Genius of song

Print edition : January 15, 2010

The M.S. mystique has to do with her extraordinary voice, which continues to ring in the mind with vibrant power and clarity.-V. RAMAMURTHY

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 Nadus Thanjavur district where Carnatic vocalist M.S. Subbulakshmi had given a concert as the finale of a week-long temple festival. 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 before 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 M.S. began to sing with the same earnestness and attention she had shown earlier on the stage. Another instance illustrates her appeal to the cognoscenti.

Kunjamma (as she is 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 Dakshinamurti Pillai, the venerable percussionist from Pudukkottai. The event had drawn a galaxy of artists including the upcoming Semmangudi Srinivasa lyer, Musiri Subramania lyer, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, Rajamanickam Pillai, Rajaratnam Pillai, Palghat Mani lyer, G.N. Balasubramanian and the Alathur brothers.

The next day, in the midst of this starry assembly, Dakshinamurti Pillai suddenly smote his head with vehemence. Singers must emphasise 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. Didnt we hear her yesterday? Wasnt it satisfying? Touch our hearts? At that public praise, Kunjamma shrank even more behind her mother in the corner.

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 figures like Tirukkodikaval Krishna lyer, Veena Seshanna of Mysore, Ponnuswami Pillai, Naina Pillai, Chittoor Subramaniam Pillai, Venkataramana Dass of Vizianagaram. Invariably, Kunjamma would be jerked forward to sing. She recalls that some of them would teach her a song or two as did the great Ariyakudi Ramanuja lyengar.

The impressive list of distinctions can hardly explain the M.S. 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 from 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 Gandhis assassination.

Princes and heads of state have bowed to her music, as when the (then) Maharana of Udaipur said to M.S. 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 M.S. in the lead. Jawaharlal Nehrus tribute to her, Who am I before the queen of song? has been publicised widely as has been Mahatma Gandhis 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 M.S. to render his favourite bhajan, Hari tum haro, and a response had gone from husband Sadasivam to the effect that since 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.

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)? 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 for any classical music still play her devotional verses as an every morning ritual. The suprabhatams on the deities of Tirupati, Kasi, Rameswaram and Kamakshi of Kanchi thrill pilgrims at dawn in temples from Kedaranath to Kanyakumari. In the midst of roadside blasts of film songs, if an occasional Kaatrinile varum geetham or Chaakar rakho ji comes on, the pedestrian is arrested into paused listening.

M.S. concerts draw large audiences in Jalandhar and Jaipur, Kanpur and Bhopal, Pune and Baroda, notwithstanding the predominance of 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.

Since then, M.S. recitals have always included bhajans of Meera first and later Tulsidas, Kabir, Surdas, Nanak and the abhangs of Tukaram. A few have heard her sing chhote khayals and thumris that she learnt in the 1930s from Dwijenderlal Roy in Calcutta and later from Siddheswari Devi of Benares. The latter spent some months in Madras teaching M.S. thumris and tappas.

Hindustani musicians themselves have never stinted praise. Veteran Alladiya Khan was charmed by her Pantuvarali (Purya 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 M.S. played Narada in Savithri. (This film launched the nationalist Tamil weekly Kalki, a joint venture of husband Sadasivam and writer R. Krishnamurti). The M.S. recordings would gather other distinguished artists, K.L. Saigal, Pahari Sanyal, Kananbala, Keskar and Pannalal Ghosh (later to play Krishnas flute in Meera). Dilipkumar Roy was another admirer who was later to teach her bhajans and Rabindra Sangeet.

Another M.S. 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 a conversation with Jawaharlal Nehru, Sadasivam remarked that the West might prefer instrumental to vocal music. Yes, said Panditji, capping his fingers. Then, looking straight at M.S. he broke into a smile, But not in your case! M.S. always adds, By Gods grace, what he said came true when I sang at the Edinburgh Festival, at the United Nations and at the Carnegie Hall.

Born in the temple town of Madurai on September 16, 1916, to veena player Shanmukhavadivu (her initials M.S. record the birthplace and mothers 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 the 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 Shanmukhavadivus 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 M.S. vocally rendered some of the rare and singular gamakas and prayogas of both veena and nadaswaram.

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 lyengar. But the lessons could not go much 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 didnt 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 teachers beating brought on an attack of whooping cough. But she practised music for long hours, lost in the vibrations of the tambura which she would tune reverently.

Intrigued by the gramophone records, Kunjamma would roll a piece of paper for the speaker (as in the logo of His Masters 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 Marakata 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.

The first stage appearance? When it happened, 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 mothers 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 Shanmukhavadivus veena concerts, M.S. 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 Sambasiva lyer 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 Subbulakshmis 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.

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