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Genius of Song by Dr.Gowri Ramnarayan
FRONTLINE, Dec 31, 1993
"We walked 30 miles to hear you today but arrived only at the very end. We
waited in the hope of offering our respects to you before returning to
The speakers were a dust-streaked couple in crumpled sari and dhoti in
remote Ayalur in Tamil Nadu's Thanjavur district - where Carnatic vocalist
M.S. Subbulakshmi had given a concert as the finale of a week-long temple
festival. Her name had drawn from villages miles around, thousands who
were at that time returning with no thought or word beyond the exhilaration
her vocal music had wrought.
Drained by the two-and-a-half hour performance and passage through the
adulation of the packed crowds, the (then) 70-year-old musician had no
thought but of rest during the early journey of the next day. But she
would not, could not, send the couple away disappointed. "Let us sing
at least one song for them." The younger accompanist to whom she said
this asked, "Do you know it is midnight now?" With a smile MS began to
sing with the same earnestness and attention she had shown earlier on the
stage. For her, music was ever a matter of reverence.
Another instance illustrates her appeal to the cognoscenti: It was with
more than the usual trepidation that M.S. Subbulakshmi faced a distin-
guished audience of needle-sharp rasikas and fellow musicians at the
Music Academy in Madras one evening in the 1950s. She was about to present
a pallavi in Raga Begada, "Kailasapate, pasupate, umapate, namostute,"
across the Adi tala cycle. This was a challenge to her virtuosity in
rhythm-charged ragam-tanam-pallavi techniques. Star-singer though she
already was, she was not particularly known for pallavi pyrotechnics.
What followed was no different from the typical Subbulakshmi concert -
thunderous applause greeted her at every stage of the unfolding.
The pallavi piece had been the idea of a musician friend and mentor Musiri
Subramania Iyer. MS had enthusiastically rehearsed it with the active
encouragement of violinist Tiruvalangadu Sundaresa Iyer, whose tuft-waving
shouts of "bhesh, bhesh!" had punctuated the practice sessions.
The Alathur brothers, known to be masters of laya and pallavi exposition,
were to call on MS the next day and offer their congratulations. "We have
no words to describe the beauty and balance of your presentation. What
anchored every part firmly to a finished whole was the accent on the Raga
and the bhava you brought to it. This is what makes your music so enchanting,
so durable. This is what the great Dakshinamurthi Pillai found to be
special in your singing years ago." With that the mists parted and MS was
back in shy girlhood.
Kunjamma (as she was known to those close to her), brought up with all
the rigorous strictness that her mother could impose upon her training
in art as in life, had sung at a wedding in the household of Dakshina-
murthi Pillai, the venerable percussionist from Pudukkottai. The event
had drawn a galaxy of artists - including the upcoming Semmangudi Srinivasa
Iyer, Musiri Subramania Iyer, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, Rajamanickam
Pillai, Rajaratnam Pillai, Palghat Mani Iyer, G.N. Balasubramaniam and the
The next day, in the midst of this starry assembly, Dakshinamurthi Pillai
suddenly smote his head with vehemence. "Andavane! (oh God!) How will you
save your throats for a lifetime if you engage in vocal gymnastics? Leave
all that to us drummers. Singers must emphasize the raga and the bhava so
that you preserve your voice and let it gain in timbre. That little girl
there, she knows this already. Didn't we hear her yesterday? Wasn't it
satisfying? Touch our hearts?" At that public praise, Kunjamma shrank even
more behind her mother in the corner.
Lost in memories, Subbulakshmi's narrative trembles. Those were times to
recall with tears. She was blessed by every senior musician who came home
to sing and play before or listen to her musician mother Shanmukhavadivu
playing the veena. Some were legendary firgures like Tirukkodikaval Krishna
Iyer, Veena Seshanna of Mysore, Ponuswami Pillai, Naina Pillai, Chittoor
Subramaniam Pillai, Venkataramana Dass of Vizianagaram. Invariably, Kunjamma
would be jerked forward to sing. "Though I would always be encouraged and
appreciated by them, I never lost my timidity." She recalls that some of
them would teach her a song or two - as did the great Ariyakudi Ramanuja
"What were you like in those days?" brings a change in mood. "You can see
it in the old pictures," she laughs. "A side parting in thick curls pressed
down with lots of oil, a huge dot covering most of my forehead, the half-
saree pinned to the puff-sleeved blouse with long brooch and longer safety
pin, eardrops, nose-rings and bangles of imitation gold...Oh I forgot. The
long plait was tied up with a banana stem strip! Or a ribbon which never
matched." Getting ready for the stage meant also the addition of a row of
medals on the shoulder.
MS has been sheltered and protected through 78 years now. Like everybody
else, she has had ups and downs, faced hurdles and setbacks, known heart-
break. As an artist in India, she has scaled unrivalled peaks of fame.
Through these public and personal happenings, she continues to radiate the
childlike innocence of the old portraits. Yet what lingers on her face is
not the look of naivete, or inexperience. It is a sense of inner peace and
timeless faith lining her gentleness.
A perceptive profile of Subbulakshmi states: "Success and fame bring in
their train friends and adulation, as well as jealousy and carping critics.
She has been paid the most extravagant tributes by musicians, scholars,
high dignitaries of State...I have also heard others dismiss her as a pretty
singer with a pretty voice who has built up a reputation on false values.
She herself takes all this in her stride." It ends with a tribute to the
beauty and grace of her music and looks to its maturing into greatness.
The year was 1955.
That she has reached this greatness will hardly be challenged, even by
critics of her style - or those who play the devil's advocate. She has
been the recipient of the highest awards and honours the nation could
bestow upon an artist short of the Bharat Ratna, and of significant
But the impressive list of distinctions can hardly explain the MS mystique.
Certainly it has to do with her extraordinary voice, which continues to
ring in the mind with vibrant power and clarity, whether heard from near
or far or any angle. That her music is not diminished by the absence of
instrumental accompaniment is knowledge treasured by those privileged to
hear her in private. It was realised by the multitudes on occasions when
her devotional songs were telecast by Doordarshan, as at the time of Indira
A whole range of explanations are offered for the primeval resonance of
her voice - from the metaphysical to the physical. There are pious devotees
who believe it to be a gift as a result of oblations of honey through her
previous births! An ENT specialist, on the other hand, declares it has to do
with the unusual arrangement of her vocal chords. To hear her is to be
spellbound - the experience of more than three generations of men and women
in many parts of the world. Over the years, the voice and charisma have
melded to irresistibility nonpareil. Admirers range from old-timers, hep
youngsters, fellow artists, householders, ascetics, religious and political
leaders, atheists, scientists and fact-finders and pundits, to philistines.
Princes and heads of state have bowed to her music, as when the (then)
Maharana of Udaipur said to MS and husband T. Sadasivam: "In the old days
I would have exchanged my whole kingdom for this Kalyani raga. Now I shall
give you whatever help you need by way of horses and elephants in location
shooting." The occasion was the filming of Meera, produced by Sadasivam
with MS in the lead. Jawaharlal Nehru's tribute to her, "Who am I before
the queen of song?" has been publicised widely as has been Mahatma Gandhi's
request, shortly before he was gunned down by a Hindu fanatic on January 30,
1948. A message had been sent to Madras that Gandhiji wished MS to render
his favourite bhajan, "Hari tum haro," and a response had gone from husband
Sadasivam to the effect that she did not know how to sing this particular
bhajan, somebody else could sing "Hari tum haro", and she could sing another
bhajan. A reply had promptly come back on behalf of the Mahatma: "I should
prefer to hear it SPOKEN by Subbulakshmi than SUNG by others."
Nearly half a century after this incident, MS and Sadasivam recall that she
heard the news of Gandhiji's assassination when she was listening to a relay
of the Thyagaraja Utsavam (festival) and immediately her own singing of
"Hari tum haro" came on the air. She swooned from the shock.
Had not Gandhiji called upon her at a prayer meeting in 1947 at Birla House
in Bombay, "Subbulakshmi, Ramdhun tum gao" (You sing the Ramdhun)? His
choice of songs and his manner of recognition show that the Mahatma was
thinking beyond music. It was that special quality she invokes of peace
and bliss, not just with her voice, but from the depths of her own character
- simple, devout and spirituelle.
Often lay persons with no liking of classical music still play her devotional
verses as an every morning ritual. The suprabhatams on the deities of Tirupati,
Kasi, Rameshwaram and Kamakshi of Kanchi thrill pilgrims at dawn in temples
from Kedarnath to Kanyakumari. In the midst of roadside blasts of film songs,
if an occasional "Kaatrinile varum geetham" of "Chaakar rakho ji" come on,
the pedestrian is arrested into paused listening. There are others who swear
that listening to her recorded music helped them tide over troubled times,
even traumas and tragedies. In this writer's personal experience, there was
the instance of a dear friend, a Hyderabadi girl, who repeatedly asked for
"any MS music" as she bravely faced death from third degree burns.
More remarkable is her popularity outside the Carnatic belt. According to
traditional stereotype, the North Indian is supposed to be indifferent to
Carnatic music, but MS concerts draw large audiences in Jalandhar and Jaipur,
Kanpur and Bhopal, Pune and Baroda, notwithstanding the predominance of the
heavy pieces in Telugu, Sanskrit and Kannada by composers ranging from
Thyagaraja to Yoganarasimham. The initial recognition, of course, came through
the bhajans in Hindi that she rendered for the film Meera in 1944.
Delightedly surrendering her title "The Nightingale of India" to MS, Sarojini
Naidu introduced her in the film's first reel. A slender MS with downcast
eyes, corkscrew curls blowing, hands twisting her pallav, is overwhelmed as
Naidu heaps tributes with this prophecy to her countrymen, "You will be proud
that India in this generation has produced so supreme an artist."
Since then, MS recitals have always included bhajans - of Meera first and later
Tulsidas, Kabir, Surdas, Nanak and abhangs of Tukaram. A few have heard her
sing chhote khayals and thumris ("Na manoongi, Mishra Khamaj); "Neer bharan
kaise jaaon," Tilakamod; "Mano mano kanhaiyya," Jonpuri), that she learnt in
the 1930s from Dwijenderlal Roy in Calcutta and later from Siddheshwari Devi
of Benares. The latter spent some months in Madras teaching MS thumris and
tappas. It was a lesson in assiduity to see the two great women seated on the
mat, facing each other and practising with intense interest the Yaman scales
over and over again, with Siddheshwari Devi rolling the beads to keep the
To many North Indian business barons, an MS recital at a family wedding is not
a status symbol but a blessing on the young couple. With excellent singers in
Bombay who can sing bhajans with the greater ease of mother tongue spontaneity,
why did they insist on a bhajan concert by MS? A Bombay-based industrialist's
reply to the naive question was, "True! We can listen to good music by others.
But no one else can create this feeling which takes us straight to heaven."
Hindustani musicians themselves have never stinted praise. Veteran Alladiya
Khan was charmed by her Pantuvarali (Puriya Dhanashri); Bade Ghulam Ali Khan
had announced she was "Suswaralakshmi Subbulakshmi," and Roshanara Begum
had been ecstatic over her full-length concert. Others from Ravi Shankar to
Pandit Jasraj and Amjad Ali Khan have been unfailing admirers. Vilayat Khan
folds both his hands and closes his eyes as he speaks her name.
This recognition first came in the 1930s in a Calcutta studio when MS played
Narada in Savithri. (This film launched the nationalist Tamil weekly Kalki,
a joint venture of husband Sadasivam and writer R. Krishnamurthi). The MS
recordings would gather other distinguished artists, K.L. Saigal, Pahari
Sanyal, Kananbala, Keskar and Pannalal Ghosh (later to play Krishna's flute
in Meera). Dilipkumar Roy was another admirer who was later to teach her
bhajans and Rabindra Sangeet.
"They would make me sing again and again, especially the song 'Bruhi
mukundeti,` with its lightning sangati in the end," MS recalls happily (in
Tamil). "In those days we had no sense of competition or oneupmanship. We
enjoyed good music wherever we found it." Old-timers remember that in the
film too, as Narada descended from the sky in jerks, but still singing that
enthralling song, the theatre resounded to applause. In the Bombay studio
where the Meera score was recorded, it was the same story. Artists who came
for other recordings would stop by and become rapt listeners. A thin newcomer,
two long plaits dangling behind, refused to record her song after the MS
session. "Not now, not after THAT!" She went on to become a legend in her
own right as Lata Mangeshkar, while continuing to remain a devoted MS fan.
Another MS achievement was that, virtually for the first time, she astonished
the Westerner into an appreciation of Carnatic music. In the 1960s, the few
Indian musicians known outside the country were Hindustani instrumentalists.
In the Western world, hardly anyone knew of the complex Carnatic system, which
was deemed inexportable. Why, even North Indians found it indigestible. In
a conversation with Jawaharlal Nehru, Sadasivam remarked that the West might
prefer instrumental to vocal music. "Yes," said Panditji, tapping his fingers.
Then looking straight at MS he broke into a smile, "But not in YOUR case!"
MS always adds, "By God's grace, what he said came true when I sang at the
Edinburgh Festival, at the United Nations and at Carnegie Hall."
On the eve of a public concert in New York, U.N. Chef de Cabinet and Carnatic
music expert C.V. Narasimhan was disquieted at the prospect of rejection by
the redoubtable critic of the New York Times. He was to call ecstatically
the next morning. "You have won. The press overflows with praise." So it
did after everyone of the string of concerts that MS gave in the US and in
some parts of Europe before all-white audiences, most of whom were strangers
to any music from India.
The New York Times said: "Subbulakshmi's vocal communication trancends words.
The cliche of 'the voice used as an instrument` never seemed more appropriate.
It could fly flutteringly or carry on a lively dialogue with the accompanists.
Subbulakshmi and her ensemble are a revelation to Western ears. Their return
can be awaited with only eagerness." Dr. W. Adriaansz, Professor of Music,
University of Washington, wrote: "For many, the concert by Mrs. Subbulakshmi
meant their first encounter with the music of South India and it was
extremely gratifying that in her the necessary factors for the basis of a
successful contact between her music and a new audience - highly developed
artistry as well as stage presence - were so convincingly present...without
any doubt (she) belongs to the best representants of this music."
This writer witnessed that kind of wondrous rapture in Moscow when MS
performed before a select group of Russian musicians and musicologists in
1988. Midway through the singing a woman came up with flowers. She touched
her eyes first and then her heart to communicate her bursting feelings.
That this was a shared experience became evident when the applause and
the audience followed MS as she left the hall, down the staircase, to the
car on the street, until she drove away.
The question still remains unanswered: What is this almost transcendental
quality behind the unfailing rapture? In the West, such responses are not
unknown to the music from great composers like Mozart and Beethoven. Many
would attribute it to the Indian bhakti tradition of poetry and song to
which the singer belongs. The 6th-7th century cult of the Nayanmars and
the Alwars, spread through Chaitanya and Jayadeva, as the people's movement
of Basavanna and Mahadeviyakka, inspired Namdev and Tukaram, Surdas, Tulsidas
and that extraordinary woman saint Meerabai, who spurned queenship and
wifehood in her restless quest of the Lord. The bhakti polarities of seeking
and finding, loss and conquest, desire and fulfilment are realised in their
Precisely these aspects mark Subbulakshmi's singing. This is true of those
portions without verbal elements, like the raga alapana. Just as the devotee
individuates the deity through incantation and description - detailing every
limb, look and ornamentation - the singer shapes the raga, always starting
with clear strokes to pedestal its identity and going on to breathe it to
form and life. The enunciation of the antara gandhara (Sankarabharanam,
Khambhoji, Pantuvarali, Kedaragowla) in the upper register - as a long-held
note, as the end-point of embellishments, or the pivot of note clusters,
mounts to fever pitch. Hands sculpt the air, face turns upwards, eyes gaze
at the beyond, and suddenly there comes the madhyama/panchama climax and
the rounded process of conclusion, all accomplished with seemingly effortless
grace. After plumbing the depths and soaring to the heights, the listener
emerges into quietude. That is how the Meera archtype gets superimposed in
this Tamil daughter of the 20th century.
What is MS like in real life? The answer would be: except for the taut-
nerved hypersensitivity of all great artists, no different from any other
South Indian housewife, mother and grandmother of her generation. Fame,
the approbation of the world's haut monde and glitterati, the adoration
of hundreds of thousands, have left her transparently untouched. Home needs
and little chores are given the same attention that she gives momentous
affairs. She is meticulous and neat in personal life, even in the delicate
lines of the kolam she draws everyday. She excels at putting all kinds of
visitors at ease, with a genuine interest in what they have to say of
themselves. Gifts which please her most are strings of jasmine and mild
In appearance and lifestyle, she remains conservative: the long pallav of her
handloom cottons or silks tucked round the waist, flower-wreathed "kondai",
diamond nose and ear rings, glass bangles between gold, not to forget the
row of kumkum and vibhuti from many temples dotting the turmeric-washed
forehead. regular in the performance of puja and shloka-recitation, she is
a strict follower of all the prescribed rituals of the sumangali householder.
"My mother-in-law told me before she left for Kasi" would precede these
Owning no jewels beyond what she wears and quick to give away the silk
sarees gifted to her by admirers, she has never tried to appear younger
than she is. Thousands see her as the embodiment of grace and ancient
tradition of Indian womanhood - kind, considerate, compassionate, soft-
spoken, self-sacrificing and somewhat unworldly. She breathes the tenderness
of the mother to the child, the bhakta to the god.
Looking at her self-effacing deportment, one has to remind oneself forcefully
that she is a world-travelled artist, a globally-acclaimed career person
who has changed the definition and image of Carnatic music in the 20th
century. A first-time foreign listener at her concert was quick to note
the ethereality of the MS image. "It is not right to describe her as the
Maria Callas of India. Callas has fans, frenzied legions of them. But not
devotees! MS does not sing, she makes divinity manifest."
How did MS train this voice, develop grasping power, and learn to refract
emotional colours thorugh it? How did she absorb the aesthetics and techniques
of a hoary musical tradition?
Born in the temple town of Madurai on September 16, 1916, to veena player
Shanmukhavadivu (her initial M.S. record the birthplace and mother's name),
little Kunjamma, brother Saktivel and sister Vadivambal grew up surrounded
and filled by music. Grandmother Akkammal had been a violinist. Their tiny
home in the narrow, cattle-lounging Hanumantharayan lane was close to
Meenakshi temple. Whenever the deity was taken in procession through the
main streets, the nadaswaram players would stop where this lane branched off
and play their best for Shanmukhavadivu's approval. "My earliest interest in
music was focussed on the raga. I would try to reproduce the pipers as well
as I could. My mother played and rehearsed constantly. No formal lessons,
but I absorbed a whole wealth by listening and humming along with the
veena." Much later, experts were to wonder at the way in which MS vocally
rendered some of the rare and singular gamakas and prayogas of both veena
The family was rich only in music. Otherwise, for mother and children, and
for the numerous uncles and aunts who crowded their home, it was a frugal
existence. For the two girls it was confinement within the home, while the
brother enjoyed a little more freedom.
Vadivambal died too early to fulfil her promise as a veena player. But for
Subbulakshmi it was to be vocal music. The coconut was broken and offerings
were made to god and guru Madurai Srinivasa Iyengar. But the lessons could
not go beyond the foundations because the guru passed away. "I also learnt
Hindustani music for a short spell from Pandit Narayan Rao Vyas. 'Syama
Sundara` which I sang in the film Seva Sadan was one of the pieces he taught
me. I listened to a lot of good music on the radio (the neighbours'; we didn't
own one!) from the window sill above the staircase. I loved to hear Abdul
Kareem Khan and Bade Ghulam Ali Khan in the silence of the night."
Her formal schooling was stopped in class 5 when a teacher's beating brought
on an attack of whooping cough. But she practiced music for long hours, lost
in the vibrations of the tambura which she would tune reverently. The MS
hallmark of sruti suddham can be traced to a game she evolved in her
childhood. As she sang, she would stop playing the drone at intervals and
check if she continued to maintain the pitch with and without it. Throughout
the day she would sound the shadja panchama notes and pluck the strings to
see if she was still aligned to them.
This natural ability, consciously developed through a kind of yoga, is
responsible for the electrifying effect her opening syllables have on
the audience, whether she plumbs the depths (mandara sanchara) or scales
the heights (tara sanchara) of a fantastic voice range. Another little
known fact of her early life was her fascination for the mridangam which
she learnt to play from brother Saktivel.
Intrigued by the gramophone records, Kunjamma would roll a piece of paper
for the "speaker" (as in the logo of His Master's Voice) and sing into it
for hours. This game became real when she accompanied her mother to Madras
and cut her first disc at the age of 10. The songs were "Marakat vadivu"
and "Oothukuzhiyinile" in an impossibly high pitch. In fact, it was through
the Columbia Gramophone Company records that she was first noticed in the
city - before she was 15 years old.
To balance and leaven maternal stringency, there was lawyer-father Subramania
Iyer who lived a few streets away. In the faded photograph which hangs in
her home today, his soft look and sensitive features bear an unmistakable
resemblance to his "Rajathippa" (princess darling). That is how he called
his pet daughter. He was wont to saying that he would arrange her marriage
with a 'good boy' who would love and cherish her music. Not a singer himself,
he was a true rasika and bhakta. In the early Ramanavami festivals he
organised, there would be puja, music and procession each day. How wonderful
it felt to the little girl when his strong loving hands picked her up and
placed her next to the picture of Rama taken round the streets on a chariot!
The recollection of such scenes from her childhood brings real happiness to
The first stage appearance? "When it heppened, I felt only annoyance at being
yanked from my favourite game - making mud pies. Someone picked me up, dusted
my hands and skirt, carried me to the nearby Sethupati School where my mother
was playing before 50 to 100 people. In those days that was the usual concert
attendance. At mother's bidding I sang a couple of songs. I was too young
for the smiles and the claps to mean much. I was thinking more of returning
to the mud."
From regular vocal accompaniment in Shanmukhavadivu's veena concerts, MS
graduated to solo performances. Of her debut at the Madras Music Academy
when she was 17, a connoisseur wrote: "When she, with her mother by her
side (who played the tambura for the daughter), as a winsome girl in her
teens, ascended the dais in 1934 and burst into classical songs, experienced
musicians of the top rank vied with one another in expressing their delight
in this new find." Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar came forward with loud
hyperboles. Tiger Varadachariar nodded approval. Karaikudi Sambavisa Iyer
was to say later, "Child, you carry the veena in your throat."
At this time Thiagarajan Sadasivam entered her life as a dashing suitor. He
became her husband in 1940. Kasturi Srinivasan, Editor, The Hindu, was
instrumental in arranging their marriage at Tiruneermalai. He insisted on
registering it and also witnessed it. He remained a lifelong friend and
guide. With that began Subbulakshmi's ascent from being a south Indian
celebrity to a national, even world, figure; and from a brilliant young
virtuoso to the consummate artist she is today.
Her image, the course of her career, the direction of her music - they
were all carefully fashioned by Sadasivam who, from the earliest stage,
had a clear vision of what she was one day to attain. This freedom fighter,
who sang nationalist songs himself in public while courting lathicharge
and arrest, introduced MS to the great Congress leaders - Rajaji, Nehru
and Gandhiji. Sadasivam, who made an early mark in the advertising field
and in publishing, has always been the organiser.
To Sadasivam and MS the means have always been as important as the end. And
therefore, though he persuaded her to act in a few movies with specific
financial objectives in mind, they were on idealistic and chaste themes,
with the accent on music. Sakuntalai featured songs still remembered today,
by MS and G.N. Balasubramaniam - "Anandamen solvene", "Premaiyil" and the
sparkling "Manamohananga." Sadasivam also inspired MS to sing lyrics steeped
in patriotism such as those of Subramania Bharati ("Oli padaitha kanninai")
and Bankimchandra Chatterji ("Bande mataram"). Their ardour was such that they
prepared to walk out of the then Corporation Radio, Madras, when refused
permission to include one of these songs in the programme.
If MS is today regarded as a symbol of national integration, one reason
is the inclusion in her repertoire of compositions in languages from many
parts of India. This catholicity was consciously developed at the insistence
of Sadasuvam who sees music not as an aesthetic exercise, but as a vehicle
for spreading spirituality among the populace. For this reason he has
insisted on her giving predominance to bhava and bhakti in alapana, kriti
and niraval, while minimising technical displays in pallavi rendition and
kalpnaswara. Though MS had learnt pallavis from the old stalwart Mazaha-
varayanendal Subburama Bhagavatar, she readily followed her husband's
Believing that his wife's wealth of voice should not be used for personal
gain, Sadasivam chanelled the proceeds of the concerts into charitable
endowments. Starting in 1944 with five concerts for the Kasturba Memorial
Fund, this has grown into a public service contribution of major proportions.
Many causes and institutions (medical, scientific, research, educational,
religious and charitable) have benefited from MS raising over Rs. 2 crore
thus far from singing.
What is responsible for the flawless presentation of an MS 'Concert`? Un-
doubtedly it is the shrewd programming masterminded by Sadasivam to suit
each place and event. While this strategist designs the format and all the
numbers from varnam to the lighter tukkadas, the combination of composers
and languages, the main and ancillary ragas of the evening, he also allots
the duration for each individual piece. MS herself lays out and embellishes
the major pieces mentally, rehearsing constantly, even if outwardly engaged
in other activities. She says: "We can only bring out a fraction of the
thousand ideas we get at home. The stage is a constant examination ground."
>From his seat in front, Sadasivam signals changes likely to please the
day's audience. But the couple have also made experiments, propagated lesser
known/unknown composers, or flouted hidebound conservatism by championing the
Tamil Isai cause of the 1940s.
Recognising sahitya as an integral part of Carnatic music, MS has cultivated
impeccable diction in the different languages of the lyrics she sings. She
is known for attention to every detail such as breath control, pauses in the
right places, voice modulation, changes in emphasis and breaking phrases
in to their proper components. These techniques highlight the meaning. Here
her knowledge of Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Sanskrit and Hindi is of immense
To watch her learn a new composition is an experience in itself. For the
Annamacharya kritis (five cassettes produced for the Tirumala Tirupati
Devasthanam), the lyrics were read repeatedly with an expert in Telugu to
explicate the sense as also methods of splitting the words and syllables
for the musical score; the whole rehearsed until neither text nor notation
was required at the recording session. Even, more awesome was her mastery
of that magnificent edifice, the mela ragamalika by Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan,
a string of 72 ragas mostly rare, with hair's breadth variation between them.
The Sanskrit libretto was equally taxing. But the finished product had
natural ease and flow. When he heard it the Paramacharya of Kanchi pronounced
his blessing: "This will last as long as the sun and the moon stand in the
The MS classical repertoire in several languages is a formidable one,
representing composers from the ancient to the contemporaneous. She acquired
this from several musicians and scholars over the years, from guru Semmangudi
Srinivasa Iyer, Seithur Sundaresa Bhattar, Musiri Subramania Iyer, Papanasam
Sivan, T.L Venkatarama Iyer, Turaiyur Rajagopala Sarma, Mayavaram Krishna
Iyer, K.V. Narayanaswami, S. Ramanathan, Nedunuri Krishnamurti et al. She
learnt a few padams from dancer Balasaraswati as well as from T. Brinda,
both scions of the Dhanammal family renowned for this music. With a voice
particularly suited for these delicate and quintessential depictions of
ragabhava, MS soon shed them from her repertoire, perhaps because of their
In the architectonics of kriti rendition, MS is inimitable, whether in
simple structures or in the careful tier-by-tier build-up of "Giripai"
(Sahana), "Dasarathe" (Todi), "Chakkani Raja" (Kharaharapriya) or "Sri
Subrahmanyaya namaste" (Khambhoji). She is meticulous in maintaining the
authenticity of pathantara as taught to her, drawing this a clear line
between rachita (composed) and kalpita (improvised) sangita. However, the
songs do get modulated and inflected according to her personal genius. That
is why "Durusuga" (Saveri) sung by MS and Musiri (from whom she learnt it)
become different experiences for the listener. When she sang his composition
"Brochevarevarura" in Khamas, eminent musician Mysore Vasudevachar said, "the
daughter had only black beads and glass bangles when she got married. I
feel like her father when she visits him now in a dazzle of jewel and silks."
Her understanding of the texts and the distinct flavours infused into the
score by each composer make for variations in the same raga when she sings
different kritis in it. Her "Needu charana," "Talli ninni," "Nidhitsala
sukhama," "Birana brova yite" and "Bhajare chita," all in Kalyani, reflect
different moods and facets of bhakti.
The universality of her appeal owes in large measure to the vast collection
of songs in several languages over and above the impressive range of classical
compositions. Whether Hindi, Gujarati bhajan, Marathi abhang, Rabindra sangeet,
Sanskrit sloka or Tamil Tiruppugazh, they are all marked by lyrical allure,
poignant feeling and philosophic content. Thus the lighter numbers acquire
a seriousness of their own. As critic and admirer Dr. V.K. Narayana Menon
saw it: "She is, no doubt, constrained to sing music she would rather not.
But that is the price one has to pay for being a celebrity. A musician is
at once an artist and a public entertainer and it is not easy to set aside
the wishes of large sections of one's audience. This is not succumbing to
popular acclamation. It is a kind of invested responsibility."
MS does not flinch from self-criticism. What seems satisfactory while in
the emotion-charged stage ambience is reviewed for improvements. She tells
you that she had to work on varja ragas for easier control. At 78 one finds
her still learning, rehearsing new pieces, with notebooks balanced on sruti
Though she had the maturity and wisdom to transcend showmanship and mere
technical virtuosity, a critique noted, "She was the earliest to compete
with male vidwans in the form and substance of the concert, including
niraval, swara and pallavi singing, a fact hardly noticed in her early
years because it was accomplished with a quiet innocence and humility
which have characterised her eventful life."
Guru Semmangudi also singles out three aspects of technical perfection as
special to the MS style. "No other woman can sing the tanam like her. For
me her reach in the lower octave, rare among women, is as impressive as
her obvious essays in the higher. Thirdly I would rate her niraval singing
among the best I have heard from women."
Particularly in the niraval the listener can perceive her vidwat - in the
permutations of rhythm, in the spacing of syllables, in the perfect anuswaras
connecting the curves, the sangati blitzes at crucial spots, the remarkable
length of phrasing and the karvai balam (strength in dwelling on a single
note). Through these technical feats, she retains and enhances the qualities
of raga and the sahitya, seeing them as inseparable. "Kadambavana nilaye"
(Sri Kamakoti; Saveri); "Rama, rama, rama yanutsu" (Ennaganu; Pantuvarali)
and those wordy lines in "Tiruvadicharanam" (Khambhoji) where the devotee
begs the Lord to save him from countless rebirths - these have long been
lingering niraval experiences.
There is a school of thought that Subbulakshmi is a natural genius, that her
music is not so much cerebral as inspired. However, the discerning listener
knows how her music is crafted and polished; how the conscious and the
unconscious elements are balanced. On those rare occasions when she is
introduced to talk about her approach she says: "The ragaswarupa must be
established at once. Don't keep the listener in suspense as to whether it
is Purvikalyani or Pantuvarali. This difference must come through in the way
you dwell on the notes common to both ragas, even before the introduction
of dissimilar notes. In Sankarabharanam stress the rishabha, but in Kalyani
accent the gandhara quickly."
She goes on to sing differences in treatment between Durbar and Nayaki,
Saurashtram and Chakravakam, Devgandhari and Arabhi. At a crowded wedding
she can suddenly call your attention to the distant nadaswaram's mishandling
of Sriranjini to sound those phrases exclusive to Ritigowla. She can
fascinate with her demonstration of tonal levels of every note in Bhairavi,
their inter-relationships, permissible degrees of oscillation. "Much of this
I kept discovering as I listened and sang. Learning the veena from Vidwan
K.S. Nayaranaswami later in life was very beneficial in this search to
understand raga intricacies."
Yet, popular rather than critical acclaim has more often not been the outcome
of the MS efforts. She arouses devotion more than analytical scrutiny,
despite her undoubted musicianship. In a nation quick to canonise and deify,
she was first transformed into a saint, then to a veena-holding Saraswati -
the goddess of learning and the arts.
The golden voice is a divine gift which cannot fail the possessor, who remains
a stranger to the struggles and labours of the less gifted. However, a 1968
commendation by T.T. Krishnamachari (Ananda Vikatan) recognises the truth.
"She has the maturity to keep on learning. Training, feeling, and grasping
power, she has them all. God has given her a good voice. She has made excellent use of that voice through practice. No one can become an expert without
labour. A good voice by itself will not make for great art, though, as far
as I know, no one (but MS) has been blessed with a voice of such sweetness."
Through her long career MS had drawn strength both on and off the stage
from Radha (Viswanathan). Radha trained herself from childhood to vocally
accompany MS in concerts. A major illness has curtailed her supportive role
for the last 12 years, a loss which MS feels deeply.
The miracle of her performing full-length concerts at her age she attributes
to the two gurus the Sadasivams have revered all their lives: the sage of
Kanchi and the Sai Baba of Puttuparthi. For, at 78, MS continues to increase
in mellow artistry. Her commitment is evident in the ways in which she
manages to overcome the handicaps of old age and physical frailty.
The warbles and trills of youth - the fine careless rapture of the careless
bird in springtime - gave way in course of time to richness of timbre, to
chiselled, polished execution. The brika flashes and organised raga edifices
with high note crescendos were replaced by longer journeys into less-trodden
ways in the middle and lower registers. These explorations are now undertaken
in the freedom and ripeness of an autumn majesty. Retaining the sonorous
sweetness and vitality through all these years of upward growth, "MS music"
now makes an even more ravishing impact on the mind. "As I grow older,
I feel more and more overwhelmed by the music." One sees this happening
at times on the stage. Then she has to exercise great control just to go
Not the least of her achievements in over six decades of singing is the
development of style of her own. This is not based on identifiable
techniques of execution, but on the communication of a mood, of an ecstasy
of emotion. What the ancient theoreticians called rasadhvani, when art
became an experience of that ultimate bliss within and without, both
immanent and transcendent. This was accomplished through auchitya - a
wide term which embraces contextual appropriateness, adaptation of parts
to one another and to the whole, a fitness of things, and poetic harmony.
And MS exemplifies them all in her choice of raga and sahitya, balance of
mood and technique, in her "mike sense" and timing, in the consonance she
establishes with her accompanists and audience.
Towards the end of each recital MS sounds the cymbals in eyes-closed
concentration for the Rajaji hymn "Kurai onrum illai " (I have no regrets).
It becomes obvious that for all the splendour of her music, it is her
image as a saintly person which will probably endure long after this century,
just as in the case of Meerabai. For, in the highest tradition of the
Indian way of life, Subbulakshmi links her art with the spiritual quest,
where humility and perseverance assure the sadhaka of grace.