Veteran dance and music critic ‘Subbudu’ (PV Subramaniam) passed away last night at his son’s home in Delhi after a brief ailment, at the age of 90. President APJ Abdul Kalam promptly called on his family with a rose plucked from the Mughal Gardens, as Subbudu had once wished.
Born into a musically-minded Tamil family, Subbudu spent his childhood in Burma, where his father worked in the days of Empire. World War II meant an arduous overland trek in 1942 through Dimapur into India and consequently a bureaucratic job in Delhi. A chance encounter with Dr Narayana Menon, then Deputy Director of All India Radio led to his appointment as music and dance critic for The Statesman, a post he fulfilled with acerbity and wit for over 50 years, also writing critiques for important Tamil magazines.
Subbudu’s deep knowledge of and love for the classical arts brought him frequently into conflict with the fragile egos of India’s top classical dancers. One diva even sued the Tamil publication Dinamani for Rs 50 lakh after his critique of her performance, but nothing came of it, with Subbudu’s editors standing staunchly by him.
A proponent of the Tamil Isai language movement to balance the high Sanskrit and Telugu content in Carnatic music with Tamil compositions, Subbudu was also outspoken in championing the arts of South India on the national stage. In the 1970s, the refined precincts of Delhi’s India International Centre were often witness to heated exchanges in full public view between Subbudu and the diva of the day. But when his 85th birthday occurred in 2002, critics, dancers, art patrons and administrators all gathered to pay him lavish tribute at high-profile functions in New Delhi and Chennai.
Reacting to the news of his death, India’s top Bharata Natyam dancers, Chennai-based Alarmel Valli and Malavika Sarukkai expressed their regret at his passing. “I have known him since the age of ten and his knowledge was deep and genuine,” said Valli, while Sarukkai praised his sincere attachment to and knowledge of the performing arts. On a personal note, he would often call this writer and chuckle at some observation on dance and dancers, urging her to “stick her neck out, unafraid.” His own verse sums up his caring but stern attitude to the arts: “I've done lots of harm and now can't make amends/But I frankly admit, my colleagues and friends/That I've not only called a spade a spade/But an outright dirty, agricultural aid!”