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M.S. Subbulakshmi

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"We walked 30 miles to hear you today but arrived only at the very end. We waited in the hope of offering our respects to you before returning to our village."

The speakers were a dust-streaked couple in crumpled sari and dhoti in remote Ayalur in Tamil Nadu's Thanjavur district - where Carnatic vocalist M.S. Subbulakshmi had given a concert as the finale of a week-long temple festival. Her name had drawn from villages miles around, thousands who were at that time returning with no thought or word beyond the exhilaration her vocal music had wrought.

Drained by the two-and-a-half hour performance and passage through the adulation of the packed crowds, the (then) 70-year- old musician had no thought but of rest during the early journey of the next day. But she would not, could not, send the couple away disappointed. "Let us sing at least one song for them." The younger accompanist to whom she said this asked, "Do you know it is midnight now?" With a smile MS began to sing with the same earnestness and attention she had shown earlier on the stage. For her, music was ever a matter of reverence.

Another instance illustrates her appeal to the cognoscenti: It was with more than the usual trepidation that M.S. Subbulakshmi faced a distin- guished audience of needle-sharp rasikas and fellow musicians at the Music Academy in Madras one evening in the 1950s. She was about to present a pallavi in Raga Begada, "Kailasapate, pasupate, umapate, namostute," across the Adi tala cycle. This was a challenge to her virtuosity in rhythm-charged ragam-tanam-pallavi techniques. Star-singer though she already was, she was not particularly known for pallavi pyrotechnics. What followed was no different from the typical Subbulakshmi concert - thunderous applause greeted her at every stage of the unfolding.

The pallavi piece had been the idea of a musician friend and mentor Musiri Subramania Iyer. MS had enthusiastically rehearsed it with the active encouragement of violinist Tiruvalangadu Sundaresa Iyer, whose tuft-waving shouts of "bhesh, bhesh!" had punctuated the practice sessions.

The Alathur brothers, known to be masters of laya and pallavi exposition, were to call on MS the next day and offer their congratulations. "We have no words to describe the beauty and balance of your presentation. What anchored every part firmly to a finished whole was the accent on the Raga and the bhava you brought to it. This is what makes your music so enchanting, so durable. This is what the great Dakshinamurthi Pillai found to be special in your singing years ago." With that the mists parted and MS was back in shy girlhood.

Kunjamma (as she was known to those close to her), brought up with all the rigorous strictness that her mother could impose upon her training in art as in life, had sung at a wedding in the household of Dakshina- murthi Pillai, the venerable percussionist from Pudukkottai. The event had drawn a galaxy of artists - including the upcoming Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Musiri Subramania Iyer, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, Rajamanickam Pillai, Rajaratnam Pillai, Palghat Mani Iyer, G.N. Balasubramaniam and the Alathur brothers.

The next day, in the midst of this starry assembly, Dakshinamurthi Pillai suddenly smote his head with vehemence. "Andavane! (oh God!) How will you save your throats for a lifetime if you engage in vocal gymnastics? Leave all that to us drummers. Singers must emphasize the raga and the bhava so that you preserve your voice and let it gain in timbre. That little girl there, she knows this already. Didn't we hear her yesterday? Wasn't it satisfying? Touch our hearts?" At that public praise, Kunjamma shrank even more behind her mother in the corner.

Lost in memories, Subbulakshmi's narrative trembles. Those were times to recall with tears. She was blessed by every senior musician who came home to sing and play before or listen to her musician mother Shanmukhavadivu playing the veena. Some were legendary firgures like Tirukkodikaval Krishna Iyer, Veena Seshanna of Mysore, Ponuswami Pillai, Naina Pillai, Chittoor Subramaniam Pillai, Venkataramana Dass of Vizianagaram. Invariably, Kunjamma would be jerked forward to sing. "Though I would always be encouraged and appreciated by them, I never lost my timidity." She recalls that some of them would teach her a song or two - as did the great Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyenger.

"What were you like in those days?" brings a change in mood. "You can see it in the old pictures," she laughs. "A side parting in thick curls pressed down with lots of oil, a huge dot covering most of my forehead, the half- saree pinned to the puff-sleeved blouse with long brooch and longer safety pin, eardrops, nose- rings and bangles of imitation gold...Oh I forgot. The long plait was tied up with a banana stem strip! Or a ribbon which never matched." Getting ready for the stage meant also the addition of a row of medals on the shoulder.

MS has been sheltered and protected through 78 years now. Like everybody else, she has had ups and downs, faced hurdles and setbacks, known heart- break. As an artist in India, she has scaled unrivalled peaks of fame. Through these public and personal happenings, she continues to radiate the childlike innocence of the old portraits. Yet what lingers on her face is not the look of naivete, or inexperience. It is a sense of inner peace and timeless faith lining her gentleness.

A perceptive profile of Subbulakshmi states: "Success and fame bring in their train friends and adulation, as well as jealousy and carping critics. She has been paid the most extravagant tributes by musicians, scholars, high dignitaries of State...I have also heard others dismiss her as a pretty singer with a pretty voice who has built up a reputation on false values. She herself takes all this in her stride." It ends with a tribute to the beauty and grace of her music and looks to its maturing into greatness. The year was 1955.

That she has reached this greatness will hardly be challenged, even by critics of her style - or those who play the devil's advocate. She has been the recipient of the highest awards and honours the nation could bestow upon an artist short of the Bharat Ratna, and of significant international recognition.

But the impressive list of distinctions can hardly explain the MS mystique. Certainly it has to do with her extraordinary voice, which continues to ring in the mind with vibrant power and clarity, whether heard from near or far or any angle. That her music is not diminished by the absence of instrumental accompaniment is knowledge treasured by those privileged to hear her in private. It was realised by the multitudes on occasions when her devotional songs were telecast by Doordarshan, as at the time of Indira Gandhi's assassination.

A whole range of explanations are offered for the primeval resonance of her voice - from the metaphysical to the physical. There are pious devotees who believe it to be a gift as a result of oblations of honey through her previous births! An ENT specialist, on the other hand, declares it has to do with the unusual arrangement of her vocal chords. To hear her is to be spellbound - the experience of more than three generations of men and women in many parts of the world. Over the years, the voice and charisma have melded to irresistibility nonpareil. Admirers range from old-timers, hep youngsters, fellow artists, householders, ascetics, religious and political leaders, atheists, scientists and fact-finders and pundits, to philistines.

Princes and heads of state have bowed to her music, as when the (then) Maharana of Udaipur said to MS and husband T. Sadasivam: "In the old days I would have exchanged my whole kingdom for this Kalyani raga. Now I shall give you whatever help you need by way of horses and elephants in location shooting." The occasion was the filming of Meera, produced by Sadasivam with MS in the lead. Jawaharlal Nehru's tribute to her, "Who am I before the queen of song?" has been publicised widely as has been Mahatma Gandhi's request, shortly before he was gunned down by a Hindu fanatic on January 30, 1948. A message had been sent to Madras that Gandhiji wished MS to render his favourite bhajan, "Hari tum haro," and a response had gone from husband Sadasivam to the effect that she did not know how to sing this particular bhajan, somebody else could sing "Hari tum haro", and she could sing another bhajan. A reply had promptly come back on behalf of the Mahatma: "I should prefer to hear it SPOKEN by Subbulakshmi than SUNG by others."

Nearly half a century after this incident, MS and Sadasivam recall that she heard the news of Gandhiji's assassination when she was listening to a relay of the Thyagaraja Utsavam (festival) and immediately her own singing of "Hari tum haro" came on the air. She swooned from the shock.

Had not Gandhiji called upon her at a prayer meeting in 1947 at Birla House in Bombay, "Subbulakshmi, Ramdhun tum gao" (You sing the Ramdhun)? His choice of songs and his manner of recognition show that the Mahatma was thinking beyond music. It was that special quality she invokes of peace and bliss, not just with her voice, but from the depths of her own character - simple, devout and spirituelle.

Often lay persons with no liking of classical music still play her devotional verses as an every morning ritual. The suprabhatams on the deities of Tirupati, Kasi, Rameshwaram and Kamakshi of Kanchi thrill pilgrims at dawn in temples from Kedarnath to Kanyakumari. In the midst of roadside blasts of film songs, if an occasional "Kaatrinile varum geetham" of "Chaakar rakho ji" come on, the pedestrian is arrested into paused listening. There are others who swear that listening to her recorded music helped them tide over troubled times, even traumas and tragedies. In this writer's personal experience, there was the instance of a dear friend, a Hyderabadi girl, who repeatedly asked for "any MS music" as she bravely faced death from third degree burns.

More remarkable is her popularity outside the Carnatic belt. According to traditional stereotype, the North Indian is supposed to be indifferent to Carnatic music, but MS concerts draw large audiences in Jalandhar and Jaipur, Kanpur and Bhopal, Pune and Baroda, notwithstanding the predominance of the heavy pieces in Telugu, Sanskrit and Kannada by composers ranging from Thyagaraja to Yoganarasimham. The initial recognition, of course, came through the bhajans in Hindi that she rendered for the film Meera in 1944.

Delightedly surrendering her title "The Nightingale of India" to MS, Sarojini Naidu introduced her in the film's first reel. A slender MS with downcast eyes, corkscrew curls blowing, hands twisting her pallav, is overwhelmed as Naidu heaps tributes with this prophecy to her countrymen, "You will be proud that India in this generation has produced so supreme an artist."

Since then, MS recitals have always included bhajans - of Meera first and later Tulsidas, Kabir, Surdas, Nanak and abhangs of Tukaram. A few have heard her sing chhote khayals and thumris ("Na manoongi, Mishra Khamaj); "Neer bharan kaise jaaon," Tilakamod; "Mano mano kanhaiyya," Jonpuri), that she learnt in the 1930s from Dwijenderlal Roy in Calcutta and later from Siddheshwari Devi of Benares. The latter spent some months in Madras teaching MS thumris and tappas. It was a lesson in assiduity to see the two great women seated on the mat, facing each other and practising with intense interest the Yaman scales over and over again, with Siddheshwari Devi rolling the beads to keep the 108 count.

To many North Indian business barons, an MS recital at a family wedding is not a status symbol but a blessing on the young couple. With excellent singers in Bombay who can sing bhajans with the greater ease of mother tongue spontaneity, why did they insist on a bhajan concert by MS? A Bombay-based industrialist's reply to the naive question was, "True! We can listen to good music by others. But no one else can create this feeling which takes us straight to heaven."

Hindustani musicians themselves have never stinted praise. Veteran Alladiya Khan was charmed by her Pantuvarali (Puriya Dhanashri); Bade Ghulam Ali Khan had announced she was "Suswaralakshmi Subbulakshmi," and Roshanara Begum had been ecstatic over her full-length concert. Others from Ravi Shankar to Pandit Jasraj and Amjad Ali Khan have been unfailing admirers. Vilayat Khan folds both his hands and closes his eyes as he speaks her name.

This recognition first came in the 1930s in a Calcutta studio when MS played Narada in Savithri. (This film launched the nationalist Tamil weekly Kalki, a joint venture of husband Sadasivam and writer R. Krishnamurthi). The MS recordings would gather other distinguished artists, K.L. Saigal, Pahari Sanyal, Kananbala, Keskar and Pannalal Ghosh (later to play Krishna's flute in Meera). Dilipkumar Roy was another admirer who was later to teach her bhajans and Rabindra Sangeet.

"They would make me sing again and again, especially the song 'Bruhi mukundeti,` with its lightning sangati in the end," MS recalls happily (in Tamil). "In those days we had no sense of competition or oneupmanship. We enjoyed good music wherever we found it." Old-timers remember that in the film too, as Narada descended from the sky in jerks, but still singing that enthralling song, the theatre resounded to applause. In the Bombay studio where the Meera score was recorded, it was the same story. Artists who came for other recordings would stop by and become rapt listeners. A thin newcomer, two long plaits dangling behind, refused to record her song after the MS session. "Not now, not after THAT!" She went on to become a legend in her own right as Lata Mangeshkar, while continuing to remain a devoted MS fan.

Another MS achievement was that, virtually for the first time, she astonished the Westerner into an appreciation of Carnatic music. In the 1960s, the few Indian musicians known outside the country were Hindustani instrumentalists. In the Western world, hardly anyone knew of the complex Carnatic system, which was deemed inexportable. Why, even North Indians found it indigestible. In a conversation with Jawaharlal Nehru, Sadasivam remarked that the West might prefer instrumental to vocal music. "Yes," said Panditji, tapping his fingers. Then looking straight at MS he broke into a smile, "But not in YOUR case!" MS always adds, "By God's grace, what he said came true when I sang at the Edinburgh Festival, at the United Nations and at Carnegie Hall."

On the eve of a public concert in New York, U.N. Chef de Cabinet and Carnatic music expert C.V. Narasimhan was disquieted at the prospect of rejection by the redoubtable critic of the New York Times. He was to call ecstatically the next morning. "You have won. The press overflows with praise." So it did after everyone of the string of concerts that MS gave in the US and in some parts of Europe before all-white audiences, most of whom were strangers to any music from India.

The New York Times said: "Subbulakshmi's vocal communication trancends words. The cliche of 'the voice used as an instrument` never seemed more appropriate. It could fly flutteringly or carry on a lively dialogue with the accompanists. Subbulakshmi and her ensemble are a revelation to Western ears. Their return can be awaited with only eagerness." Dr. W. Adriaansz, Professor of Music, University of Washington, wrote: "For many, the concert by Mrs. Subbulakshmi meant their first encounter with the music of South India and it was extremely gratifying that in her the necessary factors for the basis of a successful contact between her music and a new audience - highly developed artistry as well as stage presence - were so convincingly present...without any doubt (she) belongs to the best representants of this music."

This writer witnessed that kind of wondrous rapture in Moscow when MS performed before a select group of Russian musicians and musicologists in 1988. Midway through the singing a woman came up with flowers. She touched her eyes first and then her heart to communicate her bursting feelings. That this was a shared experience became evident when the applause and the audience followed MS as she left the hall, down the staircase, to the car on the street, until she drove away.

The question still remains unanswered: What is this almost transcendental quality behind the unfailing rapture? In the West, such responses are not unknown to the music from great composers like Mozart and Beethoven. Many would attribute it to the Indian bhakti tradition of poetry and song to which the singer belongs. The 6th-7th century cult of the Nayanmars and the Alwars, spread through Chaitanya and Jayadeva, as the people's movement of Basavanna and Mahadeviyakka, inspired Namdev and Tukaram, Surdas, Tulsidas and that extraordinary woman saint Meerabai, who spurned queenship and wifehood in her restless quest of the Lord. The bhakti polarities of seeking and finding, loss and conquest, desire and fulfilment are realised in their verses.

Precisely these aspects mark Subbulakshmi's singing. This is true of those portions without verbal elements, like the raga alapana. Just as the devotee individuates the deity through incantation and description - detailing every limb, look and ornamentation - the singer shapes the raga, always starting with clear strokes to pedestal its identity and going on to breathe it to form and life. The enunciation of the antara gandhara (Sankarabharanam, Khambhoji, Pantuvarali, Kedaragowla) in the upper register - as a long-held note, as the end-point of embellishments, or the pivot of note clusters, mounts to fever pitch. Hands sculpt the air, face turns upwards, eyes gaze at the beyond, and suddenly there comes the madhyama/panchama climax and the rounded process of conclusion, all accomplished with seemingly effortless grace. After plumbing the depths and soaring to the heights, the listener emerges into quietude. That is how the Meera archtype gets superimposed in this Tamil daughter of the 20th century.

What is MS like in real life? The answer would be: except for the taut- nerved hypersensitivity of all great artists, no different from any other South Indian housewife, mother and grandmother of her generation. Fame, the approbation of the world's haut monde and glitterati, the adoration of hundreds of thousands, have left her transparently untouched. Home needs and little chores are given the same attention that she gives momentous affairs. She is meticulous and neat in personal life, even in the delicate lines of the kolam she draws everyday. She excels at putting all kinds of visitors at ease, with a genuine interest in what they have to say of themselves. Gifts which please her most are strings of jasmine and mild French perfumes.

In appearance and lifestyle, she remains conservative: the long pallav of her handloom cottons or silks tucked round the waist, flower-wreathed "kondai", diamond nose and ear rings, glass bangles between gold, not to forget the row of kumkum and vibhuti from many temples dotting the turmeric-washed forehead. regular in the performance of puja and shloka-recitation, she is a strict follower of all the prescribed rituals of the sumangali householder. "My mother-in-law told me before she left for Kasi" would precede these observances.

Owning no jewels beyond what she wears and quick to give away the silk sarees gifted to her by admirers, she has never tried to appear younger than she is. Thousands see her as the embodiment of grace and ancient tradition of Indian womanhood - kind, considerate, compassionate, soft- spoken, self-sacrificing and somewhat unworldly. She breathes the tenderness of the mother to the child, the bhakta to the god.

Looking at her self-effacing deportment, one has to remind oneself forcefully that she is a world-travelled artist, a globally-acclaimed career person who has changed the definition and image of Carnatic music in the 20th century. A first-time foreign listener at her concert was quick to note the ethereality of the MS image. "It is not right to describe her as the Maria Callas of India. Callas has fans, frenzied legions of them. But not devotees! MS does not sing, she makes divinity manifest."

How did MS train this voice, develop grasping power, and learn to refract emotional colours thorugh it? How did she absorb the aesthetics and techniques of a hoary musical tradition?

Born in the temple town of Madurai on September 16, 1916, to veena player Shanmukhavadivu (her initial M.S. record the birthplace and mother's name), little Kunjamma, brother Saktivel and sister Vadivambal grew up surrounded and filled by music. Grandmother Akkammal had been a violinist. Their tiny home in the narrow, cattle-lounging Hanumantharayan lane was close to Meenakshi temple. Whenever the deity was taken in procession through the main streets, the nadaswaram players would stop where this lane branched off and play their best for Shanmukhavadivu's approval. "My earliest interest in music was focussed on the raga. I would try to reproduce the pipers as well as I could. My mother played and rehearsed constantly. No formal lessons, but I absorbed a whole wealth by listening and humming along with the veena." Much later, experts were to wonder at the way in which MS vocally rendered some of the rare and singular gamakas and prayogas of both veena and nadaswaram.

The family was rich only in music. Otherwise, for mother and children, and for the numerous uncles and aunts who crowded their home, it was a frugal existence. For the two girls it was confinement within the home, while the brother enjoyed a little more freedom.

Vadivambal died too early to fulfil her promise as a veena player. But for Subbulakshmi it was to be vocal music. The coconut was broken and offerings were made to god and guru Madurai Srinivasa Iyengar. But the lessons could not go beyond the foundations because the guru passed away. "I also learnt Hindustani music for a short spell from Pandit Narayan Rao Vyas. 'Syama Sundara` which I sang in the film Seva Sadan was one of the pieces he taught me. I listened to a lot of good music on the radio (the neighbours'; we didn't own one!) from the window sill above the staircase. I loved to hear Abdul Kareem Khan and Bade Ghulam Ali Khan in the silence of the night."

Her formal schooling was stopped in class 5 when a teacher's beating brought on an attack of whooping cough. But she practiced music for long hours, lost in the vibrations of the tambura which she would tune reverently. The MS hallmark of sruti suddham can be traced to a game she evolved in her childhood. As she sang, she would stop playing the drone at intervals and check if she continued to maintain the pitch with and without it. Throughout the day she would sound the shadja panchama notes and pluck the strings to see if she was still aligned to them.

This natural ability, consciously developed through a kind of yoga, is responsible for the electrifying effect her opening syllables have on the audience, whether she plumbs the depths (mandara sanchara) or scales the heights (tara sanchara) of a fantastic voice range. Another little known fact of her early life was her fascination for the mridangam which she learnt to play from brother Saktivel.

Intrigued by the gramophone records, Kunjamma would roll a piece of paper for the "speaker" (as in the logo of His Master's Voice) and sing into it for hours. This game became real when she accompanied her mother to Madras and cut her first disc at the age of 10. The songs were "Marakat vadivu" and "Oothukuzhiyinile" in an impossibly high pitch. In fact, it was through the Columbia Gramophone Company records that she was first noticed in the city - before she was 15 years old.

To balance and leaven maternal stringency, there was lawyer- father Subramania Iyer who lived a few streets away. In the faded photograph which hangs in her home today, his soft look and sensitive features bear an unmistakable resemblance to his "Rajathippa" (princess darling). That is how he called his pet daughter. He was wont to saying that he would arrange her marriage with a 'good boy` who would love and cherish her music. Not a singer himself, he was a true rasika and bhakta. In the early Ramanavami festivals he organised, there would be puja, music and procession each day. How wonderful it felt to the little girl when his strong loving hands picked her up and placed her next to the picture of Rama taken round the streets on a chariot! The recollection of such scenes from her childhood brings real happiness to her today.

The first stage appearance? "When it heppened, I felt only annoyance at being yanked from my favourite game - making mud pies. Someone picked me up, dusted my hands and skirt, carried me to the nearby Sethupati School where my mother was playing before 50 to 100 people. In those days that was the usual concert attendance. At mother's bidding I sang a couple of songs. I was too young for the smiles and the claps to mean much. I was thinking more of returning to the mud."

From regular vocal accompaniment in Shanmukhavadivu's veena concerts, MS graduated to solo performances. Of her debut at the Madras Music Academy when she was 17, a connoisseur wrote: "When she, with her mother by her side (who played the tambura for the daughter), as a winsome girl in her teens, ascended the dais in 1934 and burst into classical songs, experienced musicians of the top rank vied with one another in expressing their delight in this new find." Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar came forward with loud hyperboles. Tiger Varadachariar nodded approval. Karaikudi Sambavisa Iyer was to say later, "Child, you carry the veena in your throat."

At this time Thiagarajan Sadasivam entered her life as a dashing suitor. He became her husband in 1940. Kasturi Srinivasan, Editor, The Hindu, was instrumental in arranging their marriage at Tiruneermalai. He insisted on registering it and also witnessed it. He remained a lifelong friend and guide. With that began Subbulakshmi's ascent from being a south Indian celebrity to a national, even world, figure; and from a brilliant young virtuoso to the consummate artist she is today.

Her image, the course of her career, the direction of her music - they were all carefully fashioned by Sadasivam who, from the earliest stage, had a clear vision of what she was one day to attain. This freedom fighter, who sang nationalist songs himself in public while courting lathicharge and arrest, introduced MS to the great Congress leaders - Rajaji, Nehru and Gandhiji. Sadasivam, who made an early mark in the advertising field and in publishing, has always been the organiser.

To Sadasivam and MS the means have always been as important as the end. And therefore, though he persuaded her to act in a few movies with specific financial objectives in mind, they were on idealistic and chaste themes, with the accent on music. Sakuntalai featured songs still remembered today, by MS and G.N. Balasubramaniam - "Anandamen solvene", "Premaiyil" and the sparkling "Manamohananga." Sadasivam also inspired MS to sing lyrics steeped in patriotism such as those of Subramania Bharati ("Oli padaitha kanninai") and Bankimchandra Chatterji ("Bande mataram"). Their ardour was such that they prepared to walk out of the then Corporation Radio, Madras, when refused permission to include one of these songs in the programme.

If MS is today regarded as a symbol of national integration, one reason is the inclusion in her repertoire of compositions in languages from many parts of India. This catholicity was consciously developed at the insistence of Sadasuvam who sees music not as an aesthetic exercise, but as a vehicle for spreading spirituality among the populace. For this reason he has insisted on her giving predominance to bhava and bhakti in alapana, kriti and niraval, while minimising technical displays in pallavi rendition and kalpnaswara. Though MS had learnt pallavis from the old stalwart Mazaha- varayanendal Subburama Bhagavatar, she readily followed her husband's instructions.

Believing that his wife's wealth of voice should not be used for personal gain, Sadasivam chanelled the proceeds of the concerts into charitable endowments. Starting in 1944 with five concerts for the Kasturba Memorial Fund, this has grown into a public service contribution of major proportions. Many causes and institutions (medical, scientific, research, educational, religious and charitable) have benefited from MS raising over Rs. 2 crore thus far from singing.

What is responsible for the flawless presentation of an MS 'Concert`? Un- doubtedly it is the shrewd programming masterminded by Sadasivam to suit each place and event. While this strategist designs the format and all the numbers from varnam to the lighter tukkadas, the combination of composers and languages, the main and ancillary ragas of the evening, he also allots the duration for each individual piece. MS herself lays out and embellishes the major pieces mentally, rehearsing constantly, even if outwardly engaged in other activities. She says: "We can only bring out a fraction of the thousand ideas we get at home. The stage is a constant examination ground." From his seat in front, Sadasivam signals changes likely to please the day's audience. But the couple have also made experiments, propagated lesser known/unknown composers, or flouted hidebound conservatism by championing the Tamil Isai cause of the 1940s.

Recognising sahitya as an integral part of Carnatic music, MS has cultivated impeccable diction in the different languages of the lyrics she sings. She is known for attention to every detail such as breath control, pauses in the right places, voice modulation, changes in emphasis and breaking phrases in to their proper components. These techniques highlight the meaning. Here her knowledge of Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Sanskrit and Hindi is of immense help.

To watch her learn a new composition is an experience in itself. For the Annamacharya kritis (five cassettes produced for the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam), the lyrics were read repeatedly with an expert in Telugu to explicate the sense as also methods of splitting the words and syllables for the musical score; the whole rehearsed until neither text nor notation was required at the recording session. Even, more awesome was her mastery of that magnificent edifice, the mela ragamalika by Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan, a string of 72 ragas mostly rare, with hair's breadth variation between them. The Sanskrit libretto was equally taxing. But the finished product had natural ease and flow. When he heard it the Paramacharya of Kanchi pronounced his blessing: "This will last as long as the sun and the moon stand in the skies."

The MS classical repertoire in several languages is a formidable one, representing composers from the ancient to the contemporaneous. She acquired this from several musicians and scholars over the years, from guru Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Seithur Sundaresa Bhattar, Musiri Subramania Iyer, Papanasam Sivan, T.L Venkatarama Iyer, Turaiyur Rajagopala Sarma, Mayavaram Krishna Iyer, K.V. Narayanaswami, S. Ramanathan, Nedunuri Krishnamurti et al. She learnt a few padams from dancer Balasaraswati as well as from T. Brinda, both scions of the Dhanammal family renowned for this music. With a voice particularly suited for these delicate and quintessential depictions of ragabhava, MS soon shed them from her repertoire, perhaps because of their sensuous content.

In the architectonics of kriti rendition, MS is inimitable, whether in simple structures or in the careful tier-by-tier build-up of "Giripai" (Sahana), "Dasarathe" (Todi), "Chakkani Raja" (Kharaharapriya) or "Sri Subrahmanyaya namaste" (Khambhoji). She is meticulous in maintaining the authenticity of pathantara as taught to her, drawing this a clear line between rachita (composed) and kalpita (improvised) sangita. However, the songs do get modulated and inflected according to her personal genius. That is why "Durusuga" (Saveri) sung by MS and Musiri (from whom she learnt it) become different experiences for the listener. When she sang his composition "Brochevarevarura" in Khamas, eminent musician Mysore Vasudevachar said, "the daughter had only black beads and glass bangles when she got married. I feel like her father when she visits him now in a dazzle of jewel and silks." Her understanding of the texts and the distinct flavours infused into the score by each composer make for variations in the same raga when she sings different kritis in it. Her "Needu charana," "Talli ninni," "Nidhitsala sukhama," "Birana brova yite" and "Bhajare chita," all in Kalyani, reflect different moods and facets of bhakti.

The universality of her appeal owes in large measure to the vast collection of songs in several languages over and above the impressive range of classical compositions. Whether Hindi, Gujarati bhajan, Marathi abhang, Rabindra sangeet, Sanskrit sloka or Tamil Tiruppugazh, they are all marked by lyrical allure, poignant feeling and philosophic content. Thus the lighter numbers acquire a seriousness of their own. As critic and admirer Dr. V.K. Narayana Menon saw it: "She is, no doubt, constrained to sing music she would rather not. But that is the price one has to pay for being a celebrity. A musician is at once an artist and a public entertainer and it is not easy to set aside the wishes of large sections of one's audience. This is not succumbing to popular acclamation. It is a kind of invested responsibility."

MS does not flinch from self-criticism. What seems satisfactory while in the emotion-charged stage ambience is reviewed for improvements. She tells you that she had to work on varja ragas for easier control. At 78 one finds her still learning, rehearsing new pieces, with notebooks balanced on sruti box.

Though she had the maturity and wisdom to transcend showmanship and mere technical virtuosity, a critique noted, "She was the earliest to compete with male vidwans in the form and substance of the concert, including niraval, swara and pallavi singing, a fact hardly noticed in her early years because it was accomplished with a quiet innocence and humility which have characterised her eventful life."

Guru Semmangudi also singles out three aspects of technical perfection as special to the MS style. "No other woman can sing the tanam like her. For me her reach in the lower octave, rare among women, is as impressive as her obvious essays in the higher. Thirdly I would rate her niraval singing among the best I have heard from women."

Particularly in the niraval the listener can perceive her vidwat - in the permutations of rhythm, in the spacing of syllables, in the perfect anuswaras connecting the curves, the sangati blitzes at crucial spots, the remarkable length of phrasing and the karvai balam (strength in dwelling on a single note). Through these technical feats, she retains and enhances the qualities of raga and the sahitya, seeing them as inseparable. "Kadambavana nilaye" (Sri Kamakoti; Saveri); "Rama, rama, rama yanutsu" (Ennaganu; Pantuvarali) and those wordy lines in "Tiruvadicharanam" (Khambhoji) where the devotee begs the Lord to save him from countless rebirths - these have long been lingering niraval experiences.

There is a school of thought that Subbulakshmi is a natural genius, that her music is not so much cerebral as inspired. However, the discerning listener knows how her music is crafted and polished; how the conscious and the unconscious elements are balanced. On those rare occasions when she is introduced to talk about her approach she says: "The ragaswarupa must be established at once. Don't keep the listener in suspense as to whether it is Purvikalyani or Pantuvarali. This difference must come through in the way you dwell on the notes common to both ragas, even before the introduction of dissimilar notes. In Sankarabharanam stress the rishabha, but in Kalyani accent the gandhara quickly."

She goes on to sing differences in treatment between Durbar and Nayaki, Saurashtram and Chakravakam, Devgandhari and Arabhi. At a crowded wedding she can suddenly call your attention to the distant nadaswaram's mishandling of Sriranjini to sound those phrases exclusive to Ritigowla. She can fascinate with her demonstration of tonal levels of every note in Bhairavi, their inter-relationships, permissible degrees of oscillation. "Much of this I kept discovering as I listened and sang. Learning the veena from Vidwan K.S. Nayaranaswami later in life was very beneficial in this search to understand raga intricacies."

Yet, popular rather than critical acclaim has more often not been the outcome of the MS efforts. She arouses devotion more than analytical scrutiny, despite her undoubted musicianship. In a nation quick to canonise and deify, she was first transformed into a saint, then to a veena-holding Saraswati - the goddess of learning and the arts.

The golden voice is a divine gift which cannot fail the possessor, who remains a stranger to the struggles and labours of the less gifted. However, a 1968 commendation by T.T. Krishnamachari (Ananda Vikatan) recognises the truth. "She has the maturity to keep on learning. Training, feeling, and grasping power, she has them all. God has given her a good voice. She has made excellent use of that voice through practice. No one can become an expert without labour. A good voice by itself will not make for great art, though, as far as I know, no one (but MS) has been blessed with a voice of such sweetness."

Through her long career MS had drawn strength both on and off the stage from Radha (Viswanathan). Radha trained herself from childhood to vocally accompany MS in concerts. A major illness has curtailed her supportive role for the last 12 years, a loss which MS feels deeply.

The miracle of her performing full-length concerts at her age she attributes to the two gurus the Sadasivams have revered all their lives: the sage of Kanchi and the Sai Baba of Puttuparthi. For, at 78, MS continues to increase in mellow artistry. Her commitment is evident in the ways in which she manages to overcome the handicaps of old age and physical frailty.

The warbles and trills of youth - the fine careless rapture of the careless bird in springtime - gave way in course of time to richness of timbre, to chiselled, polished execution. The brika flashes and organised raga edifices with high note crescendos were replaced by longer journeys into less-trodden ways in the middle and lower registers. These explorations are now undertaken in the freedom and ripeness of an autumn majesty. Retaining the sonorous sweetness and vitality through all these years of upward growth, "MS music" now makes an even more ravishing impact on the mind. "As I grow older, I feel more and more overwhelmed by the music." One sees this happening at times on the stage. Then she has to exercise great control just to go on singing.

Not the least of her achievements in over six decades of singing is the development of style of her own. This is not based on identifiable techniques of execution, but on the communication of a mood, of an ecstasy of emotion. What the ancient theoreticians called rasadhvani, when art became an experience of that ultimate bliss within and without, both immanent and transcendent. This was accomplished through auchitya - a wide term which embraces contextual appropriateness, adaptation of parts to one another and to the whole, a fitness of things, and poetic harmony. And MS exemplifies them all in her choice of raga and sahitya, balance of mood and technique, in her "mike sense" and timing, in the consonance she establishes with her accompanists and audience.

Towards the end of each recital MS sounds the cymbals in eyes- closed concentration for the Rajaji hymn "Kurai onrum illai " (I have no regrets). It becomes obvious that for all the splendour of her music, it is her image as a saintly person which will probably endure long after this century, just as in the case of Meerabai. For, in the highest tradition of the Indian way of life, Subbulakshmi links her art with the spiritual quest, where humility and perseverance assure the sadhaka of grace. 

by Dr. Gowri Ramnarayan
FRONTLINE, December 31, 1993


From: (Veena S Nayak) Newsgroups: Subject: The Song is Sadhana - M.S. Subbulakshmi Date: 31 Mar 1999 16:51:34 -0500 The following article has been reproduced from Veena

THE SONG IS SADHANA ------------------- MS SUBBULAKSHMI's incomparable voice has that indefinable quality which transforms song into memorable music. At 81, she remains the perennial student, seeking still greater perfection in her art. A tribute to the Bharat Ratna by TS PARTHASARATHY (TS Parthasarathy is a Fellow of the Sangeet Natak Akademi and well-known musicologist and dance scholar of Madras.) ***************************************************************************

THE Subbulakshmi epoch in Carnatic music commenced more than six decades ago. One of the outstanding figures in the sphere of music in post-Independence India, Subbulakshmi has done more than anyone else in her generation to enrich the country's musical heritage. Few musicians have endeared themselves to such a wide spectrum of music lovers. A classical musician's appeal is to a limited few, but the great mass of people turn away from him. A popular star may have a fantastic following among the masses, but may be anathema to the pundits. Subbulakshmi's music cuts across such musical boundaries. It is not versatility, but a measure of the range of her talent. She can satisfy the most exacting demands of an audience of connoisseurs in Chennai with the same ease with which she can sway mammoth gatherings in Delhi or Mumbai. THE MS MAGIC Her reach doesn't stop there. She has taken the music of India around the world as an embodiment of her country's greatness. She is known wherever there is an Indian community, her voice has been heard and admired in the UK, USA, Europe, Egypt and the former Soviet Union. It is an enchanting voice - one that casts a hypnotic spell on listeners. What has given this voice its culture, its pedigree, is her unswerving dedication and the humility to learn at all times from all people. Into her abundant, free-flowing music she has absorbed the mighty streams of several traditions and techniques, giving it an incomparable melodic richness, a dynamic flexibility, a well-founded assurance and crystal clarity. And she has that indefinable gift in her which few possess and which alone transforms song into memorable music. The golden voice is also an instrument of charity, used to raise funds for great causes. By the end of 1972, Subbulakshmi had given over 1,500 performances, 250 of which were benefit concerts in support of public causes, giving them financial help to the extent of rupees 60 lakhs. In recent years, practically all the collections from her concerts in many parts of India have been gifted away to local causes. It was in recognition of this admirable record of public service that the Ramon Magsaysay Award was given to her. This award, Asia's version of the Nobel Prize, is perhaps the one honour she cherishes most, representing as it does an acknowledgement of service to the people. Subbulakshmi's unquestioned supremacy in the music field is neither an accident nor a fortuitous coincidence. HARD WORK A whole set of gifts from God have been supported by prodigious effort. Exceptionally musical from her childhood and gifted with a fine soprano voice, Subbulakshmi's precocity was already in evidence by the time she was ten. She started her singing career by providing vocal accompaniment when her mother, the celebrated Shanmukhavadivu, played veena concerts. She started giving full-fledged vocal recitals of her own and was ranked among the seniors in the field while she was still in her teens. Musicians and connoisseurs gathered in her home. She listened to the giants of music and quietly absorbed the best from them, forging out of what she heard, her own unique style. It was Mr T Sadasivam, her husband (who passed away recently), who realised her almost unlimited potential as a vocalist. Thus, with her marriage, began the most purposeful chapter in her career. With his constant encouragement and support, she studied different aspects of music under great masters, the most eminent being Dr Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, the doyen among Carnatic vocalists. In the process of learning and practising, her voice attained its legendary mellowness. However, the wealth of her vocal talent had yet to be tested, its timbre and volume had still to be honed to produce the music that would bring aesthetic pleasure to the fastidious critic while giving the layperson the simple joys of melody and rhythm. Her repertoire was enlarged with the addition of songs in no less than six Indian languages, their versions checked for their classical purity and authenticity and the enunciation of each word of the song made perfect. THE WORLD IS MUSIC Subbulakshmi's devotion to music can only be described by the Sanskrit term, tapasya, which connotes much more than the common place word 'dedication'. Over the years, each piece introduced by her became the song of the season. If she took up a new composition, its structure was studied and its scope analysed till finally, chiselled and polished, it shone like a new gem in the setting of her individual style. Always an eager student, even today, at the pinnacle of her fame, her curiosity about new compositions and new ragas is insatiable. Once a new composition was presented by her either in a concert or on disc, it instantly caught the imagination of the public. It was Bhavayami one season, Srirangapura Vihara another, and Oh Rangasayi the third. Soon, these songs were on everybody's lips. MOVIES AND MS To MS goes the credit of popularising classical Carnatic music through the films in which she played title roles. Most of the songs for her films were composed by Papanasam Sivan, a wizard in composing original music. In the Tamil film Savitri, MS sang a Sanskrit bhajan, Bruhi Mukundeti, by the saint, Sadasiva Brahmendra, which was a rage in South India for a long time after. Other films she featured in - Seva Sadan and Sakuntala are still remembered for their rich fund of classical melodies. But it was the Hindi version of the film Meera that introduced her to people in North India. Referring to the film, Sarojini Naidu described MS as the "one great woman artiste in India who has moved the hearts of millions with her songs". The film revealed yet another aspect of her genius - she was a superb singer of Hindi bhajans. Her repertoire of bhajans includes those of Surdas, Tulsidas, Narsi Mahato and Meera, as well as psalms like the Hanuman Chalisa or those by Tulsidas. Later, she added Bengali songs, shabads from the Guru Granth Saheb and Marathi abhangs. Thus, she is probably the only singer in India who appeals to both South Indian and North Indian audiences. Her singing of Meera's bhajan, Hari tum haro used to be Gandhiji's favourite. It was in 1941 that the Sadasivams spent an evening at Sevagram, where Subbulakshmi had the privilege of singing a few bhajans in Hindi before Gandhiji. In subsequent years, she had sung on many occasions in the presence of Bapu. In September 1947, he expressed a desire to hear her sing his favourite Hari Tuma Haro. The song was recorded by Subbulakshmi at Madras and flown to Delhi on October 2. Gandhijiheard the song that evening, on his birthday. THE LOVE OF GOD Deeply religious, Subbulakshmi's spiritual mentor, whom she revered greatly, was the Paramacharya of Kanchi Kamakoti Math. When she went to sing at the United Nations in October 1966, she had a special benediction, composed by His Holiness in Sanskrit, for the occasion. Most appropriately, it was a fervent appeal from the Swamiji to the nations of the world to forsake war and the nuclear arms race and to work for world peace. The performance was the only one of its kind in the annals of the United Nations and was followed by recitals at 15 centres and a number of private concerts in the US. Critics went ecstatic at what they called "musical wizardry" and described the music as the "peak of educated and pedigreed singing". In addition to devotional songs and bhajans, Subbulakshmi has recorded innumerable hymns which are recited in South Indian homes every day. These include the Suprabhatam of Lord Venkateswara of Tirupati, the Vishnu Sahasranama and the Mahishasuramardani stotra. The royalties from these recordings have all been donated to deserving causes. As a token of her gratitude to the Paramacharya for his continued spiritual guidance in all her activities, Subbulakshmi has recorded the magnificent Sankara Stuti on audiotape, containing five songs, interspersed with slokas, exclusively in praise of the preceptors of the Advaita Philosophy, from Adi Sankara to the present acharyas of the Kamakoti Math. Sung with profound devotion, these songs and slokas do not merely evoke similar feelings in the listener, but take him to great heights of aesthetic pleasure. THE TRUE SOURCE What is the secret behind Subbulakshmi's phenomenal achievements in music? "Students of music," she says, "must work hard at acquiring purity of tone and a strict adherence to the sruti. This is possible only if they practise voice culture assiduously. It is not enough merely to have a sweet voice; it must be cultivated to a level where it will begin to give of its best. Never be tempted to use a falsetto voice. The manner in which swaras are woven into ragas can best be studied by playing them on the veena. Only the veena can demonstrate the nuances of swarasthanas (the position of notes). Students should treat the 'veena' as their teacher. In music, there are no short cuts. Hard work is the only way." During her career as a vocalist, spanning more than six decades, Subbulakshmi has scaled many peaks; but perhaps, her L. P. record of Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer's Mela-raga-malika, represents the zenith of her achievements. Venkatamakhi, a 17th century musicologist, formulated a scheme of 72 parent scales which revolutionised the very nature of Carnatic music. Another musical genius of the 19th century, Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer, wrote a long composition in Sanskrit, incorporating all the 72 scales, considered a masterpiece in Carnatic music. The differences between one parent scale and the next are so minute that only the most sensitive ear may distinguish the nuances. Subbulakshmi is the first singer to have recorded the entire composition on one L. P. This is one of her many precious legacies to posterity. The year 1994 saw a landmark in her career when she sang before the All India Music Conference at Mumbai to an audience which consisted of every musician in India who mattered. The honours and awards she received were but a natural corollary to her rising stature in the music world. In 1954, she received the Padma Bhushan title and two years later, the President's award for classical Carnatic music. The Bharat Ratna title conferred on her has come as the crowning piece of her life, which has perhaps no parallel in the annals of Indian classical music. With all these achievements, stupendous by any standards, Subbulakshmi has a childlike simplicity and artlessness. The latter-day craze for innovation has never lured her away from tradition. At 81, she continues to be the perennial student, seeking still greater perfection in her art, and searching for deeper and more enduring values in music, which have always occupied a place at the very crore of her being. Six decades of Nadopasana are reflected in her music today. It is no longer he mere manifestation of vocal prowess, but an expression of the soul. A rapture appears to seize her when she sings devotionals, a glow lights up her face. For her life is art and art is life. The song itself is Sadhana.

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