Sunday, April 08, 2007


(Talk delivered at the 85th Birthday Celebrations of Subbudu on 07.04.2002, Chennai)
N. Vittal, Central Vigilance Commissioner
There are some people who bring excitement and electricity wherever they go.
Such people add spice to our life. Otherwise our life will be dull. Subbudu is eminently
one of those rare persons who add spice to our lives. It is indeed remarkable that at the
age of 85 he has retained his full mental vigour and sense of humour. We pray that God
must bless him with a long life and he must complete a century! Shatam jiva Sharadah!
We can also say: “Jiyo tum hazar baras. Har baras ke din ho pachas hazar!”
2 Subbudu is a very unique type of critic especially in music and particularly South
Indian Carnatic music. I think what has enabled Subbudu to survive is his sense of
humour. I recall a few months ago on 13th October 2001, I was asked to honour Subbudu
by presenting him a bracelet by the Karnataka Sangeetha Sabha at Delhi. As I applied
the bracelet to his wrist, Subbudu said: “Oh God! The Central Vigilance Commissioner is
arresting me!” Such spontaneous sense of humour is perhaps the most remarkable
feature for Subbudu.
3 It was Edward Debono who pointed out how humour makes the truth stand on his
head. It is humour that makes us accept realities which we normally won’t accept. “A
spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down” as Mary Poppins would say. The role of
court jesters like Tenaliraman in Krishnadeva Raya’s court or Birbal in Akbar’s court
was to point out to the all powerful kings that things could be wrong and present the truth
in such a way that does not result in disaster, firstly to themselves and then to the king
and the country.
4 It is the heavy dose of humour which underlines the speeches and writings of
Subbudu which has made him a remarkable music critic. Subbudu is unique in the field
of arts, especially Carnatic classical music and dance. He has carried on the tradition of
Kalki, the many splendoured genius of Tamil who was a trail blazer in many areas, be it
historical novels, musical criticism, appreciation of art or political analysis. In fact the
very emergence of Subbudu as a critic of music in the Tamil cultural scene goes to back
to his piece on the artist Sattur Subramaniam. Subbudu wrote, “When Sattur sings Tamil
songs, he should give importance to the lyrics. There should also be emotion. In
Papanasam Sivan’s Athana Kirthana Ni iranga enil when Sattur sang it appeared as if
somebody was threatening a person who had got on to a tree to the effect that if you do
not get down, I will break your leg.” Subbudu added a tail piece to his comment saying
that he was completing his loud mouth exercise in verbal excess with that comment.
Kalki not only published Subbudu’s criticism but also added a word of praise that the
“loud mouth” was very good. Adhikaprasangam bale joraiyya! This excited Subbudu
and he launched on to his career and a very effective career as a critic. As he himself
says, his writings had very interesting results. “Controversies were started. He received
lawyer notices. He was beaten up in Tiruvvaiyyaru. There were announcements that
dogs and Subbudu were not allowed etc. From all this he realised that the criticism was
really effective”.
5 The proof of the pudding is in the eating. The proof of a critic’s competence is
the impact he is able to create. If we measure Subbudu’s contribution on this scale, we
will find that he had had a tremendous impact, perhaps next only to Kalki. While Kalki
as a genius covered not only music criticism but other aspects of literature and politics,
Subbudu has specialized in the area of music and dance criticism. I am saying this with
an advance apology to him because I do not know what are his other achievements. But
about one fact I am absolutely certain. As a music critic I think he has carved for himself
a special niche. He will be the Dhruvatara or the Pole Star for the art of music criticism.
6 The reason I say this is because he represents in the best sense the basic function
of an objective critic. Tiruvalluvar has already given the definition of objectivity. Just as
the weighing scales do not tilt in any direction and give the objective weight, a critic also
must be able to have objectivity. Saman seithu seer tukum kol pol amainthu oru pal
kodamai sandrorkani. His analytical skill is what makes his writings elegant. It is an
example of what Tiruvalluvar said. Nun maan nuzhaipulam illan, ezil nalam man maan
punai pavai attru. The appearance of a person externally who does not have the capacity
for analysis is like a well-decorated mud doll. The way in which Subbudu chooses his
words in his criticism again is an example of what Tiruvalluvar meant. Solluga sollai
pirithuor sol achhollai vellum sol inmai arinthyu. You must say the words in such a
way that there is no other word that can conquer it.
7 Subbudu also stands for the spirit of independent and objective inquiry. Again if
we take the definition of Tiruvalluvar who said that whatever one may hear, one should
analyze the truth. Epporul yar yar vai ketpinum approrul meipporul kanbathu arivu.
His bold comments about the contributions of Muthuswami Dikshitar when the
bicentenary of Dikshitar was observed brought out the many sterling qualities of
Subbudu. The first is his capacity to take on the so-called saints, the Trimurthi’s of
Carnatic music. His criticism was based on an objective analysis on the path indicated by
Valluvar. It led to controversy. But when one follows the give and take in the whole
debate, we find finally Subbudu comes out trumps. He also personifies in our times the
spirit of Nakkeeran who had the courage to point out to the Lord Shiva himself that he
could be wrong. He showed a rare courage when Lord Shiva opened his third eye “Netri
kan kattinalum kutram kutrame”, said Nakkeeran.
8 Some aspects of Subbudu’s writings are worth noting at this stage. As he himself
says in his writing there is karam (hot taste) but no krodham (anger). Mischievously he
also traces his character to astrology. His lagna is Vrischika and his star is Rohini.
Vrischika is scorpion and Rohini is the star of Krishna Paramatma. So he would always
be stinging like the scorpion or also creating waves like Lord Krishna. (page 19 Isai
9 In fact his association with Nakkeeran comes out in his final comments on the
debate about Muthuswami Dikshitar as Nakkeeran said. “Even if you show the third eye,
a mistake is still a mistake” At the same time he is humble enough to accept when he
makes a mistake. In the same article he says that for the Gamanashrama raga, he wrongly
identified Nishagam (page 94, Isai Natya Vimarsanam)
10 Subbudu carries on the Kalki’s tradition of intelligent, constructive and fair
criticism of music and art. In the process, criticism itself becomes an art. It was Ananda
Coomaraswamy in his classic book, “The Dance of Siva” who pointed out how art is
created. The artisan or the craftsman creates the object but when the viewer appreciates
it, that object becomes a piece of art. Every discipline of arts, be it music, painting or
dance has its own grammar. There could be a dispute about whether grammar precedes
art or vice versa. Naturally it is art that is produced first and grammar follows. Subbudu
himself has pointed out how some professor has even written a book separately for
Shakespearean grammar. Shri Karunanidhi while presiding over one of the music festival
programmes had gone into the issue of music and language. He has pointed out how
“music was an art for enjoyment for which there can be no limit. We can appreciate
music in the movement of the breeze, we can hear it the procession of the bees, there is
music in the waterfall, there is music in the river, in the waves of the sea, in the boat
rocked by the waves, there is music in the voice of the koel, there is music in the lisping
of the child, there is music in war, there is music in the competitive ground, there is
music when one lives, music when one dies, where is the place where there is no music?
Which is the object in which there is no music?”
11 There has always been a controversy of about the language of lyrics for music.
For a long time Carnatic music was dominated by lyrics in Telugu and Sanskrit. The need
for significantly including Tamil lyrics was highlighted by the Tamil music movement
led by Kalki. Subbudu has always supported this development. He has also played a part
in making people realize how some of the most erotic poems like the Jayadeva’s Gita
Govindam and Astapadi in particular were being sung as devotional music whereas if the
true meaning of those verses were known, perhaps many would have either avoided them
as not suitable for classical music concerts or would have treated them only as a piece of
12 What is role played by the critic in art? His role is very significant. Ultimately it
is the critic who helps us to develop a sense of appreciation of the art. The best art by
itself will influence every person by its own magnetism. Nevertheless, when we
understand the nuances and the implications and if the critic is available with us to show
us the way, then our appreciation gets an added dimension and ideas for appreciating the
art from different angles. It was Edward De Bono who said that ideas are the spectacles
with which we looked at facts. It is the critic who provides us with the spectacles with
which we can appreciate art. Of course, one can object that the spectacles we get are
those, which were preferred by the critic, and to that extent the critic may influence us
and transfer his bias to us. But that is probably part of the bargain. The same critic can
also help us to develop our own faculties because once we have started appreciating the
art from one angle and if we have the artistic sentiment in our own turn, we will develop
our sensibilities. This will be obvious how we look at the dynamics of art and follow it
develops. The raga is the same but its rendering depends upon the imagination and skill
of different artists. The same colours are available for every painter but each one paints
in a different way. The same notes are available for every musician but each one plays
them in his own way. Even the same raga, subject to the overall broad grammar of the
music can provide excellent opportunities for the display of artistic imagination of the
different artists. It is here I think a competent or inspired musical genius plays his part.
What Subbudu has done is to make us appreciate both these aspects normally the
grammar of music and beauty of music as an art. The special feature of Subbudu, which
he has inherited from Kalki, is his sense of humour. A little bit of sugar makes the
medicine goes down, said Mary Poppins. Probably a little bit of humour makes the
criticism stick. Unfortunately while the humour can add the requisite dose of pungency
to the criticism and make the point tellingly, those who are at the receiving end are likely
to bristle at the sting of humour.
13 The role played by the critic in increasing the appreciation of art can also be
recalled in connection with what Paluskar is supposed to have said in a different context.
He said: “I might not have produced a lot of Tansens but I have produced a lot of
Kansens”. In other words, Paluskar pointed that he might not have produced great
musicians but had produced a lot of people who can appreciate music. Kansens are the
rasikas, the fans of music. In this context the interesting story of Ariyakkudi Ramanuja
Iyengar mentioned by Subbudu is worth recalling. (Page 39-40, Isai Tukada).
14 In Kanadu Kathan when Ariyakkudi performed a concert, the patron who had
arranged the programme not only gave him a lot of money but also complimented
Ariyakkudi stating that compared to his earlier concerned four years ago, the current
performance was much better and he wished that Ariyakkudi would continue to improve.
Ariyakkudi had the last word. He said: “I have been singing in the same fashion. Perhaps
the capacity and knowledge on the part of the patron might have improved!”
15 Another interesting aspect of Subbudu is his willingness to say the truth
irrespective of whether the society is willing to listen or not. Many a time his comments
may be ahead of time. He had made some critical comments against one of the greatest
musicians Madurai Mani Iyer and his negative comments were seen as an attempt at over
reaching by some people. Subbudu describes himself in this context as the Cho of music.
Cho Ramaswamy through his Tuglak has been very open and effective in political
criticism, thanks to his excellence sense of humour. The same is true of Subbudu. As he
says, his job is to blow the horn. En kadamai uthukira sanghai uthuvathu. There is a
Tamil proverb that says let us blow the horn; that is our duty. Let the sun rise whenever it
16 Subbudu also points out humorously in many cases where the artists try to indulge
in excesses of their art and in the process ultimately destroying the whole effect. Talking
about emotion in music, during a concert, he says that there is a limit to emotions. But
one cannot by emotion make a musical concert into a bharatanatyam dance performance.
In the context of MD Ramanathan’s performance, he drew attention to such excesses
(page 114, Isai Tukada)
17 When we look at the performance of Subbudu as a critic, we realize the truth of
what Dr Chandrasekhar observed in his memorable piece Truth and Beauty. In that book
he said that when you compare scientific genius with artistic genius, there is a major
difference. Artistic genius flourishes through out life. He cites Beethoven and
Shakespeare in support. On the other hand scientific genius flowers best before the age of
30 and he gives Newton as an example. In the field of art therefore no wonder Subbudu
was continuously shining and improving with age giving one more example of the truth
behind Dr Chandrasekhar.
18 We are seeing the impact of Kalki on Subbudu both in the style of criticism and
the mischievous humour which makes it all the more effective and memorable. He pays a
tribute rightly to Kalki. Tamil music today is the result of the campaign of Kalki and the
result of the power of his pen. I wonder as suggested by him whether any book has been
published about Kalki’s campaign for Tamil music. (page 116, Isai Tukada)
19 Another positive aspect of Subbudu has been his consistent effort at encouraging
young artists. In many places we find that Subbudu’s word of encouragement has had
tremendous impact on the growth and flowering of the talent of artists. These artists I
hope will remember about what Tiruvalluvar says: kalathinal saita nanri sirutheninum
njalathinum manapiravu.
20 While he has encouraged the young artists he has also simultaneously taken the
initiative to see that senior artists who have contributed significantly to music were
honoured. His campaign for Sangeeta Kalanidhi for MLV and the honouring of
Papanasam Sivan the lyricist are examples of this side of Subbudu’s personality.
21 Subbudu also provides a well-needed corrective to some of the attitudes, which
have grown over the years. He quotes someone saying, “a Madrasi is the best second rate
brain in the world”. He says this in the context of how the South Indians are honouring
even second rate artists from the North and at the same time South Indian music is not
appreciated in the North. He says “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. (page 153, Isai Tukada)
22 Observations by Subbudu of this type help one to appreciate the relative merits
and weaknesses of the two major styles of Indian classical music. He has been trying to
educate people through his writings about the fact that effective criticism itself is an art.
He said that whatever he writes, people think that Subbudu was making negative
comments and observations for their own sake. As he points out this perception prevails
because this art of music criticism is new to India (page 141, Isai Tukada)
23 He goes on to point out how Bernard Shaw while reviewing a violin performance
spent 2-3 paragraphs on the description of the hall and the stage arrangements and then
merely said that in such a place that the artist played his violin. If the violinist had
chosen carpentry as a profession, he would have performed better. This was the
conclusion one can draw from the way he handled his violin.
24 There has also been criticism that Subbudu had focused on the grammar of the art
rather than the performance of the art. One critic Shri T S Padmanabhan from Calcutta
writing on the controversy relating to Dikshitar says that Subbudu instead of appreciating
the beauty of the painting is going into the analysis of the colour combination, the metal
content of the paint etc. I am not a musicologist but I am sure that while we appreciate
overall impact music has on us at the emotional level and the level of sensuousness,
going back to the distinction made by Coomaraswamy between the artisan and the person
who appreciates art, any music critic will have to take into account not only the overall
impact but also the grammar of music. As I am not a musicologist, I cannot say whether
what Subbudu says is true all the time. He himself can make a mistake as he has
confessed in the issue relating to Dikshitar’s Gamanasrama Raga.
25 In his introduction to the book Isai Tukada, Subbudu says that he never realised
that the white ants had so much interest in music. He came to this conclusion when he
discovered that nearly 75% of his collection of the comments and reviews of musical
performances which he had been doing for the last 50-60 years and which was kept in a
loft was damaged by the white ants.
26 The Tamil word for white ant is Karayan. With a little twist of the word karayan
by replacing the small ‘Ra’ in Tamil with the big ‘Ra’ one can say that Subbudu himself
is a Karayan because he has mastered the whole art of music and dance from the point of
view of a critic. In Tamil, the proof of having mastered anything is to have dissolved it
and drunk it – karaithu kudithal. He can also be said to have crossed the limits of the
ocean of knowledge in music and art. In other words, he has seen the karai or banks of
ocean of music. He can also be called a karayan because he takes a lot of akkarai
(interest) in music. Of course, the people who are the unfortunate victims of the
comments of Subbudu perpetually carry the karai (stigma). We can also see that
Subbudu has dissolved himself in music. So long as Carnatic music and Bharatnatyam
flourish, the name of Subbudu as an intelligent, vigorous, bold, humorous, objective and
effective critic with an enormous influence will remain immortal.


வல்லிசிம்ஹன் said...

A very good post T.R.C.
I was really expecting and looking for some sort of goodwords
in the net about sri.Subbudu.
I could not do so ,for the same reason I did not know much ,except he was a good rasika and a very good critic.
thank you.

தி. ரா. ச.(T.R.C.) said...

நன்றி வல்லியம்மா.என்னால் அவர் பிரிவைத் தாங்க முடியவில்லை.திரு விட்டல் அவர்களின் டெரிபியுட் தான் நல்ல பதிவு.அவர்தான் எனக்கு தன்னுடைய கட்டுரையைப் பற்றிச் சொன்னார்.

ambi said...

May his soul rest in peace.
very good tribute indeed (though a big one)...

சொர்கத்துலேயும் இந்திரன் சபையில் ஆஸ்தான விமர்சகர் ஆகிவிடுவார் நம்ம சுப்புடு மாமா.

பொற்கொடி said...

oh such a long post! :O

paadhi thaan padichurukken trc uncle! subbudu thatha's humor is so well known. sollave vendam!

செல்லி said...

புதிய தகவகள் அறிந்து கொண்டேன்.
நல்ல பதிவு

தமிழ்ப் புத்தாண்டு நல் வாழ்த்துக்கள்!

தி. ரா. ச.(T.R.C.) said...

அம்பி. சரியாகச் சொல்லிவிட்டீர்கள்.ரம்பையும் திலோத்தமையும் இப்போது நடுங்கிக்கொண்டு இருப்பார்கள் மாமாவின் விமர்சனத்துக்கு பயந்து

தி. ரா. ச.(T.R.C.) said...

@பொற்கொடி முதுவாக படி. நல்ல பதிவு. திரு விட்டலுக்கு நன்றி சொல்லவேண்டும்

தி. ரா. ச.(T.R.C.) said...

@செல்லி நம்ம வீட்டு பக்கம் வர வழிதெரிஞ்சுதா. நல்லது.புத்தாண்டு வாழ்த்துக்களுக்கு நன்றி. உங்களுக்கும் உங்கள் குடும்பத்துக்கும் அதே.

Latha said...

Good post. Didn't know CVC Vittal had this much interest in Subbudu & Cho.
Subbudu's famous criticism came when Chitti Babu played Thyagaraja's "Ninnu vina naamadendu" in western style. Subbudu had requested Chitti not to dress Thyagaraja in Suit, boot & coat & to leave the poor soul in his tuft & panchakachcham. "Avar kattukkudumiyum panchakachchamuma irunduttu pokattumen, paavam".
His comment on John Abraham getting an award for his film, "Agraharathil Kazhuthai" was titled, 'Agraharaththil "kazhuthaikku award"'.
Award pokavendiya idaththukku poyachchu. Dhairiyam irundaal "churchil panri" entru oru padam edukkattumen, paarpom. Naam tamizh brahmanarkalthaan kidaithoma ilichchavarkal ?
Many movies criticising Brahmins like "Gayathri" etc had got national awards. But this tradition stopped after this.
When Subbudu was greeted by 'Yugi Sethu' in "Nayyandi darbar" with a bouquet, this is what he had to say, "Naane pokkai (toothless), enakkethukku bouquet ? Unfortunately that episode is not available in the internet. May the soul of this Nakkeerar who has entertained us for a long time rest in peace.