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The spinning top sisters – Sai-Subbulakshmi

May 1, 2012

This blog is inspired by some of the clips on the legendary dancers Sai-Subbulakshmi that I chanced upon.  My curiosity about early dance and play back music in Tamil film was piqued by two things; one the sheer exuberance and spontaneity of performances that were so un-formulaic and that seemed to have such an easy interface with all that came to be identified as mainstream Carnatic music and style and two, the emerging scholarship on Tamil music that focuses on the modes of representation that Tamil music and performing communities were subject to in film and literature. For years as I ploughed through the deliberations of the Madras Music Academy and the anxieties its members expressed about the diluting effects of light music on the Carnatic style, I was aware of the tensions between ‘high art music’ and ‘popular and light classical film music’ and of the ways in which this creative tension was sought to be explained by scholars. The complex history of categories such as classical and popular were tied up with self -conscious cultural projects headed by middle class publicists who sought to carve out a singular tradition of high art music that was characterised by a distinct repertoire, concert style and etiquette and more significantly by a new social base and constituency that was for the most part high caste and brahmanical. What this meant was a sundering and splicing of a landscape that had always been mixed, poly-lingual and multi-layered involving discrete groups who were integrated into a larger political and moral economy of ritual, patronage and devotion. The sundering of the musical landscape involved two kinds of ruptures: one the marginalisation of hereditary melam musicians especially devadasis (barring the exception of some very select families) in the new public domain of performance and two, the shoring up of regional cultural identities in the form of Tamil music versus Carnatic music.

How musicians, especially women musicians responded to these ruptures is an interesting story. It is here that films give us some glimpses into a world that does not otherwise leave any trace. Watching and listening to women performers either as playback or as dancers help us make calculated assumptions about repertoire and taste and about mobility, skill and performance.  These were women who had enormous talent, who were mobile and open to new skills and who responded with gumption to the new opportunities that playback singing and films brought before them. They were also able in the process to carve out an entirely distinct niche for their dance numbers that became the standard for others to emulate and that resonated with the rich and cosmopolitan landscape of early modern performance.

The pambara sahodarigal – Sai-Subbulakshmi – are an excellent case in point. Daughters of Periya Ranga Nayaki, these sisters mesmerized their viewers with captivating items that ranged from interpretations of padams (see Blog Dances on the footpath) to stately dances of the courtesans, to the antics of the archetypal Tamil Kurati . Dancing in perfect synchronisation, the sisters seem to merge effortlessly with the song and the situation and it is easy to see why they were such a draw and came to perform not just in Tamil flims but in a series of Hindi films as well. Following their clips on the blog, I also came across the comments of their family members and it was poignant and instructive to read of their ability to interact with artistes and dance masters from Bombay and develop an idiom that was integrated, composite and modern and yet resonating with the multiple forms that were in circulation. Their mother Periya Nayaki who was a sought after playback artiste (singing first for actress Rukmini) evidently came from a performing family with acting and musical talents. Her daughters seem to have taken to dance, trained under Shri Muthuswamy Pillai (This information is based on what their descendants have written about in response to the blog) and learnt Kathak from well-established dance masters. Natural talent and training and the foothold the family enjoyed in the film industry all came together to push the sisters into the limelight and whose performance was appreciated widely. They relied on a close knit network of friends and associates who had close links with various aspects of the film industry – sound engineers, dance masters, technicians and the lead actors.  I do not wish to dwell on their amazing talent (let viewers decide for themselves) but the effortlessness with which they interpret the compositions and the fluidity of their moves demonstrate the sheer depth of the artistic inheritance they enjoyed. Listen to them perform Kathavai sattadi, (Ratta Kanneer) or to their antics as a gypsy in ‘O aye O amma’, to their item in Aplam Chaplam to taste the delight of spontaneous performance.

It is a well-known fact that the emergence of film in southern India became a key factor in the survival and adaptation of those families and social groups who were associated with dance, music and performance including theatre and who did not immediately find a slot in the public domain of art music.  It is also apparent (just a cursory look at the clips I suggest below) that these women brought to their participation an individuated understanding of the form and idiom and experimented with its potential even as the films in themselves were often critiques of the older moral economy of performers and the so called snares of the dasi! In fact they came to play a key role in disseminating the taste in the classical – even cultural engineers were not unmindful of their importance. The AIR Madras for instance roped in vidwans and singers like Perinayaki to sing in musicals they relayed and that they saw as invaluable in popularising Carnatic music.

Whether this was a successful project or not is besides the point of this blog. My intention is to make a case for early films to serve as an archive of documenting taste and repertoire and of retrieving the agency of the performer in negotiating categories such as classical, traditional, modern, popular and folk. Without discounting the constraints imposed on performers by the needs of the audience, the discipline of the choreographer, I am nonetheless suggesting that the early performers were able to use the emerging medium of the film to demonstrate the parallel life of older genres and styles and to present their own  imagination of the present.

I am selecting some clips (not arranged chronologically) for my readers to enjoy the sisters dancing in gay abandon!’Ayye-O’Amma



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