In Shanmugavadivu’s world things were preordained and all lines clearly drawn. What was familiar was what was good. A wealthy husband was the most thoughtful gift a mother could provide for her daughter. In her opinion, although Sadasivam possessed a car, he was certainly not wealthy. He talked big but he was only an employee of someone else.

When her daughter was already a known musician and pretty too, why should she settle for such an ordinary person instead of an owner of mills that employed thousands or a zamindar holding vast tracts of land? She had found a handsome raja for her daughter once, but the girl had proved headstrong then and did not follow her mother’s advice. Perhaps she was too young then to know what was good for her.

Circumstances must be different now, for Subbulakshmi had been exposed to the big world of Madras and had personally experienced the dangers lurking there. She was sure to be more receptive to advice this time.

Shanmugavadivu had laboured hard to promote her and she would know that her mother had only her best interests in mind. Shanmugavadivu’s view of life was uncomplicated and it did not take her long to identify a rich Chettiar (a member of a business community) as a suitable match for her daughter. She asked Subbulakshmi to move in with him without further ado.

What was Subbulakshmi to do under the pressure that was mounted on her?

Not only was her mother the only authority she had known; the rules that governed Shanmugavadivu’s thoughts were the only ones she had followed in her life span of twenty years. The question of seeking outside opinion never arose because there were no teachers or friends to whom she could turn.

Besides, Shanmugavadivu had not proposed anything out of the ordinary; Nattukottai Chettiars, who were known to be enterprising and lavish, were the men most in demand in Shanmugavadivu’s world. Subbulakshmi knew that her mother was doing what was expected of her, and she was doing it well. All reason was for her mother’s proposal, but all her instincts were against it. Eventually, instinct got the better of reason.

Different versions of how Subbulakshmi responded to her mother’s initiative have done the rounds. The version provided by CP Seshadri, the famous “Master” of the Indian Express family in Madras, can be considered a reliable one. During that period, Seshadri was tuned in to the happenings in Tamil social and political circles in Madras, personally knew all the dramatis personae involved and was not given to gossip. He was eighty-one when he narrated his story to the author.

According to him, Subbulakshmi told her mother that she did not like the idea of moving in with the Chettiar.

Before her mother could take any further action, Subbulakshmi removed her ornaments, slipped out of the house quietly one night, and hopped onto a train to Madras. She knew two trustworthy persons in the city: a Congress nationalist involved with khaddar promotion and Sadasivam.

She boarded a jutka (a horse carriage) from the railway station to the khaddar official’s house situated in T Nagar. He was a prominent citizen and had helped her in the past by arranging some concerts for her. He was surprised to see her getting down from the jutka in front of his gate and was even more surprised when she told him that she did not wish to go back to her mother. He was truly astonished when she sought his protection. Naturally, he was embarrassed at the thought of having to explain to his wife the sudden appearance of a young girl at their house looking for protection.

Thinking quickly, he got into the same jutka and took Subbulakshmi to Sadasivam’s house in Triplicane. Sadasivam, imbued with a missionary zeal for helping anyone in need, took charge of Subbulakshmi at once. Actually, the “fugitive” from Madurai started living in Sadasivam’s house. Such a state of affairs would soon lead to unforeseen complications, scandal and tragedy, for Sadasivam’s house was only temporarily empty when Subbulakshmi moved in there.

He was a married man with two daughters and his wife was recuperating in her father’s house in a place called Udayarpalayam after her second delivery.

Such details did not deter Sadasivam from providing shelter to someone who had come to his house seeking it. That the person happened to be the singing star who had been the object of a great deal of attention from him only a few months earlier strengthened his resolve to help.

For Sadasivam help meant all-out help. He soon began maintaining a lookout for every opportunity to find work for MS and to promote her as an artiste. The idea of an unusual opening struck him when an enquiry about a serialised novel reached his desk at Ananda Vikatan. The novel was titled Sevasadanam and the man who wanted to buy its film rights was director K Subrahmanyam. Sadasivam happily conducted the negotiations and won the day when he talked the director into parting with a princely fee of Rs 4,000 for film rights.

Then Sadasivam turned his focus to selling a related idea to Subramanyam: why not offer the heroine’s role to MS Subbulakshmi? Subramanyam had, of course, been impressed by the young singer at the 1932 Kumbakonam Mahamaham, but he said he was not all that convinced about her screen potential. The more Sadasivam pressed MS’s case, the more Subramanyam played hard to get. A final round of negotiations followed and this time Subramanyam talked Sadasivam into parting with an undisclosed sum of money for the production of Sevasadanam. In Subramanyam’s opinion, if he lost big money on the film rights deal, he made good money on the MS deal.

The smitten Sadasivam did not think that Subramanyam had smartly turned the tables on him. In fact, he saw the entire transaction as a double victory: it took him closer to MS and it took MS further away from her family in Madurai.

When Shanmugavadivu discovered that her daughter had left home, she realised at once where she could have gone. She sent her son Shaktivel to Madras immediately and he traced her to Sadasivam’s house. Bitter quarrels followed, with the brother repeatedly trying to convince the sister that the Vikatan man would only exploit her and that she should cut him out of her life as quickly as she could. Such altercations only added to Sadasivam’s animosity towards Shanmugavadivu and her son.

For her part, Shanmugavadivu was filled with loathing for Sadasivam and fear for her daughter.

She detested the world of cinema, especially after she played a bit role as a washerwoman in Sangeetha Lava Kusha (1934). She learned enough during that fleeting acquaintance to know that the cinema world was inhabited by “big bad men”. Worse, she was convinced that cinema could destroy her daughter’s musical prowess, reduce her to a common screen singer and ruin her serious classical prospects forever.

Angry and desperate, she began exploring all possible means of retrieving MS from the vicious clutches of Sadasivam and from the ominous tentacles of cinema. She wanted her daughter back in the safe arms of Madurai. The tug of war between Shanmugavadivu and Sadasivam would continue for a while.

What the entire episode revealed more than anything else was that when it came to deciding the course and quality of her life, MS seemed to know what she wanted—at least, what she did not want. Her departure from Madurai and her arrival at Triplicane were both indicative of an inner strength few would have suspected in her. She was not even sure at that point of time about how Sadasivam would behave. Was he just bluster or was there something more substantial in him?

The intensity of his wooing had flattered her and disturbed her simultaneously.

It was clear to her that he was a demanding man, even a difficult man, and sometimes she worried about the steps she had taken. According to one assessment, “at times Subbulakshmi seemed even to want to back out of the relationship in the face of Sadasivam’s possessiveness”. On the other hand, what was the alternative available to her? While admiring the perseverance with which her mother had helped build her career step by step, MS had intuitively turned away from Shanmugavadivu’s idea of ensuring security by courtesy of wealthy benefactors. Anything, she thought, would be preferable to that.

Sadasivam’s presence in her life at that moment of emotional crisis would no doubt have led to a forging of bonds between them. He was at his best while sorting out other people’s crises. He understood the dilemma in which MS was caught. The musical career that had just begun to sprout was her only asset and it was her mother who had brought it to that promising stage. He knew that MS was too inexperienced in the ways of the world to get ahead on her own. The obvious course open to both of them was for Sadasivam to substitute for Shanmugavadivu. He took up the role with relish, while MS drew comfort from having such a worldly-wise man to turn to.

Excerpted with permission from MS Subbulakshmi: The Definitive Biography, TJS George, Aleph Book Company.