M.S. Subbulakshmi: The woman who built bridges with her music
Reminiscing about M.S. Subbulakshmi, the late sitar maestro Ravi Shankar once said in a television interview: “She was a goddess, and I don’t say this like just another fan.”
Hindustani classical artistes found an audience in southern India only because of performances patronized by the royals before independence, said Shankar. “With MS, it was a different case. She built that bridge across like no other south Indian musician did. Though many of us didn’t understand the nuances of the languages she sang in, it would be impossible to say that we were not swept off our feet by her voice and (her) devotion.”
In an exchange with Chennai-based arts impresario Y.G. Parthasarathy, Subbulakshmi mentioned how she designed an aalapam, or the initial melodic elaboration. The Carnatic singer compared the structuring with a diamond-studded choker where larger stones are set between smaller ones. She would display her technical brilliance in a melodic scale every few seconds while rendering a long aalapam. This way, she had the undivided attention of her audiences.
It is perhaps because of this kind of virtuosity that Madurai Shanmugavadivu Subbulakshmi, who was born on 16 September 1916 and died on 11 December 2004, remains an unsurpassed phenomenon in Carnatic music.
Known for her inimitable singing, her musical prowess not only transcended geographical boundaries, it bridged religious, sexist and caste divides as well. During the independence movement, when the country was in the grip of nationalism, she used her voice to make a statement. Be it performing at fund-raising concerts for the Kasturba Gandhi National Memorial Trust in 1944 or for countless other charities, MS did what she did best: she sang.
Having been brought up in an impoverished family, her childhood was singed by hunger and poverty. This might be one of the reasons why she supported charitable causes. Her activism wasn’t expressed through flag-waving at a street protest. It was always through her music.
Her Bhakti music was steeped in devotional themes. Sangeeta Seva, for instance, was a part of temple prayer rituals to please the deity. In no other voice in 20th century India was devotion more pronounced than it was in the voice of Subbulakshmi.
And so it was that her music turned her fans into devotees. Mahatma Gandhi was one of them. Knowing that she might not be able to sing a song he had requested, Gandhi is supposed to have said, “I would rather hear her recite the lines than hear anyone else sing it”.
At the opening of the Hindi version of Meera (1947), a film directed by Ellis Dungan, where MS played the protagonist, nationalist poet Sarojini Naidu introduced the singer with these words: “Everyone knows Subbulakshmi. About the beauty of her music, the magic of her voice and the goodness of her heart. She is one of the greatest artistes India has (had) in this century.”
In 1998, Subbulakshmi became the first musician to be awarded the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honour.
Subbulakshmi’s repertoire included poems and compositions by Meera Bai, Tukaram, Guru Nanak and nationalist poets such as Dilip Kumar Roy and Rabindranath Tagore. The thumri singer Begum Akhtar even taught her a ghazal by Mirza Ghalib, Ishrat-e-Qatra, which she adapted to her own style.
But it was in the highly conservative, male-dominated genre of Carnatic music, where old-world values and sentiments hold a stronger presence, that Subbulakshmi carved her niche. Her legacy endures to this day.
Also read Mint’s special coverage on the Indian Carnatic singer and Bharat Ratna M.S. Subbulakshmi