India has never witnessed a global phenomenon like M.S. Subbulakshmi (1916-2004) in the ancient genre of Carnatic music. But what was so special about her music that even someone like Mahatma Gandhi wanted to listen to her sing a Meera bhajan? What made her music appeal to audiences who didn’t understand a word of what she was singing? How did she manage to cast a spell?
Subbulakshmi’s journey began very early, with exposure to music at home from her mother Shanmugavadivu, a veena artiste in Madurai. Shanmugavadivu made sure all her children were taught music. Her son Sakthivel mastered the mridangam and her other daughter, Vadivambal, played the violin. Subbulakshmi, too, mastered the art of playing the mridangam and played the veena effortlessly. Though she was never seen playing the mridangam during her career, nor did she perform many veena concerts in public, there are recordings of the lecture-demonstrations she conducted at the Madras Music Academy. As a quick learner, it was not difficult for her to assimilate different musical experiences and make them her own. Her strict adherence to pitch-perfection added to the magnetism in her voice.
Decades later, in the 1970s, voice culture expert Peter Callatin would fly down from Europe to attend her concert at the Shanmukhananda Hall in Mumbai. She was past 70 then. He was awestruck at her adherence to shruti, or pitch, even in the minutest of microtones. In a chat with arts impresario Usha R.K., Subbulakshmi mentioned how she designed an aalapam, or the initial melodic elaboration. She compared the structuring to a diamond-studded choker where larger stones are set between smaller ones. She would display technical brilliance in a melodic scale every few seconds while rendering a long aalapam. This way she had the undivided attention and adulation of her audiences.
Her initial training from Carnatic gurus like Madurai Srinivasa Iyengar, violinist Sethu Sundaresha Bhattar and Mayavaram Krishna Iyer gave her a grounding in the nuances of the genre. She sang Marakatha Vadivum in her first known public recording—she was only nine years old at the time, but her voice made it impossible to believe that. She was a child prodigy and a Carnatic superstar.
The film Meera (Tamil, 1945; and Hindi, 1947), directed by Ellis R. Dungan, made Subbulakshmi a national figure. She not only played the role of the poet-saint Meera Bai but also sang all the songs for her role. And she found a new guru in Dilip Kumar Roy. The son of nationalist freedom fighter Dwijendralal Roy, he had helped arrange music for Meera. Training in a language alien to her, with a strong south Indian accent, Subbulakshmi sang Bengali songs in later years. In fact, in one of her final concerts in Kolkata, the audience was left in raptures at her rendering of Dhano Dhanyo. Roy, like many others, was a regular guest at Subbulakshmi’s house and accepted her and her husband T. Sadasivam’s generous hospitality. One of the last thumri exponents from Varanasi, Siddheshwari Devi, stayed as Subbulakshmi’s house guest for six months and taught her several bhajans. When Subbulakshmi was honoured with the Sangita Kalanidhi award, the Oscar of Carnatic music, Siddheshwari Devi travelled all the way to mark her attendance for the historic event in 1968.
From Begum Akhtar, she learnt a ghazal by Mirza Ghalib, Ishrat-e-Qatra. She sang it confidently in her strong Carnatic voice.
How did all this influence Subbulakshmi’s music? Did it dilute her existing Carnatic genre, something purists would accuse her of in later years? One cannot say that if you’ve heard her sing the complicated Viriboni (Varnam) or listened to her voice soar three-and-a-half octaves in Ninuvina set to ragam Navarasa Kanada. Her husband and manager Sadasivam would judge audiences and events and programme her music accordingly.
In pure Carnatic sabhas, she delivered as much as they expected. In her extensively globe-trotting performance career, she tailored her recitals to suit the occasion. Her name was enough to fill halls. Tickets for concerts would be sold out months ahead of the actual event. By the end of a concert, thousands of uninitiated would have begun to appreciate Carnatic music and fallen in love with her voice.
Among her contemporaries T. Brinda and T. Muktha, granddaughters of the famous matriarch Veena Dhanammal, were close friends from the days in Madurai. Known for a large repertoire of padams and javalis that celebrated the amorous sentiment, Subbulakshmi learnt several of these in their friendly company. Listen to her sing a Kshetrayya padam Moratopu in ragam Sahana or an Ashtapadi Priye Charusheele from the famous 12th century erotic poem Gita Govinda Of Jayadeva, and you will understand how she conveys the idea of delicate sensuousness carefully through her music.
Under the able guidance of the stalwart Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, her Carnatic music bloomed multifold. He was the finishing school her music required. He not only fine-tuned her music but also expanded her repertoire by teaching her new compositions. She added the compositions of maharaja Swathi Thirunal and several Tamil poets to her repertoire.
As a staunch devotee of the Kanchi Paramacharya and Sathya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi, she mastered their writings and bhajans. Listen to the famous Maithreem Bhajatha or Leela Nataka Sai in ragam Kurinji, and you can’t help but wonder at her sense of surrender. At the historic UN concert in October 1966, she presented an eclectic mix of music. She became a sensation with her recording of the Venkateswara Suprabhatam and Vishnu Sahasranamam. She reached every household. Temple doors opened to her voice. This enhanced her image as a heroine of the uninitiated. Several other noted musicians tried to record these same compositions years later, but failed.
She also immortalized the writings of the eighth century philosopher saint, Adi Shankara, in her voice. Her Sanskrit was impeccable.
It was difficult to accept anyone else’s voice for the songs she had sung. In her music, they saw the personal heroes they worshipped. Her music had a scathing honesty and sophistication about it. Everyone embraced that pitch-perfect voice unequivocally. She was, in that sense, the first pan-Indian classical musician, her voice becoming an instrument for national integration. And she believed with great conviction that her art had the power to transcend geographical and cultural boundaries.
Her regional songs
Vaishnava Jana Toh in Gujarati
Hari Bola in Marathi
Kehre Banko Jana, a shabad from the Guru Granth Sahib, in Punjabi
Ishrat-e-Qatra in Urdu
Dhano Dhanyo in Bengali
Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and a culture critic based in New Delhi.