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Home >Mint-lounge >Features >M.S. Subbulakshmi: The style icon

The earlier part of the 20th century witnessed the growth of recording technology. After the first gramophone recording in Bengal became a huge success, several record labels latched on to artistes from traditional and performing communities. With this, musicians had to be groomed for covers and labels—the musician had to be packaged as a star. Exclusive photoshoots were conducted to present singers and dancers on record label covers. By the time M.S. Subbulakshmi signed on with record labels, a certain format for packaging was in place.

But how did she go on to become an icon of everything visually aesthetic for the genre of music she represented?

One of the earliest images of Subbulakshmi as a child prodigy recording superstar. Photo: Courtesy Selva Kumar
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One of the earliest images of Subbulakshmi as a child prodigy recording superstar. Photo: Courtesy Selva Kumar

From an early age, Subbulakshmi had been trained in grooming by her mother Shanmugavadivu. In the earliest images of hers, she is seen wearing a sari, with the pallu neatly clipped on to her left shoulder. As a gramophone-recording superstar, the camera was an early friend of hers. The first decade of her recording career had several portraits of her following what could be defined as trends in visual marketing: puff-sleeved blouses, hair neatly combed back and adorned with flowers, like any other star singer of her era. Her brief but very successful stint with Tamil cinema expanded her visual presence. During the shooting of Meera, directed by Ellis Dungan, in 1945, the construction of Subbulakshmi’s looks was detailed. Dungan had a plaster of Paris cast of Subbulakshmi’s face and studied it from every angle to catch what made her look her best. Even if you watch the film today, you realize how ethereal she looks in the film.

Subbulakshmi as Meera in the film ‘Meera’ (1945).. Photo: Courtesy Keshavamurthy
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Subbulakshmi as Meera in the film ‘Meera’ (1945).. Photo: Courtesy Keshavamurthy

When she cut short a successful film career to return to Carnatic music full-time, Subbulakshmi was already a national icon. Her closeness to the inner circles of national leaders like Mahatma Gandhi led her to adopt Khadi. For a year after Gandhi’s assassination, she was in mourning and did not dress in her usual style.

Later, there were accusations by several people, both in private and public, that she had been “Brahminized" by her marriage to T. Sadasivam (he was an Iyer Brahmin). It was said that he controlled how she dressed, looked and behaved. The famous writer R.K. Narayan, who caricatured the couple in one of his short stories, Selvi, was caustic.

However, the truth might be very different. As Gowri Ramnarayan, the grandniece of Subbulakshmi, said in her lecture demonstration at the Madras Music Academy in December, there were several other factors too. Subbulakshmi’s father P.S. Subramania Iyer was an advocate in Madurai. He was a devout Brahmin himself. He died when Subbulakshmi was barely 10 years old, but left a lasting impression on her. One of the ways Subbulakshmi could connect to the fond memory of her father was by appropriating the culture and customs he belonged to. If that meant dressing up in a sari draped the Iyer way, so be it.

One cannot deny the importance of Sadasivam in her life. Subbulakshmi never went against his word. He, too, ensured that she was revered by everyone in public. Once, before she performed at the UN in 1966, Sadasivam closely monitored every step to ensure success. Photoshoots with her daughters Radha and Vijaya and accompanying musicians were published in the press.

The traditional Kanjeevaram saris she wore became a rage among audiences and music lovers. Kanchipuram Muththu Chetty, a loyal weaver and fan, would only weave three identical saris. One would be worn by Subbulakshmi, the other two by Radha and Vijaya. Her fans never managed to get one.

Subbulakshmi never owned more than half-a-dozen saris at any point in time. The moment she would get a new sari, an old one would promptly be discarded. The Blue Jager diamond studs on her nose became a signature. A necklace of emeralds, her hair tied in a bun and adorned with fresh jasmine flowers, red vermillion and ash marks on her forehead, completed the “MS look". Everyone who attended her concert would try to get a pair of similar diamonds.

By just being herself and following whatever suited her persona, Subbulakshmi continued to be a trendsetter.

The last time India saw such a phenomenon was during the era of Bal Gandharva (1888-1967) in early Marathi drama. Narayan Shripad Rajhans, popular as Bal Gandharva, achieved unprecedented fame as an impersonator of women in Marathi theatre and had a crazy fan following. He became a style icon: Bal Gandharva soaps, bangles, anklets, saris and even hair oil were merchandized.

Subbulakshmi aged gracefully—she never dyed her hair or used cosmetics to try and hide her age.

In her personal life, the most photographed Carnatic artiste of the century was no diva. Everyone who knew her was moved by her warmth and humility. The glow on her face came not from her sari or jewellery, or her fame, but her inner artistry. She continues to be Carnatic music’s first and most significant style icon.

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‘M.S. Blue’ is back

M.S. Subbulakshmi was known for her Kanjeevaram saris. A particular shade of blue saris (known as the ‘mayil kazhuthu kalar’ saris) became popular as "M.S. Blue". They continue to be in demand even today. Newspapers such as ‘The Hindu’ reported last month that handloom cooperative silk saree societies have reintroduced M.S. Blue saris to the market to coincide with the centenary-year celebrations of the legendary singer.

Muththu Chetty, a weaver in Kanchipuram who made the first sari for her in this shade, was a staunch rasika, or fan, of the singer. He attracted an elite set of customers who would pay him much more than the market rate. Eventually, however, he gave up the family profession of weaving to became a disciple of Naina Pillai, a musician in Kanchipuram.

Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and culture critic based in Delhi.

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