One day in 1937, two young long-haired women in saris stepped into a small photo studio in Madras. They changed into striped pyjama suits and struck a pose in front of the studio camera. One of them leaned languidly against a chair, while the other’s eyes focused on something outside the frame. Both of them held cigarettes.

The world-renowned Carnatic vocalist MS Subbulakshmi and the legendary Bharatanatyam dancer Balasaraswati were just having a bit of fun.

“The two teenaged friends both became world-famous artists,” wrote Douglas Knight J in the biography Balasaraswati: Her Art & Life. “From strictly disciplined households, the two asserted their independence by secretly arranging this photograph of themselves dressed outrageously in Western-style sleepwear and pretending to smoke cigarettes.”

This iconic photograph was first made public only 73 years later, in the 2010 biography of Balasaraswati penned by her son-in-law Douglas Knight J. By this time, the successful careers of these artists were so highly revered over decades, almost deified, that this picture quite suddenly threw light on a whole new aspect of their lives – just two young friends attempting to do something unconventional.

“Neither of them wore western clothes, they didn’t smoke – nothing like that,” said Aniruddha Knight, Balasaraswati’s grandson and a professional Bharatnatyam dancer. “It was just to do something different. All they could do throughout their lives was concentrate on their learning and career. This is just a step away from all of that.”

Public image

Nobody knows who the photographer was or where exactly it was taken. But the publishing of this picture received mixed feedback for humanising these celebrities.

The stir caused by the release of the photograph among fans of both luminaries is perhaps understandable, particularly in the case of Subbulakshmi. While both women were known to be torchbearers in the traditional South Indian art forms, Subbalakshmi’s persona, according to several accounts, underwent a drastic transformation after her marriage to T Sadashivam, a writer with a nationalist worldview.

According to TJS George’s biography M.S. Subbulakshmi: The Definitive Biography, Subbalakshmi’s career and public image was steered and moulded by Sadashivam from that of a talented young devadasi – a community that has traditionally taken to performing arts – to an the ideal, devout Brahmin wife.

“We can see clearly how MS’s style changed just from her attire,” wrote the acclaimed Carnatic musician TM Krishna in the magazine The Caravan. “Gone were the puffed sleeves and casual saris. Even more dramatically, gone was the MS of that early, fun photograph in which she is pictured with a young Balasaraswati, in Western-style sleeping suit, sporting an unlit cigarette in her mouth. We can now only visualise her in conservative smarta-brahminkattu, the style in which she draped her sari.”

In 1945, Subbulakshmi shot to national fame with her portrayal of the saint Mirabai in the movie Meera. According to TM Krishna, the fact that this was the last film she acted in shaped her persona, “etching the image of Meera forever on the frame of MS”.

Image credit: MS Subbalakshmi as Meera courtesy West Virginia State Archives, USA

Focus on the art

Film historian Theodore Bhaskaran said that when he once approached Subbulakshmi’s residence to interview her for his book on the history of Tamil cinema, her husband Sadashivam told him that she was not interested in talking about her film days. Bhaskaran said that much of the writing on MS Subbulakshmi’s life has downplayed her cinema days, as if it was not respectable.

While Balasaraswati followed the matrilineal traditions of the devadasis by staying with her extended family in her original home, and taking a partner who also supported her art, this was not the case with Subbulakshmi. Nevertheless, both of them went on to be lifelong friends. Each features in the other’s biographies, albeit in brief references: Balasaraswati performs at an event organised by Subbulakshmi, Subbulakshmi is supportive of Balasaraswati when her partner RK Shanmukham passes away.

Knight said that the photograph of the two friends in the studio was published so that people would understand that these artists were also regular people with different facets to their personalities. Although hundreds of fans appreciated this move, he also received a lot of criticism saying that it was disrespectful to their memory.

But Knight is of the opinion that rasikas, or aesthetes, should only concentrate on the art of these performers, while respecting their personal life.

“It is a very important picture that goes to show that not everyone was born with a nine-yard saree or does everything with tradition,” Knight said. “That is our own perspective, and we don’t like things that fall out of it. We all need a jolt sometimes.”