In M.S. Subbulakshmi, an immortal hymn found an immortal voice. For many years, Subbulakshmi sang Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite bhajan, Vaishnava Janato, towards the end of her Carnatic music concerts, regularly moving her audiences to tears. “But you know," says Gowri Ramnarayan, Subbulakshmi’s grandniece and for long her vocal support in concerts, “MS amma was never entirely satisfied with the melody of Vaishnava Janato, with the way the tune went up and down, up and down. But there was another song, brilliantly tuned and conceived—and the story behind that is a fascinating one."

Voice of god: Subbulakshmi was overwhelmed by Gandhi’s praise. Hindustan Times Archives

In 1947, roughly a week before Gandhi’s 78th birthday, Indian National Congress leader Sucheta Kriplani telephoned the Chennai offices of the magazine Kalki and asked to speak to T. Sadasivam, the magazine’s co-founder and Subbulakshmi’s husband. On 2 October, there were to be a few musical performances for Gandhi in New Delhi. Would Subbulakshmi be able to come to the Capital on the day, to sing one of his favourite bhajans, Hari Tum Haro?

Sadasivam had to decline politely. “He told her that Kunjamma (as he and many others called Subbulakshmi) did not know that song," says Ramnarayan. “Also, for some family reasons, MS amma could not go to Delhi that particular week, so Sadasivam said, ‘No, you’ll have to find somebody else.’" But the matter did not rest there. Just a day or two before Gandhi’s birthday, Kriplani called Sadasivam again. “Gandhiji would rather hear Subbulakshmi recite the verse on a tape," she is said to have told Sadasivam, “than hear anybody else sing it."

After that highest of compliments, there was no way Subbulakshmi and Sadasivam could refuse. So, at 9pm, they picked up their friend R. Vaidyanathan— Ramnarayan calls him “a pianist and an eccentric genius"—and made their way to the All India Radio (AIR) recording studios in Chennai. There, Vaidyanathan mulled over the lyrics of Hari Tum Haro, Meera’s prayer to Lord Krishna. “You who saved Draupadi, you who are so compassionate," the song pleads, “remove all the sorrows of the people." The best raga to express the pathos and grandeur of the song without meandering into the maudlin, Vaidyanathan decided, would be Darbari Kaanada.

Through that night-long recording session, Vaidyanathan set Hari Tum Haro to music, for Subbulakshmi to learn and record immediately. The spool tape left for New Delhi the following morning, on 2 October, in the care of Sadasivam’s nephew, aboard a Dakota flight. Thus, on the evening of his birthday, Gandhi was able to listen to his beloved bhajan. Subbulakshmi would learn what he had to say about the music only later, from Maniben Patel’s diary. “Her voice is exceedingly sweet," Patel had quoted Gandhi as saying. “To sing a bhajan is one thing; to sing it by losing oneself in god is quite different."

Subbulakshmi and Sadasivam would meet Gandhi soon after that, during a trip to New Delhi in January 1948. “Gandhiji was so depressed because of the communal riots," Ramnarayan recalls. So Sadasivam urged Radha, their little daughter, to dance for Gandhi as Subbulakshmi sang. “Gandhiji’s laughter was said to have rang out in peal after peal as Radha danced," she says. “At the end of their visit, Gandhi’s followers thanked them, because they hadn’t seen him smile in such a long time."

On the evening of 30 January 1948, Subbulakshmi was at home in Chennai, listening to AIR’s recorded broadcast of the annual music festival at Tiruvaiyaru, which had been held earlier that month. Suddenly, the broadcast was interrupted, and an announcer broke the unvarnished news: Mahatma Gandhi had just been assassinated at his prayer meeting in New Delhi. As Subbulakshmi listened in horror, the brief announcement ended and AIR, stuck for further details, segued into a musical tribute. The song, inevitably, was Hari Tum Haro in Subbulakshmi’s voice.