By the time I entered my teens, Mama—as we called him reverentially—was entering his sixth decade. So my relationship with him was of awe and respect.
I had started learning Bharatanatyam from Swarna Saraswathy at the age of five. Subbudu Mama and Teacher (as we called Swarna Amma) disliked each other.
To her, the world of arts had no place for critics. And in his eyes Swarna’s approach was too traditional and belonged to an era gone past and hailing from another historical milieu. Mama was futuristic and was looking at the possibilities of recasting performance for a new unfolding age. So even before I ever met Mama, the buzz in Swarna’s dance class was that even the very word Subbudu was to be accorded deep scorn.
I got to know Mama much later through my father, who was an extremely gregarious personality. Subbudu Mama (P V Subramaniam) and Appa shared years and years of lunch times at the famous UNI canteen, which was the regular haunt for many journalists in the 60s and 70s. My father was not a journalist, but his government office managed the UNI canteen. So he used to go there frequently. Appa and Mama became friends since they both loved paan and had to finish every meal with squishing a betel leaf with special south Indian ingredients. This is how a friendship blossomed. And because of that I was the lucky beneficiary to experience a very warm side of Subbudu Mama, entirely different from the picture my dance teacher had painted of him, and unlike the strained relationship he shared with her other students.
His deep abiding love for Carnatic music and wizard-like mastery of the harmonium, made me learn from him. He even accompanied me in a few performances as part of the team of musicians. His deep interest in tala (rhythm) was another aspect to his pervading knowledge of the performing arts.
His mannerisms were individualistic. During jathi-theermanam in every dance performance, or during the tanyaavartanam in music concerts, he would shut his eyes tight and drum the tala on his bald pate. And at the end, if the sama was perfect, he would say “bale”, or if not, crease his brow with acute distaste and his thin lips would curve low in condemnation.
The other thing that I will always remember was the buzz in every theatre across India whenever Mama made his entry. Every member of the audience knew Subbudu was there. What commitment to the arts he had. After every kutcheri (performance), he would take a bus or auto back to The Statesman office in Connaught Place to immediately file his story so that his review appeared the very next day. Hot off the press so to say! Those marvellous days when the arts were accorded high priority in the print media have totally vanished, and I lament that deeply.
He would often joke to us about the spelling of his name: “Properly, it should have been Subuddu. But why give the north Indians a chance to sub-label me ‘Buddu’.” So he remains Subbudu. A titan of decades… and for all time.