Monday, December 19, 2005

Two Lives (and this is not about Vikram Seth)


Ram Guha has discussed the problems of writing a Biography in this part of the world in his excellent essay “Why South Asians Don't Write Good Biographies and Why They Should”(Last Liberal and Other Essays, Permanent Black). Guha says that but for a few good autobiographies there have not been many good writings in this genre. He thinks that we idolize personalities and fail to see them objectively. Having written the biography of Verrier Elwin, Ram should know. Indeed, the recent controversy about Ambedkar letters do indicate that objective research about some personalities is going to be difficult to achieve.

Take the example of the incidents revolving around James Lane's book "Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India” where he had acknowledged Shrikant Bahulkar. This was enough for the Sambhaji brigade to ransack the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute and cause irreparable damage to the manuscripts stored there. In fact Guha talking about biographies says : “Students and professors alike would choose to write on 'The Dissolution of the Princely Order' rather than on 'Vallabhbhai Patel and the Dissolution of the Princely Order'. Therefore writing biographies or publishing them is possibly fraught with danger in this part of the world. Autobiographies are less risky, but they also tend to be nice to all – trying not to hurt anybody and still try and maintain a semblance of objectivity. Moreover, Guha says that it is difficult to get the truth out of many because of doublespeak and hypocrisy. Therefore it is indeed difficult to look at biographies and autobiographies very objectively. I remember having read a great essay by KV Tirumalesh – a linguist from CIEFL, Hyderabad titled "Autobiography's Truth: The Story of Gandhi's Experiments” which talked about Gandhi's work from a linguistic point of view.

I have been talking about all this in the context of two books that I read recently. The first one authored by TJS George – a biography of M S Subbulakshmi titled "MS: A Life in Music”. (Harper Collins, Bought at Crossword, Ahmedabad). The other was the autobiography of Mallikarjuna Mansur written originally in Kannada in 1984 but translated into English and published in 2005 as "Rasa Yatra: My Journey in Music” (Roli Books, bought at Premier Book Shop, Bangalore). Both the books show the limitations of the genre of biographies (auto or otherwise) but both read very well and engage the reader in its own way.

I will first start with the biography of MS. Since this is not an autobiography, there is little dependence on somebody's memory. If one were to write about another person, obviously that would be based on research peruse documents, and talk to people. This is not simple in the Indian context. TJS George, the author echoes Guha's views: “About five years after collecting material for this study began in 1990, I abandoned the project. There were problems that made research virtually impossible – the absence of any kind of records about MS Subbulakshmi's life and the fortress erected around her by her husband, Tyagaraja Sadasivam. The first was a familiar problem: not preserving papers, not maintaining records, no having a sense of history were unfortunately a part of Indianness. The second was non-negotiable: Sadasivam controlled all access and all information so tightly that nothing was ever known that Sadasivam did not want known.”

It was good that George actually picked up the research later and worked on the book which gives a good view of the life of MS Subbulakshmi. The book provides a peek into her personality and into several details that are not generally known. While for the uninitiated the life of MS appears very traditional it is full of intricate details that show that her life was indeed adventurous and interesting. M S Subbulakshmi's name expands to Madurai Shanmugavadivu Subbulakshmi. It is important to notice that she had taken her mother's name alongwith the name of her birthplace. Just a look at the incidents in the early part of her life shows that MS had done all that a modern liberated woman could have done - about sixty-seventy years ago!!

As MS was born in a class of temple singers, it was natural for her to take a matrilenial route. She possibly did not even find the need to either worry about a male name nor change it on getting married. While the book talks about MS's mother Shanmugavadivu's name being linked with one Pushpavanam Iyer as well as Subramania Iyer. George says: “MS herself had gone on record saying that Subramania Iyer was her father. There the matter should rest.. there was no need to go, as some enthusiasts did, to the extent of renaming MS as Madurai Subramania Iyer Subbulakshmi.” MS however, continued to bear her mother's name in the initials.

It is clear from the book that MS always had a mind of her own. For instance when Shanmugavadivu decided that in keeping with the tradition MS had to be married off to the Rajah of Ramanathapuram the response was: “MS did not throw any tantrums or burst into tears. In her own inoffensive way, she made it clear to her mother that she did not want marriage just then. She explained that she wished to develop more as a musician before she thought of marriage.”
Though the proposal for a marriage was averted then and her music continued, including stellar performances in the Mahamaham of Kumbakonam and in Madras Music Academy, Shanmugavadivu still had her plans about getting MS married. George says: “Shanmugavadivu's view of life was uncomplicated and it did not take her long to identify a rich Chettiar as a suitable match for her daughter. She asked Subbulakshmi to move in with him withou further ado...What was Subbulakshmi to do under the pressure that was mounted on her? Not only was mother the only authority she had known... the question of seeking outside opinion never arose because there were no teachers or friends to whom she could run..” MS just moves from Madurai to Madras and seeks shelter with Sadasivam. Somebody who showed such courage and gumption, eventually settled down to be a shadow of Sadasivam and as Girish Karnad says “shed all traces of her devadasi past and transform herself into the perfect image of a Tamil Brahmin housewife” was indeed remarkable.

From here on, George looks at the life of MS in two phases – the first being those years where she was under the care of Sadasivam, made films (a profession that her mother detested) and remained unmarried. The next being the marriage with Sadasivam, a farewell to the acting career and a total dedication towards music. In the first phase MS appears like a revolutionary, while in the next phase she appears like a sheepish housewife leading a life that never crossed the lines drawn by her husband. This transition is brilliantly captured by George.


Sadasivam, who is fourteen years older than MS marries her soon after the demise of his first wife. This seems to bring in a great deal of stability into her life. It is possible that Sadasivam provided her the right platform to peruse her first love – music, by opening up the right sort of opportunities and providing an appropriate platform. We see the transition of MS into a devout, and obedient wife. It perhaps was not possible for anybody other than Sadasivam to carve out such an outstanding professional life for her.

In all her concerts MS was always accompanied by Radha, the daughter of Sadasivam from his first wife. MS herself did not have any children, but the combination of MS and Radha looked so natural that it was difficult to believe that Radha was not her biological daughter.

Towards the end of the book, George touches upon one little known aspect of MS's life – this is the possible feelings she had towards GN Balasubramaniam a great singer and a dashing hero in some of the films they worked together. The chapter talks about some letters written by MS to GNB expressing her feelings. Possibly GNB never responded to these letters or encourage her. Once married, we can see stability and tranquility in MS's life.


It is really amazing to read the biography of someone who was up against all odds – that she was from the Devadasi community, and could actually make her presence felt in the fortress of traditionalism – the Mylapore sabhas - where it was difficult even for a non-brahmin, non-male to make a mark. But MS took everything in her stride and it appeared that her exalted position in the music circle came naturally to her. It appeared from her demeanor that, she never rebelled, never moved away from home and she always belonged there. George has to be complimented for continuing with his research and finally brought out this remarkable book. Just imagine if we were more meticulous in documentation this book could have been so much richer.

Mallikarjun Mansur's "Rasa Yatra" is an autobiography which is based purely on memory. As it is an autobiography, the author usually does not find the need to do any research – most of the incidents come naturally to the author. This means that the author of an autobiography possibly does not show the discipline that one would have shown had it been a write up about somebody else. It is also likely that somebody who writes a biography would have been a writer either by profession or by orientation and therefore would know the syntax and the craft of writing much better. It might not be appropriate to expect that autobiographies should come only from writers. Nevertheless, it is usually the case that I feel let down when I read an autobiography. Unfortunately unlike the western world, where they engage professional writers as collaborators even to write autobiographies we do not seem to have adopted it very widely here, particularly in the context of Kannada.



Rasa Yatra has been translated into English by Mallikarjun Mansur's son Rajashekhar. Usually I would have preferred to read it in Kannada, but somehow I could never lay my hands on it. But it was in a way very good that I read it in English. The advantage in the English version was that Rajashekhar has given several footnotes that help in understanding the text better. He has also tried to put some of the incidents in perspective. The commonality in the life stories of MS and Mansur is that both of them had immersed themselves in the practice of the art of music and lived a musical life. But for this, their lives look so different. Mansur did not have a partner in his progress unlike MS who always had Sadasivam by her side. Yes, Mansur does occasionally remember his wife in parts of the book when he looks back at the contribution of his family to his musical life. But the role does not come out as very significant.

George gives and evocative story of the life of MS – it just flows like a river. He has put her life in the broader canvas of Carnatic Music. The events in Mansur's life come like a montage – they are a series of images. Each of the images provided by Mansur either start with music or end with a song. That is the focus. The other details are only incidental. For instance, when Mansur writes about his childhood, he totally forgets to mention that he got married somewhere inbetween! Rajashekhar remembers the event when he is doing the translation and gives the detail as to how Mansur – who was ten years old at that time had gone off to play and they had to search for the groom at the nth moment!!

As Mansur describes his family, he also indicates that the relationship with Rajashekhar was turbulent. In fact he even mentions that Rajashekhar had walked away from home, and spends a few pages on how Rajashekhar's wedding to a girl outside their caste was not acceptable to him leading to a wedge created between father and son for a long time. He does not elaborate on any of these, and neither does Rajashekhar give a footnote on the incident. It indeed would have been interesting if Mansur had spent some pages in opening this up just to understand the state of mind that the artiste was in at that stage of life.

There are three (unrelated) aspects in this book that drew my attention:

  • Any Indian achiever worth his salt usually keeps a significant portion of the narrative on the international honours and the “foreign” tours undertaken. But for mentioning in the passing that he had been invited to Sindh Shikarpur (which in now in Pakistan) for a conference in 1935-36, there is no mention of any foreign trips in the book. I was curious to know if he never went abroad (which is quite okay and would never diminish his stature as a great singer) or he thought it was not important enough to report in an autobiography.
  • This example just indicates how deeply he was into music. This comes from the additional chapter written by Rajashekhar covering the period between the publication of the original Kannada book and the death of Mansur. In this section, Mansur suffers from a kidney ailment and is to be dialyzed. At that time he asks his son to sing a bandish in Raag Bhairav. Rajashekhar has a mini concert in the Dialysis ward with the permission of Dr.Talwalkar the Nephrologist. This is a very interesting and small detail which would never have been captured by an autobiography. This could have been done only by a biographer.
  • The smallest chapter in the book is about the awards and honours received by Mansur. At the end of the chapter Rajashekhar provides the following footnote: “My father never sought out awards or accolades. He tended to make light of these to such an extent that he would sometimes give away the mementos, citations etc., to whoever happened to be around him. My father had no idea of the historic significance of these and hence has not helped us maintain a comprehensive record of his life's achievements.”

Well Ram Guha is right in this aspect where he says: “south asians are careless about keeping letters, records and historical memorabilia in general” Therefore many of the significant events remain in the oral tradition and never get documented.

Cross posted in Kannada in ಕನ್ನಡವೇ ನಿತ್ಯ

4 comments:

Vishy said...

Do you have the book on MS? She happens to be my fav singer. Only Maharajapuram Santhanam comes close.

Sadasivam is hailed as a marketing genius when it came to MS, but there is no denying a certain etherial talent in her devotional music.

the combination of MS and Radha looked so natural

sight maybe... but I found Radha's voice jarring when she sang alongside MS.

gcmouli said...

Brilliant commentary on the MS book. Makes me want to buy it and read it.
And like vishy, MS is my favourite singer, and Maharajapuram's crooning voice comes a close second.

Loco mente said...

I really want to read the book on MS... Your post has accelerated the desire to such an extent that I am ordering the book right now :)

Mohammed said...


Beautiful - I was just about to write some ugly cursor code when I found this.




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