For M S Subbulakshmi, superlatives are redundant. But the legendary Carnatic vocalist didn't just offer the world her sublime music, she also acted in five films by the time she was just 31.
It was the movie Meera, whose original Tamil version released in 1945, that was most significant for ‘MS’. Thanks to a constellation of fortuitous events, her husband T Sadasivam was able to leverage it as a mammoth image-building exercise that made Subbulakshmi a phenomenon in India and abroad. And it was epic.
It was just two years before India achieved Independence and the campaign involved a series of benefit concerts to raise funds for nationalist causes. Sadasivam used his political connections that went all the way up to leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and C Rajagopalachari.
In an extract from M S Subbulakshmi: The Definitive Biography, award-winning biographer T J S George reveals how Meera helped project MS as a patriot and a benefactor of noble and charitable causes. She was “selfless”, she was a “modern angel of mercy”.
UNDOUBTEDLY, THE MOVIE MEERA CHANGED SUBBULAKSHMI AND transformed her career. The circumstances under which Sadasivam chose Meerabai as a subject for his wife already pointed to his inclination to turn MS into a different kind of artiste. When the Tamil original was almost ready for release, something happened to confirm his resolve. At a meeting between Mahatma Gandhi and Rajaji in early 1944, the subject of raising funds for the Kasturba Memorial Trust came up. Without a second thought Rajaji suggested organizing benefit concerts by Subbulakshmi. Both leaders were aware of MS’s pulling power and the idea found ready acceptance. Rajaji had had no prior consultation with MS or Sadasivam, but his relationship with them was so close that he took the liberty of committing MS to five concerts for the Kasturba Fund. When Sadasivam was told about it, he and MS regarded it as a duty to organize the benefit shows.
They set about the task without any loss of time. Employing all his organizational skills and calling upon all his contacts, Sadasivam arranged five concerts in quick succession: in Madras in July 1944; in Trichi in August; and in Madurai, Coimbatore and Thanjavur in September. These concerts created something of a sensation across Tamil Nadu. Nothing of the kind had ever happened before.
– The novelty of the idea coupled with the mass appeal of the star of Meera appearing in person on the concert stage for a cause associated with Mahatma Gandhi was irresistible to audiences.
The rush at the concert venues was unprecedented and the amounts collected went beyond everyone’s expectations. More importantly, it established a happy nexus between MS and the mainstream of nationalistic life. For someone as apolitical as MS, the string of Kasturba concerts marked an identification with patriotic work, which she had missed till then. These concerts also gave her a new profile in the public mind. She was now the unequalled benefactor of charitable causes.
The idea of organizing concerts for the Kasturba Fund had arisen fortuitously. But the phenomenal nature of its success made both Rajaji and Sadasivam see MS in a new light. By that time, Sadasivam had turned against movies like Shakuntalai, in which his wife would have to play romantic roles. Now Rajaji proposed that she should get out of films altogether. Meera had given her a new image and that was the right image with which to retire from films, he suggested. This advice was just what Sadasivam wanted to hear. Moving out of cinema and into a new world of benefit concerts and noble causes was a route no Indian artiste had taken before. If such a shift could be accomplished in a way that suggested complete selflessness, it would go a long way in building up MS as a modern angel of mercy. Sadasivam was doubly enthusiastic now to use the Hindi Meera as a door through which MS could walk towards attaining all-India and perhaps all world recognition.
The door would open widely enough, but not according to Sadasivam’s timetable. Politically, 1945 was the worst year he could have picked for so important a breakthrough. Germany had surrendered to the Allies in May. The United Nations was formed in June. A Labour Party landslide helped Clement Attlee replace Winston Churchill as prime minister of Britain in July. Atomic bombs vaporized two Japanese cities in August. A British government promise of independence ‘at the earliest possible date’ galvanized India in September. Indonesian nationalists declared war on the Dutch in October. And in November Sadasivam released Meera in Hindi.
Eager crowds might have stormed into the theatres, but that period was out of joint for the larger aims Sadasivam had in mind. He had to bide his time. Fortunately, there were major business matters that demanded his attention. Kalki was at the top of that list. Even as editor Krishnamurthi’s novels and commentaries kept the magazine in the public eye, Sadasivam ensured that every issue recorded every triumph of Meera and every concert of MS. The film had brought in some money and Sadasivam promptly put it to high-profile use. He acquired a property in 1947 in the heart of Madras, which would soon become part of the city’s folklore. It was situated on Dr Guruswamy Mudaliar Road, a leafy spot off the Poonamallee High Road in Chetpet. The original English owner had turned the area into a scenic retreat and named it Sladen Gardens after himself. It had later been bought by a prominent family from Kerala. It acquired some fame when Mahatma Gandhi stayed there as a guest of Justice Badruddin Tyabji, a prominent nationalist who had become president of the Congress at its Madras session in 1887. Sadasivam bought the property from the Kerala family and expanded it by acquiring the adjoining Navroji Gardens as well. The compound, now more than two acres in size, was renamed Kalki Gardens. For the next thirty years, Kalki Gardens would attain prominence as the nerve centre of cultural and political activities. It would become a famous Madras landmark and the ‘command headquarters’ from where Sadasivam set out on his various conquering expeditions.
The propitious moment he was waiting for came soon enough. Within months of the establishment of Kalki Gardens, independence dawned on India and everything changed. Those who were considered agitators till then now became wielders of ultimate power in Madras and Delhi. Among those at the very top was C. Rajagopalachari. Within a year he would be named the governor-general of India, the highest ceremonial office in the new nation. For Sadasivam Rajaji’s eminent presence in Delhi was exhilarating. He and MS revered him as lord and master. In their personal, business and family matters, Rajaji had the last say. With such a patron at the centre of power in Delhi, Sadasivam could aim really high. What followed was a public relations extravaganza such as the country had rarely seen. It took in North India first and then the United States of America and Europe. It lasted thirty-five unflagging years and it single-mindedly projected MS as an institution dedicated to but one objective—the welfare of the world. It was pure Sadasivam.
The centrepiece of his campaign in its first phase was a premiere show of Meera in Delhi’s plush Plaza Cinema in November 1947, two years after its release. The celebrations of independence had barely died down and the horrors of Partition had numbed Delhi. Yet Sadasivam’s political connections as well as his drive ensured that a stream of VIPs attended the show. The newly designated governor-general, Louis Mountbatten, and his wife Edwina, were the chief guests, while the newly appointed prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, took ‘an enormous interest in this preview’, as Sadasivam later recalled. Actually, Nehru stood by the doorway welcoming guests as though he were the producer of the film. A variety of pictures appeared prominently in the newspapers the next day and for several days thereafter. Some pictures showed Nehru looking admiringly at MS. Others depicted Sarojini Naidu surveying MS with wide-eyed wonder. There were pictures of Louis and Edwina Mountbatten flanking MS, of Dr Rajendra Prasad felicitating MS, and of Dr S. Radhakrishnan complimenting MS.
Excerpted with permission from M S Subbulakshmi: The Definitive Biography by T J S George, published by Aleph Book Company in 2016.