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T Sadasivam: Ladder to two geniuses of Tamil Nadu

In this series, we take a trip down memory lane, back to the Madras of the 1900s, as we unravel tales and secrets of the city through its most iconic personalities and episodes

T Sadasivam: Ladder to two geniuses of Tamil Nadu
T Sadasivam and MS Subbulakshmi

CHENNAI: People with achievements glisten at the top of society’s peak and are recalled to daily memories long after they are gone. But like a vine without a trellis, talent will shrivel without support. Sometimes when nature bestows genius on one person, it also sends another to foster it. Nurturing one genius is a duty, but two? It’s destiny. Two of the most important cultural figures of 1900s - MS Subbulakshmi and Kalki Krishnamurthy owed their triumph to one man.

The most successful of Tamil authors- Kalki sold four and a half copies of his first printed book. Kalki realised that creativity alone did not assure success. Marketing took it to a larger audience. It was Sadasivam his career was waiting for.

So too was the career of the foremost singer of the times- Sadasivam’s wife, MS Subbulakshmi. A not-so-brilliant actress to start with, he guided her to become India’s foremost classical singer who performed in the United Nations and was honoured with the highest civilian award- Bharat Ratna.

Born in a village in Thanjavur and losing his father early, Sadasivam grew up on the support of relatives which perhaps induced his charitable bent of mind we see later.

With a strong sense of nationalism early in life, Sadasivam as a schoolboy trekked 40 miles to see Gandhi. He travelled across the country with freedom fighter Subramaniam Siva organising bonfires of European clothes. When Siva contracted leprosy, he was deserted by all his followers except Sadasivam.

Sadasivam could sing the banned Bharathi songs loud and clear, and keep the crowds engaged till the main speaker turned up. Seeing his marketing talents, the Freedom Movement used him for khaddar sales. Then came a stint as an advertisement manager in Ananda Vikadan and as a film producer. When producing Shakuntala with emerging actress MS Subbulakshmi, neither knew their lives were going to be interlinked at that time

Soon thereafter, Sadasivam and Subbulakshmi were embroiled in a social scandal. Family man Sadasivam with two daughters took into his household Subbulakshmi who ran away from her Madurai home to escape the awful plans her mother had for her future. In a turbulent year when Subbulakshmi moved into Sadasivam’s house, his wife died in what was widely reported as a scorpion bite. The couple now unencumbered married in Thiruneermalai hill.

Fired from Ananda Vikadan, Kalki was planning to court arrest for sedition. Relaxing on the Cauvery bank with his former jail mate Sadasivam brought forth the idea to start a new magazine- one to challenge the mighty SS Vasan.

The idea was almost a joke. It was world wartime and there was paper rationing and impossible to import machinery. And one promoter was in jail and between them neither had any money.

Yet Sadasivam created capital, needled out resources and launched the Kalki Magazine. Subbulakshmi took up the male role of Nerada in the film Savitri. Her salary of Rs 20,000 was the capital for the Kalki Magazine. Kalki now unhindered by an owner editor above him, let his creative juices flow and Tamil was made richer by his historical novels of Sivagamiyin Sabathama and Ponniyin Selvan. Sadasivam also made the magazine financially viable. The first issue had one-third of its pages filled with advertisements.

But Sadasivam’s job was not finished. He still had his wife to promote. To nip the Tamil Isai Movement in the bud, the music academy banned Subbulakshmi from its premises. The other musicians debarred made use of the limited chances other sabhas gave. But Sadasivam, made of sterner stuff took over a defunct Mylapore Sangeetha Sabha and took the battle to the academy’s turf. Advertising as “A Sabha started in response to the request of the intelligent people” and “MS sings for MSS”. He was one man who could have pipped the forceful Music Academy in the race. But the Academy hastily proposed a truce and Sadasivam handed over the money he had collected for a proposed auditorium to them.

Making a film with his wife playing the title role Meera, Sadasivam publicised it so well, that the who’s who of India starting from Mountbatten himself watched it. Sadasivam was in a dilemma on whether to let Subbalakshmi’s filmy career continue based on this success but astonishingly decided to retire her. A brilliant move considering the saintly image of her singing bhajans was left firmly etched in people’s minds. And conveniently a rumour was afloat that Mahatma Gandhi had requested Subbulakshmi to quit films.

Sadasivam would rise to be a very important man in society hobnobbing with the high and mighty. But there were indeed whispers that he was too arrogant and bullied many. Sadasivam got obsessed with charity and MS mostly sang fund raising concerts thereafter. The couple had no sense of financial planning and faced bankruptcy eventually even selling their dwelling.

To sum it all up, MS said, “What the world calls my accomplishments are his gifts to me.” Kalki would have said the same. But as a tribute, he had traces of Sadasivam in many of his fictional characters.

— The writer is a historian and an author

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Venkatesh Ramakrishnan
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