Radha, as everyone knows was MS Subbulaksmi’s adopted daughter. All her life she sang along with her mother, and had a younger sister, Vijaya, who passed away few years ago. The world of music knew Radha as MS’ daughter. However, Radha was forgotten in the last decade. She migrated out of Madras and settled along with her son, on the outskirts of Bengaluru. She was a dancer, to begin with, a student of Vazhuvoor B Ramaiyah Pillai, the celebrated dance master, who also choreographed for many films. Radha was his first student along with Anandhi, daughter of famous writer Kalki Krishanmurthi.
Now, more than the sense that Radha became Ramaiyah Pillai’s first student, she was the canvas on which he became a teacher. He had never taught before and with Radha, he was able to prove his prowess as a guru. The mechanism of teaching he developed for himself and taught the Travancore sisters — Lalitha, Padmini and Ragini, ‘kumari’ Kamala and her sister Radha, Padma Subramanyam and Chithra Visveswaran later, were based on what he taught her.
A few years ago, the Krishna Gana Sabha celebrated the centenary of Vazhuvoor Ramaiyah Pillai. A whole horde of the school’s alumni, including the ‘celebrity students’ gathered for the event but, his first student was completely forgotten and not invited. The city had forgotten her. But, she did not make a fuss. Today, the Vazhuvoor tradition is thriving and we should thank Radha for being the trigger for it. Now, it is all codified and we know the vocabulary of the dance form. She is the uncrowned queen of the Vazhuvoor tradition. That, I feel, is very important to be recorded. She had such a sharp memory and effortlessly recollected details.
I remember visiting her home in Bengaluru and interviewing her about her guru. She remembered every little thing he taught her. She gave up dance early in life because of various reasons, and couldn’t continue. Eventually, she became famous for being MS’ daughter. But, imagine if you were learning something, would you remember it even after half-a-century later, if someone asks? She did.
That’s the kind of razor sharp memory she had. Radha also told me how she learnt songs from Balasaraswathi! They shared a great camaraderie together. Balasaraswathi taught her several pieces. Ideally, we should also have a Carnatic museum, where all these beautiful memorabilias can be revisited. Radha was one of the last bridges that linked two generations — the first generation before independence and the next generation, where art was more institutionalised.
Now, with Radha’s death, we have lost that link. She was such a warm person and was ever ready to share information. She showed me beautiful pictures of her, when she was dancing on stage. Her hobby was to collect autographs of famous people — Nehru, Gandhi, Tagore, Helen Keller, and several famous film directors…she had a huge collection. Eventually we lost touch. Many years later, filmmaker Karan Bali was making a documentary An American in Madras.
It was about Ellis R Dungangan, an American who made Tamil movies in the 1930s, and well-known for directing Meera (1945) starring MS Subbulakshmi. Karan was trying to trace Radha and out of the blue, I received a call from Theodore Baskaran. He called and said that someone was desperately trying to get in touch with Radha. I connected them, and Radha, who played the role of young Meera in the film, became part of the movie. She narrates about Ellis and how he used to shoot the scenes. Like I said, her memory was fantastic.
But, what was disturbing is that for someone who had contributed so much, she hardly received recognition. It’s so sad that the city that thrives on art and culture, conveniently forgot someone who contributed so much. She loved the art, not for award or recognitions, but purely for the love of it. We talk a lot about our cultural history, but fail to document it. It’s a pity that her life and memories went undocumented.
Now after her death, the country has woken up and is talking widely about Radha. But, her milestones have been lost and we are to be blamed for it. Radha knew all along that she was growing up among great people. A celebrity mother and a celebrated guru, she was in great company but she was also over-shadowed by them. She never really got her due. But, you can’t deny her contribution and her presence. She was one of those silent warriors who did their work and kept going.