In the 1930s, as India’s fight for independence from British rule gained momentum among artistes across the country, the south of the Vindhyas was a seat of political activity. Several theatre personalities and musicians were taking part in the freedom struggle. Several others became social reformers. T. Sadasivam got engaged in social service.

As a “Khadi activist", young Sadasivam would travel from village to village with his mentors to spread awareness. He once trekked more than 40 miles from a village in Pudukkottai to Tiruchirappalli to see Mahatma Gandhi deliver a speech. Sadasivam found a mentor in the patriot Subramaniya Siva. Under Siva’s guidance in his organization Bharata Samajam, Sadasivam would sing patriotic songs in villages. He was also influenced by the writings of the poet Subramania Bharati.

His wife M.S. Subbulakshmi followed his path.

She was a recording superstar in the late 1930s, and found more fame after her brief stint with Tamil cinema. In 1941, when Sadasivam and Kalki Krishnamurthy left the Ananda Vikatan magazine to start their own journal Kalki, they had no funds. Subbulakshmi stepped in to act in a movie titled Savitri, produced by Rayal Talkies. The fee she received went towards establishing Kalki. In 1944, Subbulakshmi performed in a series of five concerts to raise money for the Kasturba Memorial Fund.

Gandhi realized her potential to gather funds through concerts. The Sadasivams became part of the inner circle of Gandhi and several other national leaders. Sadasivam had enlisted himself in Gandhi’s civil disobedience movement of the 1920s under the guidance of C. Rajagopalachari. The latter became a lifelong mentor to the Sadasivams.

Subbulakshmi (right) with Mahatma Gandhi. Photo Courtesy Selva Kumar
Subbulakshmi (right) with Mahatma Gandhi. Photo Courtesy Selva Kumar

By the time Ellis Dungan’s Meera was released in 1945, Subbulakshmi was one of the top singing actors of her era. But that was her last stint on screen. She decided to sacrifice the fame and fortune that films could get her to pursue Carnatic music. From 1939-45, the Carnatic music world was debating if Tamil was a language worthy of singing Carnatic music in. Telugu was and continues to be considered the lingua franca of Carnatic arts. The Tamil Isai movement, to promote the pure form of ancient Tamil music, was at its peak. Both Sadasivam and Subbulakshmi felt Tamil was a musical language, and supported the movement that was fuelled by the passion of Raja Sir Annamalai Chettiar. He wanted to build a space for the Tamil Isai Sangam.

In 1943, when the Tamil Isai Sangam had its first December music season, Subbulakshmi sang in concerts. In one night, she managed to raise over Rs3,000. This did not go down well with establishments like the Madras Music Academy. They decided to boycott her and Sadasivam, who swore to destroy the Music Academy. Through all this, Subbulakshmi continued to sing and raise funds for the Tamil Isai Sangam.

By 1945, however, the differences had been left behind. The Music Academy, which didn’t have its own auditorium, would conduct music festivals at different venues across the city. This led to the forging of new ties between the Sadasivams and the Music Academy. Subbulakshmi performed at a series of concerts and raised funds to enable the academy to build its dream auditorium. In October 1955, Jawaharlal Nehru laid its foundation stone and made the famous speech where he proclaimed, “Who am I? A mere Prime Minister, in front of this queen of song!" Today it is the best venue for Carnatic music in Chennai.

In 1968, the same Madras Music Academy gave the highest Carnatic honour, the title of Sangita Kalanidhi, to Subbulakshmi. Since the mid-1940s, it had been debating if women could be honoured with this prestigious title. In Subbulakshmi’s case, the decision was unanimous. She became the first female artiste to receive the title.

Through the 1960s, the Sadasivams continued to sing for charitable causes. Meanwhile, their personal savings were dwindling; they had to sell their large home and move into a smaller one.

By the 1970s, Subbulakshmi had recorded the Venkateswara Suprabhatam, Vishnu Sahasranamam, and numerous works by numerous saints, including the eighth century philosopher saint Adi Shankara. The money earned from these recordings went to charity.

In 1974, she was the first Indian musician to receive the Ramon Magsaysay Award for her charitable work. A part of the citation reads: “In April 1944, after five successful benefit performances given for the Memorial Fund honouring Gandhi’s wife, Kasturba, Subbulakshmi’s voice became an instrument for public causes. Receipts of concert halls—filled to overflowing—and open amphitheatres often packed with tens of thousands paying only four annas each (three US cents) so as to deny no one the joy of her songs—have been given to constructive works."

From the Sapru Memorial Fund in Lucknow in 1950, a Muslim girls’ school in remote Mangaluru and the Kashmir Flood Relief Fund in Delhi in 1959, the list of her charitable concerts is long. In her book The Madras Quartet: Women In Karnatak Music, Indira Menon lists at least 200 charities in an appendix at the end of the book.

Education and healthcare became Subbulakshmi’s favourite causes. Millions were healed by her divine music, several more benefited from the charity of the Sadasivams.

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Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and a culture critic based in Delhi.

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