The concert photograph that forms the cover of MS & Radha: Saga of Steadfast Devotion is an appropriate one. In the foreground is M.S. Subbulakshmi, her eyes shut, her face composed into the familiar look of intense devotion. To her left, her face barely contained by the frame, is Radha Viswanathan. Radha is also singing, but she appears ever so slightly out of focus—just as she did throughout her performing career, and just as she does in this book.
To provide vocal support to Subbulakshmi, the most radiant voice in the country, cannot have been an easy task. But Radha was more than mere accompanist: She was Subbulakshmi’s daughter, disciple, confidante and right-hand woman for many decades.
Vignettes: (above) MS (in a sari), Radha (in a skirt) and Sadasivam (extreme right) with Lord and Lady Mountbatten at the premiere of Meera; and MS and Radha enjoying a rickshaw ride. Photo courtesy: Wordcraft
MS & Radha intends to explore this relationship, and its author, Subbulakshmi’s grandniece Gowri Ramnarayan, brings not only a first-hand knowledge of the family but also a position of empathy with Radha, having accompanied Subbulakshmi herself for many years. The book, however, is more MS than Radha; a detailed chapter about Radha emerges at the very end of what is, in essence, an intimate anecdotal biography of Subbulakshmi.
Radha’s father, T. Sadasivam, introduced her to Subbulakshmi when Radha was two, with a characteristically direct, “Radha, from now onwards, this is your mother.” Sadasivam’s first wife died of a scorpion bite in her village, and after Sadasivam married Subbulakshmi, he became the impresario who managed a legendary career.
Ramnarayan is an evocative writer, and she gives us wonderful descriptions of Subbulakshmi’s musical journey, from early lessons with her mother Shanmukhavadivu, to being taught shlokas by a guru whom she met on the street and whose name she never knew, to many of the illustrious names in classical music, such as Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Musiri Subramania Iyer and Siddheshwari Devi. As the story unravels, the sounds of Subbulakshmi’s life cascade from the pages: the drone of tanpuras, the strains of melodies taught and learnt, the applause of audiences, the buzz of the independence revolution in the conversations of Sadasivam and his friends, and the soft, shy, golden voice of Subbulakshmi as she moved the world.
The “steadfast devotion” of Ramnarayan’s subtitle refers to Radha’s adoration of Subbulakshmi, but it could just as well be the leitmotif of Subbulakshmi’s life and career. The line between prayer and song was already blurred in Carnatic music, and Subbulakshmi would blur it further; every public performance was simultaneously her private session of worship.
Partly, this was engineered by Sadasivam, who may have reasoned that soulful devotion held wider appeal than technical wizardry. “She had everything needed for vidwat (virtuosity) and appeal,” Semmangudi would say. “He (Sadasivam) opted for the latter... People identified her with devotion...people remember the bhajans more.”
But equally, this direction to Subbulakshmi’s music fit ideally with her own temperament. Shielded from much of the world by Sadasivam, Subbulakshmi never lost her girlish innocence or her simple faith, a fact that is illustrated repeatedly in Ramnarayan’s numerous anecdotes. After a successful concert in Moscow, Subbulakshmi returned to Hotel Rossia and “smeared some vibhuti (sacred ash) on her accompanists and herself, remarking, with a smile of thankful relief, ‘One more examination over.’”
Ramnarayan’s narrative is descriptive but uneven, although the intimacy that her writing manages to create is sufficient to override this failing. One yearns, also, for more of Radha, because the intense focus on Subbulakshmi somewhat contradicts the idea behind the book, that of understanding the relationship between mother and daughter, guru and shishya (disciple). It would have done the title much more justice if Radha’s story, too, could have been woven into the entire narrative.
Inevitably, Subbulakshmi’s career and achievements overshadowed the budding talents of Radha—both as a dancer as well as a singer. Only once, though, does she betray a hint of regret. “Retreating into shadow does not mean the end of individuality,” Radha tells Ramnarayan. “Sacrifice implies loss, but being second voice to Subbulakshmi is indeed a gain. It is my great good fortune to be able to sing with Amma.”
Sacrifice or not, Radha’s contribution hearteningly did not go unnoticed. When Subbulakshmi sang at the Madras Music Academy in March 1983, Radha was very unwell, and missing from her customary spot on the dais. “To see MS on the stage without Radha is to see the sky without the crescent moon,” one audience member remarked. “No doubt it is vast and starry, but something is missing.”