- Ashish Mohan Khokar, Bangalore
December 19, 2011
There are critics and critics, some glorify their travels, some their connections. One man stood just by the power of his pen. His name was PV Subramaniam.
He would slide quietly into any available seat of a hall and inconspicuously observe. He did not wear flashy clothes to attract attention or hug and kiss, later only to knife in the back! This man, our man, his opinion counted and his observation set the tone for the season. The man - PV Subramaniam - strode like a giant in the field of dance and Carnatic music criticism. “An Andhra family doctor friend never called us three brothers by proper names. As it happens in Telugu, he added ‘du’ to each of our names. Hence, Subbudu, Krishnadu and Ramadu. My brothers shrugged it off. To me, it stuck like glue.”
Born on March 27, 1917 in Rangoon, Subbudu was very adept as a child at ‘contorting faces.’ This won him the role of Hanuman in a school production and in addition a gold medal; he gained recognition as Hanuman Subbudu. His father Venkataramana was the Superintendent of Prisons in Burma, when it was still a part of this country. He founded the Burma Educational Trust, the school where Subbudu studied. At the age of 12, he wrote Prahlada Natakam in Tamil. Unknowingly for the boy, a path to wielding the pen had been set. Ananda Vikatan, amongst the most popular weeklies of Madras, soon became his outlet, for which he initially reported on such issues as Burma Riots of 1937. The year 1942 saw the Japanese invasion of the region, which led several to flee to safety. “We sent our womenfolk and elders on a steamer to Madras. I, with brothers trekked 380 miles through the jungles of Burma, Manipur, Assam to reach Ranchi. That trek was God’s punishment to me. I suffered illness and there were leeches on my legs which sucked blood. We survived, to finally reach Shimla, which provided accommodation to Burmese government in exile. In Shimla, I started the South India Theatre and enacted some roles. In 1946, I came to Delhi.” Since then till 1975, he worked at the Finance Ministry which provided him bread and butter.
R Krishnamurthi, the ipso facto editor of Ananda Vikatan had a difference of opinion with Vasan, its proprietor, and he launched Kalki, with twenty five thousand rupees borrowed from MS Subbulakshmi, the doyenne of Carnatic music. Subbudu’s family was deeply into music and arts and his grandfather, the Shankaracharya of Puri. Shifting from Burma back to Madras brought his father, who had then retired, to Kalakshetra, as its manager. Doraiswamy, the uncle, became in-charge of administration and helped Rukmini Devi Arundale buy the patches of land in Tiruvanmiyur, which came in handy when Kalakshetra was thrown out of Adyar Theosophical Society. His daughter Padmasini worked for Kalakshetra and was amongst the three attacked with knives and iron rods in mid nineties. Another uncle’s son, Prabhakar, taught art at the Arundale School. So how come Subbudu never became a part of Kalakshetra? “Temperamentally ill-suited. Rukmini Devi was temperamental, which is my middle-name! I knew it would not work. Also, frankly, I have a mind of my own, am self-made and secure of my talent. For such a combination to serve the institution was not easy, so I chose to stay on in Delhi.”
“In Delhi, I did a weekly column for Kalki, called Delhi Tapaal or Delhi Post.” He retains no copy of his work of that period for “it was no Ramayana I wrote, and I’m no Valmiki!” He soon won admiration of knowledgeable musicians like Ravi Shankar, who at a concert asked him to identify a raga. None sitting near him could do so with clarity; Subbudu was pat on the dot. Narayana Menon who sat next to Ravi Shankar was then the Deputy Director General of the All India Radio and was the music critic of The Statesman. He was soon to be transferred to Madras and impressed with Subbudu’s strength of knowledge, got him appointed as his successor. Since then Subbudu was synonymous with The Statesman and the paper with him. Such was the bond that the paper refused to let him quit, even when he was nearing the ripe age of 80! “I pleaded with them that I am a doorstep away from being senile but they say that they prefer that to stupidity!” Please write until you can, was the editorial support to the man, who had from this platform seen it all, done it all and fought with all. When Charles Fabri died, Subuddu was made its Dance Critic too, a post he served long. As a Dance Critic, he had many battles. He wrote funny too, as his knowledge of dance was not as much as music so he would write, “Kathakali make-up is useful for traffic police too, as red face will help stop traffic and green face will make it go...”
At heart he was a humourist. When a legal battle with a Delhi diva was in the offing and his paper agreed to support him to the tune of lakhs in legal fees, he was advised a compromise. To which, in his customary snide remarks, he retorted, “I do not want to be caught in a compromising position with a dancer.” Fearless but feared. So much so that in one season in Madras, the Mecca of Arts, a huge hoarding went up opposite the Music Academy. It read, “Subbudu is in town. Beware!” He corrected giants like Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. He chided Balamurali Krishna for singing his own kritis instead of the vast repertoire of Thyagaraja.
“I developed witticism purely as a foil to extreme negative criticism. Most dancers want publicity not criticism. I refuse to get into the common game of dining and wining these beauties, who can change colours quickly. They are no one’s friends. Recent trends in dance criticism mean only a network of social get-togethers. As a vegetarian, I don’t want to end up a vegetable dealing with the personal rivalries amongst dancers. In fact, the devadasis were better than today’s dancers. They had dignity and were selective. Patrons have changed, money dominates all. I like to keep my distance so that no one can become too familiar. That way I can keep a leash, not the other way round, as has happened with some critics. They make copious notes sitting in a performance. That is so because they neither can absorb nor retain what happens. To be a good critic, one should be impersonal, above board and review only the dance of the day, not what happened before or after.”
He has been hounded and honoured. “Arriving at a station in Karnataka, I was met by a long banner which read, ‘Subbudu, go back.’ I felt it was similar to the reception accorded to the Simon Commission.” At another event, the organisers respectfully called him backstage. Thinking they would honour him, he was slapped and beaten and his shirt torn. “Later they apologised and bought me a new shirt!” He has been given the Kalaimamani title of Tamil Nadu, in addition to The Emperor Amongst Critics title. In Delhi, the India Cultural Society honoured him as did the Sahitya Kala Parishad with its Samman.
He has played harmonium as the accompanist to some dancers. “That was to get within their fold to understand how they operate and what mechanism is at work.” He has also wielded the ghatam. “No training, much less talent but all of it for fun!” Not really, for he worked on an electronic organ to compose along with Balamurali Krishna, a series of tapes for Sangeetha Cassette Company. He detested hankering for trips abroad for “after that 380 miles of trek of a nightmare, no travel interests me. I am not ambitious like some fellow critics running after foreign travel. I have only been to Hong Kong!”
For a man whose pen was feared, he actually did not wield one! He never wrote or typed his pieces but dictated them around midnight and kept it ready by the morning. However, he advised aspirants to the field to “understand music. Know little nuances of the language, Tamil, Telugu, Oriya or Sanskrit and look for errors, not only in dance but catch the accompanists too, for it could be the mridangist who mars the show and not the dancer. Mood of the music for dance is very important. Musicians need not dominate, overawe or underplay as much as dancers. It is a team work.”
Today’s dance and dancers only dazzle, he averred. “The spark is missing, say as in Kamala. I remember Guru Muthukumara Pillai. He was tall for dance but what correctness. His exclusive exponent, MK Saroja, maintains it till today. Ramaiah Pillai, his protégé, won hearts for innovation but I put Dandayudhapani Pillai on a higher pedestal for his direct training under Pandanallur.” Bit like Dandayudhapani Pillai, Subbudu stammered too while speaking. How had the dance scene changed in Delhi in his fifty years of observance? “Well, on the bright side, youngsters get more opportunity. They are intelligent. Earlier, only a handful dominated and cornered the Ashoka Hotel, Rashtrapati Bhawan and ICCR type shows. Not anymore. Numbers have brought in competitiveness and the media has multiplied. Look at the TV, even if they make horrible dance programmes and show it at an unearthly hour, dancers flock to it for auditions. Juniors get A grade and talented ones are rejected. But so was Amitabh Bachchan when he went for a voice audition to All India Radio in his early days!”
Did he take credit or pride in discovering dancers who had made a mark? “Swarnamukhi, with her karnas remains the first and last no matter what contortions others do. Kanaka held promise. Srinidhi too. Mandolin Srinivasan was first promoted by my efforts. I really don’t want to sound pompous for I have little ego and much less ambition. I love music, although I may not be particularly loved by musicians or dancers! But finally we are answerable only to our conscience. In the end, we must sleep well.”
He slept eternally from 29 March 2007. Subbudu will be remembered as an original music critic and dance writer, for long. He was not about PR and pleasing people. Subbudu was fearlessly bold, not some worm, snivelling up to the rich and powerful. That’s why years after his death, he is still remembered and being written about. He helped make dance history.
Ashish Mohan Khokar learnt Kathak, Bharatanatyam, western ballet and Orissi before taking to arts administration. He served the govt., in many cultural capacities, including the Delhi State Academy for Arts (1984-85); chief coordinator Festivals of India in Sweden (1986-87); Festival of India in France, Germany and China (1985-90). He was Director of INTACH, under PM Rajiv Gandhi’s Chairmanship. He served the Times of India as Dance Critic in Delhi from 1990-2000 and Bangalore 2000-3. Since then, he edits and publishes India’s only yearbook on dance – attendance - and is Curator of the Mohan Khokar Dance Collection. He has served dance for over 25 years as a reputed critic-historian. He has written over 35 books on Indian arts and culture; is on many boards and committees serving dance (DD, INTACH, IIC, BSM, ICCR, UNESCO-DC). He is currently also the chief consultant to India’s first dance museum shaping up in Kerala. He Chairs the Dance History Society of India and holds special dance DISCourses.
Thank you for the enlightening article on Subbudu. It is amazing to read about his audacity to stand up against people at odds with his reviews. Dance history is incomplete without the history of critics such as Subbudu.
- Ragothaman (Dec 19, 2011)
Those days were great, when you waited for the Friday newspaper hoping to get a review from Subbudu sir or Shantaji. It is an inspiring article and I hope it becomes the making of another 'honest' critic. The dance world really needs to hear honest opinions and unbiased truths.
- Aadya Kaktikar (Dec 23, 2011)
Very nice. Ethics lessons for critics.
- PriyaLasya (Jan 12, 2012)
Thanks Ashish-ji, for such a nice article about Subuddu.
- Manisha (May 17, 2013)
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