The diamonds in her ear and nose studs would compete with her eyes for sparkle but with her divine singing, Bharat Ratna MS Subbulakshmi would transport her listeners to a world that needed no material embellishments! Foremost amongst Indian musicians, who also achieved many firsts in Indian cultural history, MSS was an idol for the ages. Many Indian families still start their day with her voice, invoking the Lord with her inimitable rendition of the “Venkatesha Suprabhatam”.
Madurai Shankmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi was born into a family of musicians in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, on 16th September 1916. Her mother Shanmukhavadivu, also her primary musical influence, was a noted Veena player. Subbulakshmi also received training in Hindustani classical music from Pandit Narayanrao Vyas. She was a quick learner and worked hard to achieve perfection with every note and syllable she sang. She was all of 10 years and still dusty from playing in the mud, when she was taken to a nearby school to give her first public performance. She soon recorded her first kriti too – Marakatha Vadivum in raga Chenchurutti. Her career thus begun, spiraled upwards, breaking many records. By the age of 17, she was an established vocalist, giving concerts at major venues, including the Madras Music Academy. She married T Sadasivam, a journalist and freedom fighter, who played a major role in shaping her career and taking it to unprecedented heights.
Darling of the Masses
Her open-throated singing, laden with emotion and bhakthi, conquered hearts like none other in Indian history. From commoners, who would travel from far-off cities or walk miles to listen to her, to politicians and National leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sarojini Naidu, the Mountbattens and C Rajagopalachari, all were ardent fans of her music. “Vishnu Sahasranama”, “Bhaja Govindam”, keertanas of Annamacharya, “Madhuraashtakam”, ”Jagadhodharana”, “Kurai Ondrum Illai”, “Vaishnava janato”, “Maithreem bhajata”, “Hari tum haro” and many other compositions were immortalized by her. The bhajan “Hari tum haro” particularly was Gandhiji’s favorite and it was on his insistence that she learnt and recorded it for his last birthday. Her brief but illustrious stint in movies catapulted her to national fame. Hailed by laymen and scholars alike, the adulation that MSS received has remained unrivalled even to this day. A scholar sums up her music pithily: “There is no place for a critic in the music of MS”.
Performing female musicians have almost always been subject to unfair scrutiny, bias and misogyny, even when they have been extremely successful. MSS, with her unfailing poise and dignity, overcame all of these and more, to gain immense popularity amongst the audience. While calling her a feminist would be boxing her life and choices under a socio-political label that isn’t huge enough to contain all that she represents, her actions on many occasions have countered the prevalent patriarchy head-on. “Sevasadanam”, her first movie, in which she played the protagonist, dealt with the cruel practice of young girls being married off to old men, a social norm in those days. The movie advocated women’s rights by calling out such archaic, misogynistic practices and therefore ruffled “conservative” feathers. Many songs from the movie, sung by MSS and now a part of mainstream Carnatic music repertoire, spoke of restitution of women and their emancipation.
She played the role of “Narada”, a male, in her next movie “Savitri” and handed over the movie remuneration to help launch “Kalki”, a nationalist magazine co-founded by her husband Sadasivam. MSS was one of the first women musicians (along with DK Pattammal and ML Vasanthakumari) in the Carnatic music field to perform with male accompanists, something that society frowned upon until then.
MSS traveled around the globe as India’s cultural envoy, giving many landmark concerts along the way. Her performance at the prestigious Edinburgh International Festival of Music won her praise from the Queen of England and the Pope. Her historic concert at the UN General Assembly, the first Indian classical music concert at the UN, was covered extensively by the US press and praised skyhigh. She undertook a coast-to-coast tour of the US to raise funds for Hindu temples there. She was invited to perform at the Carnegie Hall, New York and Royal Albert Hall, London. Her concert for “Festival of India” at Moscow, was received by a packed hall that broke into thunderous applause and gave her a standing ovation at the end of her performance.
Every award that a nation could decorate its artistes with has been bestowed upon MS Subbulakshmi and more. She is the first musician to receive the Bharata Ratna, the highest Indian civilian honor, along with Padma Vibushan, Padma Bhushan and Sangeet Natak Akademi awards. She is also the first Indian musician to receive the Ramon Magsaysay award. She has been awarded honorary doctorates from many universities. The bright blue shade of Kancheepuram sarees was named MS Blue, after her. Commemorative postage stamps honoring her were issued by both the Indian government and the United Nations.
A Heart of Gold
MSS and her husband Sadasivam, were both idealists and were influenced by Gandhian philosophies. MSS performed for numerous concerts to raise money for charities. Her concerts in aid of the Kasturba Memorial Fund saw Gandhiji personally write to her to convey his gratitude. The royalties from her best-selling records were all redirected to charitable causes. The proceeds from the still-popular “Venkatesha Suprabhatam” recording for HMV go towards supporting the Veda Patashala run by the Tirupati Tirumala temple trust. She sang numerous concerts in benefit of Sankara Nethralaya, a charitable eye hospital.
However, despite her super-celebrity status, MSS remained forever the gentle girl who was wont to shy away from the adulation heaped upon her. She thought of nothing but music, dedicating her life to its practice, unperturbed by either praise or censure. Soft-spoken and mild tempered, with a kind word for everyone till her last breath, she achieved the ultimate existential ideal, a humane artiste.