Sunday, April 1, 2007

Subbudu

If at all the proverb "Vashishtar Vaayal Brahma Rishi" (Translated as Sage Vashishta bestowing the title of 'Brahma Rishi' to some junior rishi. Sage Vashishta was a strict sage and very parsimonious in giving appreciation. If he calls someone 'Brahma Rishi', it is a huge honor) had an analogy in today's setting - it was an artist getting some sort of appreciation from Subbudu. P.V.Subramanyam ('affectionately' called 'subbudu'), one of the most popular music critics passed away recently in New Delhi. Subbudu is known for his piercing, vitriolic and sarcastic comments on musicians. He is a man who knows no fear (he would even criticise Saint Thyaragaraja) and a stickler to purity of music. The important distinction between Subbudu and critic-joe was his sense of humor. He used humor with telling effect and this increased the 'punch' of his review. Regardless of the iconic status of the artist under question, Subbudu will tear apart a performance if he feels it doesn't adhere to grammar. The 'subbudu is in the concert hall' scare was so popular that dancers and music artists from Delhi to Madras shivered in front him. Even the normally calm K.J Yesudas, who was criticised by Subbudu for merely showing up in concerts without adequate preparation, refuses to sing in Subbudu's presence out of sheer hatred. According to my father, he even took on the revered, brilliant and 'eccentric' M.Balamurali Krishna (my uncle calls him 'mental' because MBK during a music season performance, apparently, just did alapaana for the entire duration of the performance because someone in the audience made some kind of disturbing noise). It seems that the MBK Vs Subbudu fight led to MBK's refusal to perform in Madras Music Academy for some time.
While a majority of Subbudu's criticisms pertained to carnautic/hindustani classical music and dance performances, he also occasionally critiqued film music. In the world of film music - my memory of subbudu at his insulting best was the pithy review of Rahman's 'ennavale' song in Kadhalan. The song was suspected to be based on 'Kedaram' raagam by some (while some accused it of having traces of sankarabharanam). Subbudu is his own imitable style called the song as "kedarathukku Sedaram" (damage to Raag Kedar). Subbudu was also often called upon by various print media to determine if Ilayaraja was the best Music Director ever. Subbudu, while occasionally appreciating Raja, was also his biggest critic. While, he appreciated 'mottai' for the incredible achievement of 'aroham' (ascending order of notes sa ri ga ) only song in "Kalaivaaniye", he also resorted to saying "Deva'ku ivan paraava-illai" when mottai made bad music. After A.R.Rahman's entry, and during the peak of Ilayaraja Vs ARRahman wars, Kumudham regularly tried to tempt Subbudu to commit on who was the best among the two. Finally sometime in 1995/96, Subbudu got pissed off with both and said Deva was the best music director he had ever seen.

The Subbudu phenomena started when he sent a review of Sathur Subramaniam's rendition of "Ni irunga enil" (in Atana). Subbudu first tore into the singer's lack of respect for lyrics and his failure to bring out the emotional essense of the song. He said something like "He sings as if he is threatening a person sitting on tree-top to come down". Subbudu added "come down or I'll break your leg - is how the tone of the song goes". Kalki, while calling him adhigaprasangi, encouraged his sense of humor. While it all started in humor, Subbudu was actually beaten up in Thiruvaiyaar, and was even sued for his severe criticism. Not that Subbudu didn't ask for it. He was bold enough to criticise works of many eminent singers right from Muthusami Dikshithar to Madurai Mani Iyer. Nobody was sacred to him. Not only did he make fun of MD Ramanathan's gimmicks and funny gestures while singing, but he was also one of the initial people to point out the eroticism in certain "devotional songs" and made fun of people who sang them for religious purposes. I can't imagine how his blunt comments like "suttralavai kuraithal ulagam sutralam" (he asks a dancer to slim down a lot) might've affected an artist. But however, harsh he has been, one cannot fault him for being incorrect (except for the popular instance where he apologized for misinterpreting Dikshithar's Gamanashrama raaga as nishagam). My father ( a big Subbudu hater and my chief source of Subbudu knowledge) disliked subbudu for destroying the career of many young and upcoming artists. His criticisms were so sharp that it destroyed the confidence of young artists. But at the same time he had a keen eye on talent and if he saw talent in young artists he encouraged them no end. I like subbudu. I think India needs a person like him. He gives character and definition for one end of the spectrum. The closest he has come to "apologizing" for his profession was when he said "Kaaram irunthaalam Krodham illai".

In an era where carnatic music was either Sanskrit or Telugu, Subbudu supported Kalki's call for more Tamil based songs. He thought Jugalbandhis were nonsense. He was particularly unimpressed when second-rate musicians from the North were being honored unnecessarily just because they sang Hindustani music. While he bluntly criticised those musicians for their mediocrity in the columns he wrote in Delhi papers, he had this to say about Hindustani Vs Carnatic Music - " I am also listening Hindustani music from my birth. I am also commenting upon them in Delhi papers. I am writing without being afraid of any one. In fact, there is nothing great in Hindustani music apart from the purity of the shruti. It is because of the lack of purity of shruti that South Indian music is not perhaps appreciated in the North. Further in Hindustani music, every artist specializes in specific aspect – khayal, dhrupad, thapa, thumri etc. So far as rhythm (tala) is concerned, they are still at an elementary level.".
One of the reasons why I liked Subbudu was the way he strived to help artists like M.L.Vasanthakumari, lyricists Papanasam Sivan earn recognition in a larger setting. The way he appreciates Sudha Ragunathan here (appreciation such as this is quite rare from Subbudu), is indicative of his respect for MLV. I suspect that there will be no replacement for Subbudu although there will be a lot of wannabes. It is quite sad that such a 'character' would be lost forever in the Indian arts scene.
Disclaimer: I have limited to zero knowledge of carnatic music. All I have is some moderate level of interest in knowing more.

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