Madras to Mumbai

I was conflicted about writing this, because I don’t think people should define themselves so narrowly.  In terms of the “land they sprung from.”  But I cannot deny the fact that such an identity exists.  So I wrote it.  Tried to keep it light.

The psychology of a Matunga Tamil

I grew up in Bombay,” says Gayatri, one half of the Carnatic singing sister duo of Ranjani-Gayatri. “Actually, you should say that I grew up in Matunga, which in many ways is like growing up in an agraharam (an enclave beside a temple, usually occupied by Brahmin priests and their families).”

What is it about Matunga and Chembur that makes these areas a thriving home for south Indian culture?

The sisters grew up in a housing society that was surrounded by four temples. The fabled Sri Shanmukhananda hall was down the hall, figuratively speaking. During Margazhi—15 December-15 January—while the rest of Bombay (now Mumbai) drank bed-tea, Matunga’s citizens would congregate on the streets. Women with dripping wet hair would wait outside housing societies to watch bare-bodied men walking down the street, singing bhajans, clinking kartals (called kinnaram in the south), beating dholaks and tambourines in time to their shaking bellies. “We would circle these mamas (uncles), do namaskaram (prostrate before them) and go in for our morning coffee,” says Gayatri.

Matunga in the 1970s was entirely south Indian. The girls wore long skirts, called pavadai, their oiled, braided hair adorned with flowers. “When I came for college to Chennai, my classmates couldn’t believe that I grew up in Bombay,” says Gayatri. “I told them that Matunga was different.”

Matunga holds a special place in the imagination of south Indians, because it is the land where our relatives went to make their fortune. They left villages with long, syllable-laden names and returned as posh Bombayites. Suryanarayanan became Suri; Ananthapadmanabhan became Padi; Balasubramanian became Balan; and their daughters became Raji Suri, Priya Padi and Vidya Balan. These early south Indians who migrated to Bombay didn’t forget their roots. Rather, they fulfilled their love and longing for their ancestral homeland by duplicating its ecosystem in their new home.

At the Matunga market, women would bargain vigorously in Tamil. “Not just any Tamil but Palakkad Tamil,” says Gayatri. “Pumpkins were referred to as ellevan (white) or mathan (yellow) pushnikai, instead of the traditional way of calling them vellai or manjal pushnikai.”

Among Tamil-Brahmins, Palakkad Iyers form a unique subset. These were people who could trace their roots to the Palakkad pass between Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Palakkad Iyers, or Pattars as they were called, migrated from Tamil Nadu to Kerala, and felt equally at home speaking Malayalam and Tamil. My father is one, and although he spent his career in Madras (now Chennai), he still multiplies in Malayalam. Palakkad Tamil liberally interspersed with Malayalam is pretty much unrecognizable to locals in Chennai.

Each of us has many layers; many personas. There is the global self that is at home in Cuba, Iceland or Japan. There is a world citizen who skiis in Zermatt, Switzerland, scuba-dives in the Great Barrier Reef, Australia, shops in Rue St Honore, Paris, catches a Broadway show in New York, learns tango in Argentina, and drinks sauvignon blanc in New Zealand. Certainly, if you are a reader of this newspaper, you do all these things and more.

Then there is the local self that has to do with family, history, stories and myth. The local self is why we define ourselves as Syrian Christians, Surtis, Bohra Muslims, Parsis, Kamma Naidus, Kulin Kayasthas, Agarwals, Assamese Kalitas, Sindhis or, in my case, a Palakkad Iyer.

The local self has to do with religion and caste, but it goes much deeper than that. It has to do with a small patch of ground from which we have descended—be it Kathiawar, Kanpur, Khajuraho or Karwar. It is the reason we Indians use the word “antecedents” in a meaningful way. It is the reason we have very specific idiosyncrasies and unstated enmities. It is also the reason for our deep-seated superiority complex and insecure chip on the shoulder, for each of us believes that the patch of land we sprung from makes us superior and special in some obscure yet salient way. This is true whether you are a Rajput from Marwar, or a Goan from Colvale. You don’t care about the next province, leave alone the next state. Your insecurities and enmities have to do with your neighbours: people who call the same patch of land by that resonant word—home.

The patch of land that I sprang from plays out in my head in this way. Strip away the politeness; strip away the—sincere, genuine, authentic—belief in plurality, the abhorrence of “narrow domestic walls”; strip away the garden-party persona and pour a few dirty martinis. Then stream some Carnatic instrumental music, if possible violinist T.N. Krishnan’s rendition of Nidhi Sala in that “curly-hair” ragam, Kalyani, from your Dynaudio Xeo 6 speakers. Ask me then who I am and I will tell you, somewhat sheepishly, yet bolstered by the music, that I (like T.N. Krishnan) am a Palakkad Iyer. The music is key; also the martinis. Django Reinhardt or Manitas de Plata will not produce the same answer.

Underneath the “we are all one” persona, I am secretly proud of my roots. I was taught to be. Palakkad Iyers make good “cooks, crooks and civil servants”, said former chief election commissioner T.N. Seshan. To that, he could have added musicians because his clan dominates the arts. Actor Vidya Balan; singers Shankar Mahadevan, Usha Uthup, Bombay Sisters, Hariharan and Ranjani-Gayatri: Palakkad Iyers all. My mother “hails” from Tirunellai, a village near Noorani in the Palakkad district.

Palakkad Iyers believe (as do most ethnic groups in India) that we are better than our neighbours. Our women are beautiful and accomplished; our men are fair and charming. We take pride in our food, our character and culture. When Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, who is from the same village as my father, died recently, the entire clan mourned his demise. And yes, we drop names in select circles to prove our superiority. This is why India is united—not because we are tolerant, but because we haven’t been able to prove, definitively and without doubt, that As Palakkad Iyers, my family only cared we are better than our neighbours. about proving its superiority to Iyers from Thanjavur, or those pesky Iyengars. If you were a Bengali or Punjabi, we didn’t have a quarrel with you. We would accord you the courtesy of a guest, but you were as foreign as the man from the moon. Our petty hierarchies and feuding quarrels were limited to the neighbours who occupied our land.

One way in which Palakkad Iyers claimed superiority (to other Iyers, let it be said) was through music. The line of musicians who hailed from Palakkad is long. The other was a belief in the curative powers of coconut oil. A third was an affinity for border-dwellers like us.

People who lived in the areas bordering states were intellectually superior, I was told. This is why Dharwad produced exceptional musicians. Living on the border made you mentally nimble. It forced you to square away [off?] different, and sometimes opposing, constructs. It taught you how to settle into a new home but leave your stamp on it. It taught you to bring Madras to Matunga—actually Palakkad to Matunga, but Madras is a better alliteration.

 

Shoba Narayan’s Tamil when she hangs around her Palakkad cousins is an unrecognizable mishmash of Malayalam, Tamil and a few choice expletives. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

M.S. Subbulakshmi

Listening to M.S.’s Bhaja Govindam as you read this will improve the sensory experience. That– or Bhavayami Gopala Baalam.
Also, Mint has chosen a photo from their files, but below are my favorite MS photos.
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Also, there was a great photo exhibit in Bangalore’s Tasveer Art gallery. It was a foreign photographer…wish I could remember the name. It had a photo of MS standing before Sadasivam relaxing on an easy chair. It conveyed the dynamic of this couple as words cannot. I just loved the photo. God! Wish I could remember the artist.

Lastly, great choice of film by Vidya Balan.

Sat, Feb 23 2013. 12 15 AM IST

Can Vidya Balan do an M.S. Subbulakshmi?
Vidya Balan will play M.S. Subbulakshmi in Rajiv Menon’s biopic of the Carnatic legend
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M.S. Subbulakshmi epitomized the Tamil Brahmin aesthetic. Photo: Hindustan Times
So Vidya Balan will play M.S. Subbulakshmi in Rajiv Menon’s biopic of the Carnatic legend? This is exciting news for Chennai’s music lovers. Chennai wakes up to M.S., as she is called. Her rendition of the Suprabhatam and Vishnu Sahasranamam (1,000 names of Vishnu) still remain the versions that are played at south Indian homes and temples in the morning. Her interpretations of classic Carnatic songs such as Thyagaraja’s Pancharatna Kritis (or Five Gems compositions), Annamacharya’s compositions, songs of Mirabai such as Hari Tum Haro, repeated endlessly after Gandhiji’s assassination; and popular Tamil songs such as Yaaro Ivar Yaaro—these are part of Chennai’s collective unconscious.
Then, there was the woman herself. If you grew up in Chennai and were marginally interested in Carnatic music, there was no escaping tales of M.S.
The late Morarji Desai wanted a south Indian woman artist or educator to be inducted into the Rajya Sabha. He asked one of his Tamil-speaking IAS officers to call the musician and make the offer. After some cordial persuasion, M.S. demurred, citing her husband, T. Sadasivam. “He is around me like a kavacham (armour). How can I leave him in Madras and come to Delhi?” she said in Tamil. “I can sing for an audience of a lakh of people but I wouldn’t know what to say to 50 MPs.” Later, she conferred with Kanchi Sankaracharya, her spiritual guru, about the offer. He in turn told her that she ought to do what her heart told her to.
She sang from the heart, this icon. Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi, a devadasi known—quite wonderfully in this age of feminism—by her mother’s name, became second wife to the strict patriarchal freedom fighter, Sadasivam. She deferred to him entirely. He orchestrated her career and made her a national celebrity whom Jawaharlal Nehru called the “queen of song”.
Her music had the bhakti rasa that touched hearts. It was her voice that soothed millions after Gandhiji’s assassination. India saluted it with a Bharat Ratna, the first ever awarded to a singer. T.J.S George’s biography (MS: A Life in Music) captured much of her turbulent history, but missed many anecdotes from her daily life. For that, you had to be a music lover in Chennai during her time. Sooner or later, you would be drawn into her orbit.
There were some purists who thought that it was the magic of her persona, more than her music, that made her popular and carried her to Carnegie Hall. Critics said that her manodharma or free-form alapana wasn’t as imaginative as M.L. Vasanthakumari’s, her contemporary. Others said that her grip on classicism wasn’t as sure as D.K. Pattammal’s. She knew fewer songs; her Sanskrit pronunciation was good but not perfect. And who was she to be singing the Hanuman Chalisa in a south Indian accent? But these were quibbles that were swept away by her beauty, charisma, the humility she seemed to personify as she sang: the half-closed eyes, face turned upwards, palms together prayerfully. It was a classic M.S pose. Her devotion, however, was real. She lost herself in the music and pulled others into its transcendental depths with her.
In life, she was soft, humble and content. She ate Tamil vegetarian food, donated generously and lived simply, save for her shringara (beauty) and alankara (adornment).
A Carnatic musician and teacher, the late Meera Seshadri, lived in Kotturpuram, just a few streets away from where M.S. lived. She spoke about visiting “M.S. Amma” one day to find the great lady perfuming her hair with “sambrani” incense after an oil bath. The incense burner was on the mosaic floor with a wicker basket over it. Across the basket was M.S.’ luxuriant curly hair, absorbing the twisting smoke and its fragrance in the dim cool room.
For many, M.S. epitomized the Tamil Brahmin aesthetic: straight parting; slightly oiled hair pulled back into a braid or a chignon adorned with Madurai jasmine flowers; bright red bindi; Kanjeevaram silk saris in jewel tones with poetic names borrowed from nature such as peacock blue, onion skin pink, mango yellow, parrot green; star-shaped diamond earrings; the all-important diamond nose rings—a solitaire on one nostril, and a triumvirate on the other; at least two necklaces, including the long, hanging mangalsutra; bangles on both hands—a mixture of tingling glass bangles interspersed with gold ones; a simple plain blouse that matched the sari—none of the mirror-work or designer blouses, the blouse cut close to the neck without a deep back; the sari pallu worn around the neck; anklets; toe rings for sure; a heady fragrance from a combination of jasmine flowers, sandalwood oil moisturizer and herbal hair oil; and lips red from the betel leaf that is chewed after lunch (M.S. wore lipstick too). This sensuous aesthetic—can you imagine, not one of your senses is left unattended?—is what M.S. modelled. It is how Tamil Brahmin women of that era dressed.
Balan will do a killer impersonation, for sure, for she is a gifted actor. But hopefully she will go deeper. She is portraying not just a beloved national figure, she is portraying someone close to the heart of most Tamilians; a person who they possessively call “namma M.S. (our M.S)”.

Shoba Narayan aspires to M.S.’ sensual aesthetic, but for that, she’ll have to give up her trousers and wear only saris.
Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

Profile of Sabyasachi

His style icons are strong, self-confident people who don’t need his clothes to enhance their identity

The Good life | Shoba Narayan

Clad in a khadi kurta-pyjama and Ferragamo flats, Sabyasachi Mukherjee, 37, is having lunch at the ITC Sonar, Kolkata. It is 4pm. We are at the coffee shop. He orders lal maas. I have already eaten. I order jhalmuri.

“You can’t have muri (puffed rice) in a five-star hotel,” protests Mukherjee, who calls himself a “street food and puchka (panipuri) connoisseur”. He dismisses the famous man near the Park Hotel as selling “Marwadi puchka with snow peas and chana in it”. The bestpuchkas, he says, are in south Kolkata, near his parents’ home. But then, every Kolkatan I know says the best puchkas are near where they live.

Muses: Sabyasachi with actors Rani Mukerji (left) and Vidya Balan. (Photographs by Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times)

Muses: Sabyasachi with actors Rani Mukerji (left) and Vidya Balan. (Photographs by Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times)

Mukherjee is also a “biryani freak” and will only buy it at Rahmania or Nizam’s for their “sinfully greasy biryanis”. Fish, he says, has to be eaten at home. He tastes myjhalmuri and finds, to his surprise, that it is “fantastic”. I bite into gravel while chewing. Perhaps, the hotel buys the dish from the street and sells it to its patrons. We order two more portions.

Started with a Rs. 20,000 loan he took from his sister, Payal, in 2002, Sabyasachi, the label, has grown into a behemoth, employing over 600 craftspeople, 32 assistants, including one from Harvard, and revenue topping Rs. 52 crore in 2011. Part of the reason is Mukherjee’s talent, but a bigger reason is his shrewd business acumen that allows him to spin fantasies out of this City of Joy.

“I am not India’s most talented or creative designer. But I am India’s most influential and powerful commercial designer,” he says matter-of-factly. There is context, of course. I asked him to rate himself. The man doesn’t go around making such pronouncements. Yet his smugness is galling.

A Sabyasachi lehenga ensemble with his signature border.

A Sabyasachi lehenga ensemble with his signature border.

I stare at him from across the table. With his long, wavy hair, Cheshire cat smile, and well-argued opinions, Mukherjee is hardly the angst-ridden, self-destructive designer along the lines of John Galliano or Alexander McQueen. Though perfectly courteous, he doesn’t pander or charm. He doesn’t seek to be liked and, frankly, is a bit too “sorted” for me. But after two days in his company, I end up with grudging respect for his fashion sensibilities. I like his reverence for textiles, his love of artisanal craftsmanship, his pride in being Indian, and the fact that he knows his mind and isn’t afraid to speak it. He slams the Hermès sari, waxes eloquent about the Dabu mud-resist hand-block print techniques of Rajasthan, and bemoans the fact that Indians don’t embrace native handmade traditions with the fervour that they do foreign brands.

“In airports, sometimes I will see African women dressed in their traditional garb—turbans and robes. I know that they will be travelling first-class because they have that confidence,” he says. “Why can’t we Indians take pride in our native clothes?”

When his sister got married, Mukherjee bought her saris from every region of India. His favourites are the weaves from Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Bengal, and the south. He has little use for socialites in their bandage dresses. “A Queenie Dhody will never influence fashion the way a Vidya Balan, Rani Mukerji or a Sonia Gandhi can,” he dismisses—somewhat self-servingly, given that these particular celebrities (the first two anyway) wear his saris.

His style icons are strong, self-confident people who don’t need his clothes to enhance their identity: Frida Kahlo, Mira Nair, Deepti Naval,Mallika Sarabhai, the dancer Shobana, Sonal Mansingh, Rekha, Gulzar, Gandhiji, Jawaharlal Nehru, and get this—Usha Uthup.

He describes Uthup attending one of his food festivals, wearing a Kanjeevaram sari and Adidas sneakers. “She had glued pieces from her old Kanjeevaram blouses on her sneakers. She could only wear sneakers these days, she said, and wanted them to match her saris. That, I thought, was true innovation,” says Mukherjee. “They looked likeManish Arora shoes but I don’t think she had heard of Manish. She is a true original.” As for the socialites who throng his stores: “They are of no consequence to me. I don’t care if they buy my clothes. I don’t make it for them.”

You sound like a businessman, I accuse. He doesn’t budge. “I am first and foremost a businessman and only then a designer,” he says. Providing a livelihood for his artisans gives him satisfaction and keeps him up at night. When the right time comes, he says he will hire a designer to take over his role and do other things: Design hotels, public spaces; make movies; music; do art projects—all the things that his brutal schedule doesn’t allow him to do. “Sabya has been saying this for years,” says a fashion designer friend of mine.

Mostly, he works. He is at his workshop in Kolkata from 9am-10pm every day, except when he travels. He doesn’t like to socialize—he thinks compliments “mess up your mind”. He relaxes by sleeping; likes to live in isolation, and ploughs all his money back into his business. He rents a one-bedroom apartment that has a large terrace and bathroom to indulge in the two things he likes to do: take long baths and gaze at the stars. “There is so much give and take in my business that I like to relax in isolation,” he says.

His family is intimately involved in the business. His beautiful sister, Payal, is the “bedrock”, says an assistant. His father, a chemical engineer, manages the finances, and his mother, an artist, has been asked to step aside and “take rest”. Mukherjee confesses that he still keeps his splurges on shoes from his dad, and accountant. “I mean, dad knows that his son earns a lot of money but I don’t want him to think that we have changed as people. So I tell my sister that when we do some indulgent shopping, it’s nicer for him not to know. I don’t want him to think he has raised two monsters who have completely lost the plot.”

What about romance, I ask? Are you gay? “Yes,” he says in the tone that we say, “Duh,” this destiny’s child. He is not in a hurry to find a soulmate. That will happen, he says confidently.

We talk style. He likes Dries Van NotenStella McCartneyMarc Jacobsand Coco Chanel: all designers who’ve never pandered to fashion editors. He dismisses Sonam Kapoor as a model and clothes horse rather than a style icon, unlike, say, Zeenat Aman. “What today’s celebrities don’t realize is that you need to be consistent to be an icon. You cannot do sari one day, pants the next and a dress on the third. If you look at style icons, you’ll see that they all have a very consistent style—Audrey Hepburn in her Givenchys; Mrs Kennedy in her sheath dresses or even Madonna in her crucifix and underwear.”

I make a mental note to wear the same style of clothes consistently. But what—sari or sheath dress? That’s the question.

After two days in his company, I go from disdain to dislike to grudging respect to wanting to be liked. I want this man’s respect. Who is your ideal customer, I ask. “The woman who doesn’t need Sabyasachi the brand but understands Sabyasachi the product,” he replies. “Secretly every designer in the world hankers for that kind of customer.”

These days, Shoba Narayan walks up to strangers everywhere and compliments them on their woven saris. Someday she will wear India’s weaves on a regular basis. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com