In her lifetime, MS Subbulakshmi was adored and idolised as few classical musicians have been in any part of the world. Her young voice intoxicated listeners. One of her concerts at the huge Madras Senate House had to be cancelled because of the stampede caused by overwhelming crowds. Her lead role in the film Meera turned the Carnatic musician into a pan-Indian icon. In Brindavan and Dwaraka, crowds followed the singing actor down the street, believing her to be the reincarnation of the 15th century poet! Even haughty Hindustani musicians felt her magic. Pandit Ravi Shankar said, “Her amazing voice had the tonal quality of a temple bell, combining deep pure emotion and technical perfection.”
When MS Subbulakshmi began to donate her earnings from concerts to charitable causes ranging from research and education to science and art, fans became devotees, especially as her Spartan lifestyle matched the ideals that she sang about. Awards and honours rained upon her – including the Music Academy’s Sangita Kalanidhi, the Magsaysay Award and the Bharat Ratna. The first Carnatic musician to perform at the Edinburgh Festival (1963) and for the United Nations Assembly (1966) she won rave reviews. Her statue was installed in Tirupati by the temple authorities, for propagating medieval poet Annamacharya’s songs extolling Lord Venkateswara.
The only wealth Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi (1916-2004), daughter of devadasi musician Shanmukhavadivu, inherited was music. She was barely ten when her first song for the Twin recording company became a hit. By age 17, she had graduated to the main performance slot in premiere sabhas.
Her marriage to firebrand freedom fighter T Sadasivam took her into a sphere that few musicians enter. She played host to national leaders, statesmen, scientists, artistes, industrialists and educationists. Her world acquired a national sweep, the ideals of Gandhi and Rajaji began to influence her music.
While she remained deeply entrenched in the Carnatic music matrix with doyen Semangudi Srinivasa Iyer for guru, she also learnt from many more, including Hindustani musicians Dilip Kumar Roy and Siddheswari Devi. Sadasivam was convinced that his wife’s unique voice had to be used to promote eternal values, and the community’s wellbeing. He encouraged her to diversify her repertoire with bhakti verses from 13 Indian languages. On occasion, she sang an English hymn, a Japanese chant or an Arabic prayer.
The MS myth has it that Sadasivam exercised complete control over his wife’s life and art, that she simply followed his diktats. Did she really have no mind of her own? If so, how did she brave strident controversy when she chose him for her life partner?
Also, her films -- each carefully chosen by her -- make you wonder if MS found her own way to express her convictions. In Sevasadanam (1938), based on Munshi Premchand’s reformist novel, protesting against forms of victimising women sanctioned by society, even her usual devotional song became a woman’s appeal for emancipation. In Sakuntalai (1940), her scorn for the royal husband who repudiates her was trounced by critics as sacrilegious in an Indian woman! MS offered no apology. She insisted on playing Meera (1944), a princess who defied State power, patriarchal autocracy, and spurned material wealth, to walk with the oppressed. To her generation, this was the saga of India breaking free from British rule, to find not only political, but spiritual freedom. In the film, MS did not play Meera, she became Meera.
MS was not without her critics. Some deemed her a popular artist merely, “All voice, no originality.” They failed to notice her self-reflexive strength and sharp intelligence in crafting her own stylistics—with superb breath control, tonal modulations, flawless diction—converting virtuosic techniques into tools for passionate bhava. They seemed so effortless that they were mistaken for intuitive overflow. Despite learning from many gurus she imitated none. When she sang, she soared at will.
Early years of poverty made MS empathise with the destitute. It also made her lose interest in material possessions. She thought no one had a right to be ostentatious in a world full of suffering. Perhaps the restrictions in life made her soar all the more in her music where she actualised the polarities of seeking and finding, loss and gain, desire and fulfillment. Surely, the fervour and fanfare in her centenary celebrations this year would have made her smile and say, “Don’t celebrate the human, celebrate the divine.”
The kind of music MS made came from the kind of person she was—simple, innocent, humble, caring, and very shy. During the Partition, when the subcontinent became a slaughterhouse, Mahatma Gandhi wanted to hear MS sing Meera’s words, “Lord, remove the anguish of humanity”. Why MS? He explained, “To sing a bhajan is one thing. To sing it by losing oneself in God is quite different.”
Subbulakshmi’s music gleams with the tears of human grief, seeking the bliss beyond.
By Gowri Ramnarayan,
Publication: 3rd March 2016, Mumbai, DNA