Saturday, October 5, 2013

Sayee and Subbulakshmi's Film-Industry Relatives: R. Padma, P.A. Periyanayaki, and Others (Part 3)

Sayee and Subbulakshmi's extended family had many members who were involved in the film industry at that time as actors, playback singers, and technicians behind the scenes. As we learned from the relatives that posted rare details on Richard's blog, the extended family was a closeknit group with connections and bonds in the industry that still last to this day. As I searched for more information to "flesh out" the details of these connections, I discovered that Sayee and Subbulakshmi were closely related to the singer-actresses P.A. Periyanayaki and R. Padma and to AVM Studios sound engineer V.S. Raghavan who did pathbreaking work in Tamil cinema dubbing and syncing. In a twist of fate, some of the films these relatives were involved in had dance direction by Muthuswami Pillai years before P.A. Periyanayaki introduced him to Sayee and Subbulakshmi. And to top it all, a present-generation relative is a talented singer who sang for a just-released Telugu film!

Continuing on from the Muthuswami Pillai series Part 1 and Part 2, here in Part 3, I want to highlight the little information I've been able to find about these relatives and feature some of R. Padma and P.A. Periyanayaki's on-screen singing and dancing performances, one of which is choreographed by Muthuswami Pillai!

My research for this post began when I found the following post on the Facebook account of Nithya Bayya, a Madras-born talented singer and cricketer in the San Francisco Bay Area:
"Came across this wonderful blog post regarding my aunts Sai-Subbalakshmi who were India's famous dance duo in 1940s. Read through the comments and discovered so many facts about my family that i didnt even know. They were actors, singers, sound engineers, cinematographers, dancers ..but most importantly they were pioneers who contributed so much to the world of cinema. I am proud to be a part of such a huge legacy. http://roughinhere.wordpress.com/2008/10/24/sai-subbulaxmi/  Thanks Raghavendra Ganesh, Mom and Dad & Ratchagan for your active participation in proividing so much information. It is also a very humbling experience to see how much they have achieved and how much we need to strive to do something remotely close to what they have done." (Facebook)

Further searching revealed comments Nithya had made on YouTube videos of Sabapathy: 
"My grandmother was R Padma, the heroine of the movie sabapathy. Interesting tidbit, her best friends NSK ayya TA Mathuram were godparents to my mom and were responsible for naming her as well. They named her mathuram too..." (YouTube)
"My grandmother R Padma is the heroine of this movie (the bride who is gettng married in this song). Periya Nayaki amma is my grand aunt. Always loved this song..." (YouTube)
In communications with Nithya, I discovered that R. Padma was Sayee's mother-in-law! R. Padma had married Raghavan V.S. and had five children.  The oldest child, Santaram V.S., married Sayee; middle child Mathuram Babai had a daughter, Nithya; and the youngest child R. Sudha had a son, Raghavendra Ganesh.

After closely reviewing the comments from Richard's blog and the information from Nithya, I've not been able to nail down exactly how this group connects with P.A. Periyanayaki and Subbulakshmi. Nithya describes P.A. Periyanayaki as her grand aunt, Sayee's relatives note P.A. Periyanayaki was Sayee and Subbulakshmi's mother, and Sujatha Vijayaraghavan in Sruti says P.A. Periyanayaki was the aunt and cousin of Sayee and Subbulakshmi. In any case, whether through marriage or blood, the extended family was clearly very close and active in the film industry. And that activity continues today with Nithya who sang a song in the Telugu movie Kiss which just released last month. Here she is being interviewed on a Bay Area show about her cricket and singing activities—she is warm and engaging, and I wish her well!

R. Padma

According to Randor Guy, R. Padma was a "Lux Soap" model who "was active in Tamil cinema during the 1940's, but never made it to the top" and "is barely remembered today." The "Blast from the Past" and related articles at The Hindu list Padma as an actress in: Vaayaadi (1940), Sabapathy (1941), Prabhavathi (1942), Aayiram Thalaivaangi Apoorva Chintamani (1947), Geeta Gandhi (1949), Devamanohari (1951), and as an actress and singer in En Manaivi (1942).

Sabapathy (1941) - "Naan Angae" - R. Padma played "the hero's educated wife who teaches her husband English" in this film. In the song "Naan Angae" below, she performs a dance! Sabapathy was among the very first films Muthuswami Pillai choreographed for. I was surprised to find that the film title cards credited dance direction to not only V.S. Muthuswami Pillai but also Meenakshisundaram Pillai! This must be Vaitheeswarankoil Meenakshisundaram Pillai, Muthuswami's guardian and the person who first introduced Muthuswami to film choreography through his famous students Yogam and Mangalam (see Part One for more information). Perhaps Sabapathi was sort of an "apprentice" film where Muthuswami learned the ropes under Meenakshisundaram. The dance is fascinating considering how early it was filmed. It is presented not for a male patron or courtly admirers but rather for elders/prospective family members (?) in a respectable, domestic setting. Padma's costume is full of gorgeous details, patterns, and designs, and it has a modern sewn-in pyjama fan. I find Padma's dance abilities lacking and she is quite stiff, but the number is a wonderfully-preserved item of historical interest.


En Manaivi (Tamil, 1942) - "Padanathaip Parkap Parkap Pasi" - In this cute song with vocals by Padma herself, she plays a village woman who is amazed by the music she mysteriously heard while at the beach and sings a song about it and the modern marvels of science. The mysterious music at the beach actually comes from the loudspeaker pole seen at :50, which Randor Guy notes was a real loudspeaker in the Madras High Court Beach that "was a novelty and many people flocked there just to listen to music and sounds coming out seemingly from nowhere" (The Hindu).



P.A. Periyanayaki

P.A. Periyanayaki was one of the famous playback singers in South Indian cinema in the 1940s and 1950s. Randor Guy writes, "Hailing from Panrutti, a small town, some hundred miles from Madras, Periyanayaki was blessed with a ringing, bold, melodious voice. Her musical talent helped her make a foray into films when she was 10 in C. V. Raman’s Urvashiyin Kadhal and she gradually pushed her way up mostly in small but singing roles. She attracted attention in T. R. Raghunath’s Prabhavati. Her big moment came when Meiyappan sent for her for Sri Valli."

In Tamil talkies up through the early 1940s, stars had to be able to both act and sing live on camera, and the most popular singing stars of the period were M.K. Thyagaraja Bagavathar (MKT, the "first superstar of South Indian cinema") and P.U. Chinnappa1. As technology advanced, the concepts of dubbing and synching sound slowly came into use. P.A. Periyanayaki is sometimes popularly remembered as the first playback singer in Tamil cinema, but that credit actually goes to Lalitha Venkatraman in the 1938 film Nandakumar (1938)1,2. But P.A. Periyanayaki could be considered the first "post-synchronization" singer in Tamil cinema and certainly the first popular one. When AVM Studios founder A.V. Meiyappan recalled the prints of Sri Valli (1945), replaced Rukmini's voice with Periyanayaki (who had to match her singing to the already recorded visual image!), and rushed the revised prints out to theaters 1,3, Periyanayaki's songs were a huge success and she "emerged as a much sought-after playback singer" and the film "set the trend of playback singing in the industry"3,4.

Interestingly, the innovative chief of AVM's sound department and the person whom A.V. Meiyappan consulted with to replace Rukmini's songs in Sri Valli was none other than V. Srinivasa Raghavan (V.S. Raghavan), who as noted above was R. Padma's husband and the father-in-law of Sayee! Raghavan had trained "under the legendary audiographer C.E. Biggs of the Gemini studios" and had pioneered the "first dubbed film in the history of the Tamil/Indian cinema" when he mixed in a Tamil dialogue track specifically written to match the lips of the Kannada artists in Harishchandra for the dubbed Tamil version released in 19441.

The "Blast from the Past" and related articles at The Hindu (mostly penned by the fabulous walking encyclopaedia Randor Guy) lists P.A. Periyanayaki in the cast of Utthama Puthran (1940), Prabhavati (1942), Vichitra Vanitha (1947), Krishna Bhakthi (1948), and Geeta Gandhi (1949), and as at least one of the playback singers for Sri Valli (1945), Vichitra Vanitha (1947), Gnanasoundari (1948), Prasanna (1950, Malayalam), Kerala Kesari (1951, Malayalam), Vanasundari (1951), Singari (1951), Ulagam (1953), and Marumagal (1953). She also is said to have played the role of Naradar in Rukmangadhan (1946). Online folks have said she sang for some Telugu films like Beedalapatlu (1950), Ammalakkalu (1953), and Oka Talli Pillalu (1953). And it seems widely known that she sang as herself on screen in Sabapathy (1941). But we also know from the film credits that she did playback for Mallaikkalan (1954) and Telugu remake Aggi Ramudu (according to friend of the blog Gaddeswarup)—presumably for Sayee and Subbulakshmi's numbers! I have wondered if Periyanayaki sang for more of their film dances but couldn't find any mention. P.A. Periyanayaki also had a sister P.A. Rajamani, who sang songs in Bhaktha Gowri (1941) and was in the cast of Prabhavathi (1942).

Sabapathy (Tamil, 1941) - "Sundari Nee" - In this number, a wedding celebration for R. Padma's character (who can be seen as the "blushing bride" a few times), P.A. Periyanayaki gives a vocal performance as herself—I love everything about her from her striking presence and powerful voice to the brooch on her sari pallu. She commands your attention! According to a program invitation card that flashes on the screen before this song, the other female musicians are C.V. Dhanalakshmi on the fiddle and V. Neelambari on the mridangam. Isn't it refreshing to see a live performance on film, especially after being subjected to so much horrendous fake-veena playing on screen! What beautiful preservation of these women's talents on film.


What a beautiful legacy these men and women have created for us audiovisually on screen. In Lakshmi Subramanian's words, these "films give us some glimpses into a world that does not otherwise leave any trace."

Last, I will close with this thumbnail I just found of a beautiful, high-quality image of Sayee-Subbulakshmi in the film Naya Sansar (1959)--click on the image to link to the full version at Osianama, a new and promising online Indian digital archive with a great Indian cinema collection:




Sources Cited:
1. Pillai, Swarnavel Eswaran. "Chapter 3: AVM and Gemini Studios: The Dravidian Movement and the Competing Narratives." Tamil Cinema and the Major Madras Studios 1940-1957. PhD Diss.
2. Guy, Randor. "Blast from the Past: Nandakumar 1938." The Hindu.
3. Guy, Randor. "Blast from the Past: Sri Valli 1945." The Hindu.
4. Vasudevan, K.V. "Manorama in Flashback."

3 comments:

  1. Wow I am going to blog Sabapathy soon! I agree about Periyanayaki. Lovely song and woman. And Randor Guy should be a national treasure! Anu

    PS: I hope wordpress let's you see the comments!

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    1. Hello Anu, Sorry you're having some problems leaving comments. OpenID seems to be finicky! I love all the women in the video with Periyanayaki, especially the kick-ass mridangist! Related to the costuming in the films in this post, have you seen Ragothaman's recent fashion-oriented posts at the BN and the Worldwide Web blog? If not, get thee hence! ;D Here they are: http://sangeethas.wordpress.com/tag/bharatanatyam-costume/ In Part 17 he had commented about the unusual sleeves and lapels! So fascinating...

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    2. Ah thanks for the links and I shall get myself there asp. I have to do a post based on a link Raghu sent me too...

      I love that its an all woman quartet.

      PS: The posting seems to be working:)

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