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Image: BALASARASWATI: HER ART & LIFEBY DOUGLAS M. KNIGHT JR./ Amazon

One of the most interesting Facebook groups on Chennai is the Madras Local History group. The thing about history is that all of us never really discover anything at once. Some thing we know for a long time comes as news to somebody else, and what strikes us as a golden discovery would have reams written about it already. But this never really stops us from being fascinated genuinely.

One such recent post on the Madras Local History group was on this magical picture.

The two girls in the image are Carnatic singer MS Subbulakshmi and dancer Balasaraswati.

For an ignorant Chennai boy who grew up looking at MSS as an old-aged singer, conditioned to assume that she would be from the same conservative channels of society as my own grandmother, the image of her holding a cigarette in night-suits and posing for the cameras in a completely chillaxed manner can be quite startling.

This image has been discussed and ‘discovered’ online earlier. Even so, there are reactions to this picture on the FB group ranging from 'this is a fake image' to 'wow, MS hot babe'

The image is from the book Balasaraswati: Her Art and Life by Douglas M Knight, and this is what the blurb of the image reads, according to a blogger:

“Studio portrait of Balasaraswati with M.S Subbulakshmi, 1937. The two teenaged friends both became world famous artists. From strictly disciplined households, the two asserted their independence by secretly arranging this photograph of themselves dressed outrageously in Western-style sleepwear and pretending to smoke cigarettes.”

In his review of the book by Knight, titled ‘’Beatification of the Erotic”, Sadanand Menon writes on Outlook,

“The real ‘masala’ of the book is a studio photograph some of us have seen in private before, but now made public, of Balamma and fellow Devadasi artist, the legendary singer M.S. Subbulakshmi, both in their teens, dressed in pajama suits, posing with cigarettes. It’s a peach and captures perfectly the insouciance of the book.”

As Rashmi Munikempanna writes on her blog,

“This photograph is arresting on so many levels. The year and the image. 1937 and two Indian women dressed in western wear posing with cigarettes. There is also the fact of the unknown photographer as well as the unknown studio where this may have been taken. The blurb points to the background of the two women as coming from quite a conservative background. There would have been time spent in planning this. Finding the photographer who they seem to be quite comfortable with, arranging for clothes, the unsmoked cigarettes. Also knowing that this photograph wouldn’t find its way out. Keeping the print hidden, the excitement of the seeing this image, of a secret.

The gaze – one outward, one straight into the camera. The hand of one on the shoulder of the other (posed?) The way they both stand. Balasaraswati looking like the one where the power rests, her left leg leaning against the chair. Her right hand holding the cigarette a bit awkwardly posed. Her smile and gaze fixed to a point outside. Subbulakshmi’s gaze right into camera, the cigarette between her lips sitting comfortably. Her hands relaxed holding the back of the chair and a handkerchief which I am surprised made it to the picture unless there exists one without it and this may have been a test run. A tin jar of something on the chair which could be the cigarette tin striking because of its irrelevance, almost like something the photographer forgot to move.

With its performance of the masculine and the modern by women who could never have been seen like that in public, the photograph renders its own space of making as providing for the possibilities of what is not.”

Another blogger Nivedita Louis as this to say about the picture,

“MS might have lived a satisfied life as a globe-trotting, high- flying, society wife, singing her bhajans and collecting awards. Yet, there isn't the need to revere her, putting her in the high pedestal and treating her God! She is, by all means human, a real pitiable one at that and though I'm no big fan of Carnatic music, I sincerely doubt that if I would ever think cheap about her humble beginnings. What matters to us is, she isn't the typical TamBrahm domesticated singer. No sir. She has the right to hold the fag and drag it too!”

Damn right she does.

Apparently, the book by Knight has chapters of “quality not witnessed before in scholarship around Indian dancers”, according to Sadanand Menon. That is some endorsement.