Studio Photography 1937

Balasaraswati and MS Subbulakshmi

One of the most fabulous photographs I have come across. The blurb to this photograph in the book Balasaraswati: Her Art and Life by Douglas M Knight reads

“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.”

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.

Here’s Outlook’s review of the book that calls this photograph the “real masala”.

The photograph makes it’s appearance in Madras Then, Chennai Now by Roli Books which you can read about here at

The review of the book (Douglas Knight) on Hardnews says about the photograph:

“Significant in this context is a studio photograph of MS Subbulakshmi and Balasaraswati in the 1920s, singer and dancer nonpareil, dressed in striped pajama suits with cigarettes tucked into their mouths. Both young women look desultory in western clothes and espouse a westernization that most Indians in the 1920s would have been wary of. Ironically, the devadasi was to be rescued because of progressive western ideals that sought to free her from a life of debasement and provide her with a life of morality and dignity.”



5 thoughts on “Studio Photography 1937

  1. Pingback: Studio Photography, 2014, Puducherry | Illegibilities

  2. Pingback: TM Krishna on MS | Out of Context

  3. Pingback: Studio Photography 1937 – Rashmi Munikempanna

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