newspapers,”

He is now comfortable reading in Tamil, just as he is with English or Malay. “Some people prefer romanized lyrics while singing on stage, some singers prefer it in Tamil. I can handle both,” he says nonchalantly.

He began his career singing in clubs

It was his mother and sister who pushed him into auditioning for a Tamil band. “I did well at the audition, and started my career in a club,” Performing in night spots was excellent practice for him, “I got to learn how to entertain people, and more importantly, i learnt how to handle those who weren’t very becoming,”

Aanantha then went to create a band of his own, Synergy, and he brought his brother in, Ram. “People were thinking, this guy can sing, but can he host? I usually take on any opportunity that comes my way, I always say yes. And when I was approached for Astro’s Paadal Thiran Potti, I was game!” he chirps. “The show was very successful, and I was very well received,”

“I don’t like saying no to new opportunities,”

It wasn’t long before the then boss of THR approached Anand and Ram while they were hosting a beauty pageant. “He asked us, why don’t you guys try radio out?” And that’s how it all began. “While on radio, i tried a few things, like musicals. This was eye opening,” Aanantha tells us that he was a part of 4 full fledged Malaysian English musicals, by the big names in the theater industry like Sabera Shaik and Joanne Kam.

“I don’t like saying no, I always push myself to try new things,” While this may denote spontaneity and fun, Aanantha says that it is grueling. “Every try involves a lot of hard work. Especially when you are trying to match the people in this full time. Many times, I was competing with a whole bunch of experienced people. Funnily enough, we never treated it as competition, we all worked together and learnt from each other,”

He considers himself singer first, always

“Singing resonates with my soul. It’s an extension of my soul and I emote very well in song.” One would think that a fantastic singer like him has all the training he needs. But he doesn’t cease to surprise us.

“I began learning classical music when i was 20. And the learning hasn’t ended. I am going for Hindustani vocal lessons now!” he exclaims. “My training made me learn to hold a scale and identify the pitch I’m singing in,” he tells us. “It is not easy, learning something new at this age, but it is a lot of fun!”

Saying goodbye to Kalakal Kaalai was difficult

His recent departure from the morning show was gloomy, but Aanantha takes it in good spirits. “I think it is more difficult for our listeners than for me! So many people started asking me where I am, and inquiring if I am okay,”

“It’s tough explaining to them that I am trying something different,” Aanantha reveals that he initially planned to take a break from radio for a few months before resuming work.  “Everyone needs a change at some point. I wanted to travel for a bit, and just reset myself and get some new ideas,”

A long break after a stint spanning more than a decade is a small ask of a DJ like him. “When you are working, you constantly in that day to day cycle. I just wanted to inject some vigor into things,”

“Radio is such where we are the listener’s buddies. They feel the connection with us.”

Aanantha reveals that after much discussion, he came to an agreement with the station to do shows on weekends. “Of course it is hard for the makkal. Radio is such where we are the listener’s buddies. They feel the connection with us.”

But alas, it is time for a change, according to him. “Our new teams should be given a chance to show their talent. Other radio stations have changed their morning crew many times,” Change is the only constant, he reminds us. Ananthaa has made it clear on his social media platforms that he will not be returning to the morning show as a presenter, and will be focusing on weekend segments and other projects.

He’s a simple guy underneath all that radio personality

“I like to be among everyone,” Aanantha tells us truthfully. “It does surprise me at times, when I’m in a restaurant and people come up to me and ask, what are you doing here, you eat here?” he laughs. “I just like being myself. I’m cool when people want to take pictures. I also usually upload pictures of where i am on social media, nothing to hide, really,”

Aanantha’s social media followers would have noticed that he has taken up a new hobby off late. “I am very into salsa dancing!” his excitement on the art form is infectious. “It is such a great stress reliever!” Of course, this is not exempt from the conservative few who question the physical proximity of the dancers. But Aanantha is unfettered. “I want people to take it up, hence my continuous posting on social media,”

He plans to venture abroad, but not just yet

Aanantha does have plans beyond Malaysian shores. “But before that, I have some unfinished work here first” He has his sights set on India, and surprisingly, Singapore as well, “I am open to do work in Singapore, many of our artists have gone across the Causeway and done very well,”

However, he has no plans of being on screen at the moment. “To be honest, I’m not sure. If the opportunity comes, I will definitely grab it,” Aanantha tells us that he will put the word out when the time comes, and leave it to the universe. “If it happens, it happens lah,”

Aanantha is optimistic about acting, but hopes that more movies and opportunities will arise with time. “There is a lack of avenues for Malaysian Tamil movies to come out. Funding is one problem, the lack of avenue is another,” he tells us. “We need more movies and ideas like Jagat. Real life stories. But will it materialize?”

He believes in the power of radio in today’s world

“Radio to me, is an organic medium. We can take something and give it a spin easily. There is immense scope for doing things on radio. Radio pushes the next best idea. We are poised to achieve greater things in the arena of Tamil radio.

Aanantha thinks that there is definitely room for a third Tamil radio station. “If we went back in time, we only had one radio station. But then Raaga came along, and there were two. Raaga and Minnal evolved into their own styles. There were a few internet radio stations as well.

“Some might say, three radio stations mean even more segregation. But if it gives more choice, more local songs, more space for our artists, why not?” he questions.

He also loves training people

“I know I have it in me to enrich someone, to make them better,” he tells us. At one point of his career, Aanantha mentioned that he would like to train aspiring singers. “I am open to that, but in all honestly, now i want to train aspiring emcees. I am still learning to sing,”

According to him, there is plenty of talent in Malaysia. But they are mostly reluctant artists. “They may even be up to Sid Sriram’s carnatic level, but they won’t be in the forefront. Perhaps it is because they aren’t pushed or guided. I hope that will change,” he says hopefully. Aanantha tells us that while most aspiring singers have alternative careers or day jobs, the trick is to balance both. “Of course, it is important to earn money, that’s what puts food on the table. These are just a few reasons why it is hard to come up as a singer,”

He tells youngsters who aspire to be like him, “It is so easy nowadays! There are so many courses for those who want to be in the media line, broadcasting, mass communication and the likes. Do one of these, find out what you’re good at,” he suggests.

His three pillars of success

“Talent, knowledge and passion. This is what is needed,” According to him, there are many people who are aspiring singers, actors and disc jockeys, but one needs to know the basics before embarking on her chosen path.

“People aren’t going to teach you while you are shooting or recording. You are going there to work, so you cannot expect to be spoon fed. Do some studies relevant to the field of your choice,” he recommends.

Are you ready for Aanantha, the stand up comic?

Whats next for Aanantha? “Stand up comedy is next!” Aanantha has had a feel of stand up comedy with a few comedy improv shows at Joke Factory in Publika last year.

He tells us that improv comedy is terrifying compared to emceeing, although both require him to think on his feet. “Improv is scary, you don’t know what’s coming up and if people will laugh!”

“Improv really makes you break out of your mould. Emceeing is very easy comparatively. If we need to buy time, we buy time, otherwise we go by the book. Improv comedy is not! We need to think really quickly. Luckily there are 4-5 of us on stage. I don’t have stage fright, but it definitely gets me a little nervous,”

“I am seriously looking into stand up comedy.”

“But I am seriously looking into stand up comedy. I mean, there are so many Chennai based comedians coming to Malaysia to perform. I want to see Malaysian comedians go abroad, instead. I want to infuse music in my comedy.”

An important lesson he learnt from his Joke Factory stint is that we Malaysians can joke about so many things across our cultures, “We can laugh at ourselves, and that’s a really nice feeling. That’s how i want to position myself. I’d like to do stand up comedy in Tamil, English and maybe even Malay!” He is upfront about how important cross cultural appeal is. “I want to be accessible to all Malaysians.”

Indeed, the natural next step for this talented chap is to set foot outside the Malaysian Indian arena that he has excelled in. With a charming personality like his and the grit to go with it, we are sure Aanantha will have an incredibly bright future on the Malaysian and worldwide stage.

Follow Aanantha’s daily escapades on Instagram here.