After a lot of thought on writing about this book, decided to give it a shot. The book is 'M.S: A life in music' by T.J.S.George.
I came to know about this book through a old entry in writer Jeyamohan's blog. Read about it and didn't think much about it at that time. About a month back, when I was browsing the shelves in 'Odyssey', stumbled on a copy of it. Thumbing through it to see the pictures, first thing that I came across was a picture of MS looking at herself in a pool of water from the old movie 'Sakunthalai'. It was such a beautiful picture and I bought the book on an impulse.
I like biographies. I love Gore Vidal for just having written 'Burr'. For me, a good biography before everything else, sets the context and interweaves the story of the subject within that context. This is one of the reasons why I was not so happy with the biographies I read. They are either a sycophantic take on the subject itself or just a bunch of anecdotes segregated into chapters.
T.J.S.George starts the book with a leisurely history of the Carnatic music and the socio-economic conditions of the early 20th century, when MS was born. I never could appreciate the nuances of Carnatic music but the first 100 pages of the book clearly sets the tone for the rest of the book.
The focus then moves to the first 24 years of MS's life, which were the formative years. Choosing between films and concerts, running away from Madurai to avoid the fate of her sister, it is the period which determines how MS's life is going to be for the next 60 years. The period ends when she marries T.Sadasivam in Thiruneermalai.
Like many a households in the 1980's, 'Kalki' was a regular in our house and that's where I came across this couple, always written with gushing admiration. Never figured who they were and why such admiration in glowing terms.
The next 60 years of is dealt in about 60 pages with a list of honors, awards, world leaders she met etc. There is not much of a story here except the period when they move away from 'Kalki gardens' and the relationship with Rajaji.
George goes into lots of discussion about the way MSS, who was born in a Devadasi family, transforms herself into a perfect 'smartha iyer' wife. There is a discussion on the 'sanscritization' as a means to move upwards (in this case from a devadasi into a 'smartha iyer').
One of the successes of the book is the kind of walking-on-the-blade attitude when all these are discussed. Very easily a discussion like this can turn into just a gossip-mill yellow hournalism. George avoids to titillate by focusing on the music and the social factors that helped MSS in this factor.
In a larger sense, I think this kind of conformism is not just true for MS in 1940, it is equally true for the women of 2010 as well. Born in a absolutely male chauvinistic society such as ours (where the movies still portray heroes lecturing the girls on our culture!), it is a constant struggle for me to keep avoiding to fall into the pit. Women in our society, irrespective of the caste they were born into, are expected to conform into the wishes of the male directly or indirectly. Girls always resign their jobs and move to the place where the guy is working. Girls always chose to give up their jobs to travel with the guy when he travels abroad. The list is long and most of it is subtle coercion. And most of the girls I talked to never even realize the violence such an act represents.
So it is perfectly easy to understand the predicament of MS in 1940 to chose and become a submissive wife and allow her career to be molded by Sadasivam.
It is in the brief interlude on her romance with GNB, MS ,finally and probably for the last time in her life, acts like a woman who lets her heart pouring out in the letters that George came across. Jeyamohan discusses in detail on the need for the such pleadings in the society of that time. On top of being born in a devadasi family, MS was also a film star, when her romance with GNB started. This puts her on the defensive in terms of explaining herself and surrendering herself completely to GNB. I was thinking of Mohana in 'Thillana Mohanambal'. I read that novel anticipating her to blast Shanmugasundaram for always keeping her on the toes. It never happens.
MS marries Sadasivam in the end and I could understand the exact predicament she must've gone through to take such a decision. But in a way, she chose well and achieved fame and what not. All I could think was, whether she ever thought of the 'what if' of it.
Overall, a good book and good read.
PS. I am also half way through with Guha's book on Indian history and Pavan Varma's book on the divinity of 'Krishna'.
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