Incarnations: India in 50 Lives by Sunil Khilnani

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Hardback, 656 pages
Publisher: Penguin Press (February 2016)
ISBN: 9780241208229
Language: English
Selected by Kai Friese

“You’ve heard the podcasts, and even if you haven’t, you should now buy the book. Not a ‘who’s who’, but more importantly a ‘who was who’. Essential and delightful reading on the lives that shaped – and continue to shape – a subcontinent.” —Kai Friese


Subbulakshmi – Opening Rosebuds – 1916-2004
In the summer of 1838, a small troupe of dancers, of a “bright copper colour”, captivated audiences across Europe. In Paris, they danced in the Tuileries Palace before the court of King Louis Philippe1. “Their dances,” the Journal des débats wrote, “are like nothing we have seen or that can be imagined. They dance with their whole frame. Their heads dance, their arms dance – their eyes, above all, obey the movement and fury of the dance. Their feet click against the floor – the arms and hands flash in the air – the eyes sparkle – the bosom heaves – their mouths mutter – the whole body quivers … It is a mixture of modesty and abandonment – of gentleness and fury.”

They were devadasis, “servants of god” – temple dancers from South India. It was a brief, anticipatory moment of Indian cultural branding, but European interest in the “Orientals” soon moved on. Back in India, the dancers returned to their unglamorous lives. It would be a century before the daughter of another devadasi mesmerised audiences around the world.

Her gift lay not in rhythmic athleticism, but in her voice. In 1926, at the age of ten, she had begun her career before an audience outside a bicycle shop in the Tamil town of Madurai. That same year, a gramophone company recorded her singing a devotional song, in the Carnatic style of the Indian South. After she finished, she cleared her throat and declared: “I am Madurai Subbulakshmi”.

Listening to her early recordings, the Carnatic musician and critic T.M.Krishna2 hears a gay abandon, a flair for embellishment and nuanced phrasing, and a complete lack of diffidence, which he puts down to her upbringing in the devadasi world – a harsh world where an aura of self-possession was necessary to the work. Her singing voice, striking from the start, would ultimately range three octaves, one more than Carnatic singers usually need. As she grew into it, she excised the hand and body gestures often associated with South Indian vocal performance. “The language of her eyes accomplished for Subbulakshmi what flying arms did for another singer,” wrote her biographer T.J.S. George. A perfectionist, she had the capacity to cross genres, but reduced her performances over the years to what another connoisseur of her music has called a “provokingly small” repertoire. In time, the ambitions of those who loved and profited from her combined with her gift to take her from the concert stage to film to All India Radio to near-official status as an icon of independent India.

It is a moment now past: a moment in which it was possible to believe in an Indian “national culture” and in singers and artists who could embody it. But what was required of Subbulakshmi, in moving from South Indian musical celebrity to national cultural symbol, is deeply uncomfortable when considered through the prism of contemporary values. For she publicly styled herself as a submissive, asserting her dependence on others and often acting as if her music, too, were visited upon her – as if her greatness was quite apart from her own doing. And yet, beneath the placid surface of an icon, there was striving and decisiveness. Even in a patriarchal society, an artistic woman’s volition counted for something, and in many cases allowed her to perfect her art. One clear choice Subbulakshmi made was to distance her skill from the striking South Indian tradition that shaped it. The art of the devadasi would be valuable, but the devadasi herself was not.


[1] Louis Philippe was king of France from 1830 until 1848, when he was forced to abdicate. He went into exile in Surrey, a fate perhaps better than his father’s: Philippe Égalité was executed in 1793.
[2] Read our talk with T.M. Krishna.