16 September, marks the 105th birth anniversary of the doyen of Carnatic music, M S Subbulakshmi. Much has been spoken and written about her life. Of the many chroniclers, perhaps the most notable one would be the literary legend R K Narayan.
His short story ‘Selvi’ is inspired by aspects of Subbulakshmi’s life that lay behind the glist and glamour of her stardom. She was a star, no doubt, and the fame her musical prowess brought was accompanied by praise for her fashion.
The traditional Kanjeevaram sarees she donned were a rage among the audience and music lovers alike. A colour shade of middle sea blue became synonymous with the singer after she started wearing it at her concerts. It now bears the title ‘M.S Blue’.
Everyone would try to imitate the M S look- centre-parted hair combed into a bun that was adorned with a string of Jasmine flowers, vermillion, and ash marks on the forehead, plus the signature Blue Jager diamond nose studs.
And no one better understood the importance of appearance than her husband, T Sadasivam. Caricatured as Mohan in the story, Sadasivam is said to have curated almost all aspects of Subbulakshmi’s life. He crafted her path to fame, decided where and when she would sing, what she was to wear, and how she was to look. R K Narayan illustrates the extent to which Mohan monitored Selvi’s appearance in the following extract:
While some often censure Sadashivam’s chauvinistic control, others credit it for her achieving the status of national icon status. T Sadashivam was her manager; he would plan, book and choreograph her concerts. Much like Mohan, he brokered deals that would lead to the real-life Selvi singing for the rich and renowned. From the Prime Minister’s residence to the United Nations, Subbulakshmi’s melodious voice enthralled audiences all around the world.
In sharp contrast to Mohan, Narayan is kind in his description of Selvi. In fact, the tone is almost reverential:
Much like Narayan’s Selvi (for the majority of the story), Subbulakshmi too would always oblige her husband’s demands. Born into a family of courtesans to M S, Sadashivam offered a life of greater purpose and recognition. She could never dream of defying her husband. This is where Narayan’s story differs.
Towards the end of his tale, Selvi abandons Mohan and moves back to her mother’s old, dilapidated house. She refuses to return to Mohan’s plush Lawley Terrace residence, and to her money-minded husband’s greatest horror, she then begins to sing for free, charging nothing of the audience who gather around her house to hear the melody of her voice.
M S Subbulakshmi’s grand-niece Gowri Ramnarayan writes for the DNA, that when she once asked R K Narayan as to why he made Selvi abandon Mohan, despite knowing that Subbulakshmi, a traditional and devoted wife, could have never dreamt of doing so, apparently Narayan replied with a charming wicked smile “I thought, let her be free and happy in my story, if not in her life.”
An appeal from Swarajya
At Swarajya, we rely on our readers' support through subscriptions to sustain our media platform. Unlike larger conglomerates, we are unable to relentlessly chase advertising money — our model is largely built on your patronage.
Your support has never been more crucial. We work tirelessly to deliver 10-15 high-quality articles daily, ensuring you receive insightful content from 7 AM to 10 PM.
If you believe India's story has to be articulated in a way it has never been done before without shrugging it off, become a patron (or) subscribe now for ₹̶2̶4̶0̶0̶ ₹1999 and get 12 print issues, unlimited digital access for 1 year, a special India that is Bharat T-shirt (Offer ends soon).
We are counting on you!