Critic with a cutting edge

He always spoke his mind. Artistes both feared and loved him, the media idolised him, and readers lapped up every comment of his. Lada Guruden Singh on the legendary dance and music critic Subbudu, who has left behind a legacy of words that had the power to make or mar artistes

A man who was hard to ignore: P.V. Subramaniam, better known as Subbudu
(1917-2007) A man who was hard to ignore: P.V. Subramaniam, better known as Subbudu. — Photo by Courtesy Lada Guruden Singh

Artistes, beware! Subbudu is in town." Circa 1979, Chennai’s December Season. A massive poster, opposite the Music Academy, depicting an artiste as a ghatam and veteran music and dance critic Subbudu as a ghatam player, created a flutter through the city. The poster was a master stroke of V. S. Manian, the founder editor of Idayam Pesukirathu (The Heart Speaks), one of Tamil Nadu’s leading magazines of the time.

For most artistes, critics and rasikas, across the world, that incident sums up the power of the thin, unassuming fellow, who as a performing arts critic, lived a life akin to a political journalist, surviving death threats, physical assaults, lawsuits and tempting bribes with courage and humour, in what became the signature reaction of the man every time a mighty artiste or a patron tried to usurp him.

As he left this mortal world on March 30 at the age of 90, Subbudu left behind a history of arts writing that reveals the tale of a man of integrity who took on stalwarts such as Dr Balamuralikrishna and Semmangudi Srinivas Iyer, with daring audacity whenever their performances fell off the mark. Known for his unsparing expression, Subbudu’s witty writing and caustic comments even ruffled leaders like former President R Venkataraman whenever their favourite artistes were crushed under the power of his pen.

For someone who wielded tremendous influence in Delhi (because of his weekly column in The Statesman since 1950) and Chennai’s arts scene (with a range of magazines and newspapers such as Ananda Vikatan and Indian Express) thanks to his refined knowledge of Carnatic music and classical dance forms such as Bharatanatyam, Subbudu made sure his words and not artistes were remembered in his writings. A fat dancer had to bear a slighting remark on her circumference and a throaty singer was immediately advised retirement from the profession, without any bias.

And Subbudu had to often pay a price for being so opinionated, whether it involved getting his clothes torn by artistes and their fans or witnessing a rush of people shouting slogans "Subbudu, go back" at Thiruvaiyaru, after the man ended up calling Tanjore’s musical superiority a myth. However, it was his ability to see the lighter side of such incidents that helped him stay afloat through every crisis he faced. The most striking being, the above-mentioned incident, where Subbudu commented, "A poster for an impostor!"

For many, Subbudu created a controversy to stay in the news, but for him, he was the news. No one else could dare and tell Semmangudi, who happened to be the Guru of M S Subbulakshmi, "You have an audience of one thousand and I have a readership of one lakh".

Magazines and newspapers made sure they advertised Subbudu’s association with them well in advance. His stay at Woodlands Hotel in Chennai was a historic annual affair, with powerful sabha secretaries, established and upcoming dancers, writers and common people making a beeline to have an audience with the man.

And just as his passion for ruining a poor performance gave no quarter even to his friends, his courage to put his weight behind freshers made stars out of Mandolin Srinivas and Bombay Jayshree. In fact, in 1989, Subbudu dared Srinivas’s competitors to play like him, saying he would shave his head if anyone could better the music genius.

Subbudu’s rise on the Indian arts scene ran parallel to the growth of Indian performing arts in post-independent India. The main reason for this was the democratisation of arts. With masses gaining access to singers through radio and music records and dances such as Bharatanatyam and Odissi becoming available to the upper middle class, Subbudu became a focal point of aspirations of the people in the way he could reach out to artistes and cut them to size for their lack of commitment.

But this heady life, filled with adulation and criticism, was marked by seclusion in the last years. A bout of health problems and lack of connection with the art circuit affected him. Subbudu felt betrayed by those who swore by his name; but, through this time of personal crisis, he was nurtured by his siblings, children and grandchildren, who showered him with unconditional love, knowing fully well that their Subbudu was a man of gestures.

Little things done for him could see him through the hardest times. He may have been a carefree husband and a clueless father, but as a human being he was par excellence. Subbudu had few equals — not because he never sought any favour for mentoring prot`E9g`E9s or for ensuring a gold run for an established artiste, but because he made sure, he reached out to even his opponents, at a personal level with an ability to laugh off the most turbulent times of his life, with his phrase, "Their will be the next day".

At the end of it, Subbudu’s demise was perhaps most poignantly felt by President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who called on his family with a rose from the Mughal Garden to be placed on his favourite writer’s body, just the way, Subbudu had wished.