Source: FRONTLINE, December 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 our village."
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
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
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 Alathur brothers.
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 Iyenger.
"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 international recognition.
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 Gandhi's assassination.
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
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
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
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
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 108 count.
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
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 verses.
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 French perfumes.
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 observances.
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 and nadaswaram.
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
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 her today.
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
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 instructions.
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
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 sensuous content.
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 box.
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
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 on singing.
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
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.