This week was M.S. Subbulakshmi’s 104th birth anniversary. Remembering her career in films and the role that she refused
In 1969, veteran singer, stage and film personality K.B. Sundarambal (KBS) received the Tamil Nadu State Film Award for best singer for her role in the movie Thunaivan. Shortly thereafter came the announcement of the government conferring on her the Padma Shri. In this context, the Tamil magazine Bommai published an interview with her in January 1970, in which KBS speaks of her life as a theatre artiste, her relationship with S.G. Kittappa, and her film career.
The interviewer highlights the fact that KBS picked her roles in movies very carefully and that this led to long gaps in her acting career. There was in particular a hiatus of 13 years between the release of Manimekalai (1940) and Gemini’s Avvaiyyar (1953). The questioner asks KBS if there were truly no offers in between. There was one she says, from a Subbiah Chettiar. He was keen on making Valli Tirumanam, with KBS to be cast as Murugan. It was, however, the choice for Valli that made me sit up – M.S. Subbulakshmi! KBS then goes on to state that she and the producer could not agree on the remuneration and so the production was shelved.
Reading the interview led to several thoughts. What is interesting is that no biographer of M.S. ever mentions this. We do know of the four productions that spanned her film career – Seva Sadanam (1938), Sakuntalai (1940), Savitri (1941) and Meera (1945). A Hindi version of the last named released in 1947. There are stories of an offer that M.S. refused, which was for a film titled Vipranarayana, to be made by K. Subrahmanyam, who had first given her prominence at the Mahamakham festival in Kumbakonam in 1932/33 and also directed Seva Sadanam. Chronologically it would appear that Valli Tirumanam, if it had been made, would have been after KBS’ Manimekalai and definitely before M.S.’ Meera, after which she refused all film offers.
Valli Tirumanam is the story of the courting of Valli by Lord Murugan and their subsequent wedding. It was one of the most popular subjects of Tamil theatre. It was also first made into a film in 1933. In his detailed biography of KBS, Pa. Chozhanadan (Kodumudi Kokilam K.B. Sundarambal Varalaru, Rishabham Pathippagam, Chennai, 2002) recounts how the play made KBS a star and led to an invitation to perform at Colombo for a period of one-and-a-half years. She was just 16. But such was her impact that no actor hired to play the lead opposite her could please the audience. Most were chased out by hecklers. This was when the organisers decided to bring in Kittappa from India. He was already a sensation and the prospect of seeing the two together on stage created waves in Colombo.
Given that this was an era when actors were expected to make their stage entrance singing one of their popular hits, irrespective of whether it had anything to do with the play, Kittappa made his entry as Murugan in Colombo singing Tyagaraja’s ‘Mokshamu Galada’. KBS held her own and the play was a great success. When at the end of his contract Kittappa returned to India, his brother suggested to Sundarambal’s manager that the success of the two as a pair be encouraged. And so they continued to act together in India.
K.B. Sundarambal in the Tamil film Avvaiyar
KBS as Nandanar
Playing the role of a male was not something unusual for KBS. She speaks of how, if engaged to perform in the same town over a long stretch, she and Kittappa would exchange roles. If she played Valli and he Murugan in the first staging, she would be Murugan and he Valli in the next. And so, the same audiences would return to see how different the play was. There would be arguments over who was better in each role. In 1935, a few years after Kittappa’s death, KBS made her film debut playing a male role – as Nandanar.
How would M.S. have fared as Valli? Of course, her music would have seen her through. In all likelihood, given her early years in Madurai, which was the heartland of Tamil theatre, she would have been familiar with the play as well. In fact, the singer’s theatre connections merit some research. The diaries of the songwriter Madhurakavi Bhaskaradas (Madhurakavi Bhaskaradasin Natkurippugal, 1917-1951, compiled by Cha Murgabhoopathi, Bharathi Puthagalayam, Chennai 2009) reveal a lot of interaction between him, MS, and her mother Madurai Shanmukhavadivu. He was the mainstay for songs in Tamil theatre and associated with some films as well. He writes that he composed songs for M.S. at her mother’s request when she was in Madurai and after she moved to Madras as well.
Today, we can only speculate on what a treat a film starring KBS and MS would have been.
The writer is a historian and music critic.