ENDURING MUSIC

Print edition : December 31, 2004

At a concert, accompanied by daughter Radha (right) and others. - V. RAMAMURTHY

M.S. Subbulakshmi, 1916-2004.

THE morning mist has cleared and the sudden thin drizzle has the small congregation outside "Sivam-Subham" on Kotturpuram First Main Road in Chennai, casting a puzzled glance skywards, seeking to interpret Nature's shower as a blessing to the departed soul of Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi (fondly called M.S.); her body, draped in a rust-brown shawl, lay in a freezer-box in the porch of the house.

Such curiosity about a divine manifestation is perhaps not misconstrued, as M.S. had a permanent halo around her, attaining spiritual altitude through music, matched only by the saint-singers of the Bhakti movement.

M.S., who turned 88 on September 16, was admitted to St. Isabel's Hospital, Chennai, for treatment of a viral infection on November 30. She developed pneumonia. Her condition worsened on December 10 and she lapsed into a coma. She developed cardiac irregularities and multi-organ failure. Family members who were by her side failed to hear her soft, caressing voice for one last time. Her daughters Radha Viswanathan and Vijaya Rajendran, who have accompanied M.S. in all her concerts, were inconsolable. The end came at 11-30 p.m. on December 11. In fact, for two years M.S., it is learnt, was not in control of her faculties.

"Sivam-Subham", the home of the Sadasivam couple for more than 12 years, had a steady flow of mourners from 6 a.m. on December 12 after the body was brought from the hospital. Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) chief M. Karunanidhi, along with his wife Dayalu Ammal and son M.K. Stalin, was one of the early visitors. In his poetic tribute in chaste Tamil, he said: "The drench of music that cooled the earth has ceased. The music that floats in the breeze will resonate even after the breeze has stopped."

President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who led the nation in paying homage to M.S., flew down to Chennai to pay his last respects. He said: "We have lost an incomparable music exponent of our time. Her singing spread divine happiness and peace to millions of hearts around the world." He arrived at the Kotturpuram residence at 3-40 p.m. accompanied by Governor S.S. Barnala.

During the 10 minutes he spent with the family members, he recalled M.S.' musical virtuosity and paid a fitting tribute in saying that "the greatest good that she has done to the country is that through her music, she has made us good human beings". He submitted to the family members a poem he penned on M.S. on board the plane, the essence of which, according to Athmanathan, the assistant of the Sadasivams for several decades, is: "Her music will continue to be heard in heaven."

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in his condolence message, said: "Her voice would continue to ring for centuries to come." Terming M.S.' death an end of an epoch, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa said: "There has never been a person like her and there will never be."

Said her contemporary D.K. Pattammal, who, along with M.S. and the late M.L. Vasanthakumari, had made inroads into an essentially male bastion: "I have lost a great friend and a towering fellow-musician." According to M. Balamuralikrishna, another renowned Carnatic musician, M.S. is the first creator in South Indian music and wherever there is music, melody and modulation, she will live on.

Senior Carnatic music exponents Lalgudi Jayaraman, Sudha Raghunathan and T.N. Seshagopalan said M.S. was truly irreplaceable and with her passing they had lost a great unifying force in Carnatic music.

The Tamil Nadu government announced a state funeral for its crown jewel. At the Besant Nagar crematorium, the police team presented a ceremonial gun salute and the Last Post was played. Public Works Minister O. Paneerselvam placed a wreath on behalf of the Chief Minister. The mortal remains of M.S. were consigned to flames at 5 p.m. Her grandnephew performed the funeral rites.

"Queen of music", "Nightingale of India", "Songbird of Springtime", "a musical genius", "a divine being"... the emotional outpourings of politicians, musicians, admirers, devoted rasikas and laymen, on her passing was intense. The much-attended annual December music season has commenced in Chennai but several top musicians spontaneously called off their concerts scheduled for the day as a mark of respect for M.S.

President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam paying his last respects to M.S.-S.R. RAGHUNATHAN

"KURAI Onrum Illai", she would conclude her concert and the audience would agree that "there could be no regrets" after a couple of hours of listening to M.S. Indeed, it would be plain truth to say that M.S. strode like a colossus in the world of Indian classical music. And for 80 of her 88 years it had been a sadhana with music. M.S. sang in 10 languages but never one word without internalising its meaning. And her repertoire spanned pure classical music, soulful bhajans and slokas from the scriptures. She followed the Bhakti cult and reached out with her unique style - grand, resonant, soulful, spontaneous and clear - to different people over three generations in different ways. If the expert revelled in her nuanced exposition of every facet of a raga, the layperson was captivated by her rendering of the "Venkateswara Suprabhatam" or the "Vishnu Sahasranama". Her concerts had a mix of the serious and the humorous, as in such bhajans as "Kahan ki patang" (Tulsidas) - a dialogue Rama and Sita have with the simple village folk they meet in the forest.

Her own simple lifestyle and her donation of most of her earnings to charity were perhaps inspired by her humble beginnings: her mother Shanmukhavadivu supported a family of three children, uncles, brothers, and their wives with her meagre income.

Initiated into music at a young age, M.S. learnt her first lessons from her mother. Formal music lessons began with Madurai Srinivasa Iyengar. She learnt pallavi singing from the doyen Mazhavarayanendal Subbarama Bhagavatar. Soon Kunjamma, as she was called, was singing on stage, with her mother playing the veena. When her mother cut a gramophone record, Kunjamma, then 10, was asked to do her bit: an impossibly high-pitched Khamboji in "Marakatavadivu". Thus was the voice that would hold the country in its thrall released.

Soon concert notices announced "Miss Shanmukavadivoo" as an accompanist to "Miss Subbalakshmi of Madura" and Kunjamma began to draw people's attention with her melodious voice and innocent demeanour. By the 1930s, the capital of Carnatic music had shifted to Chennai and Shanmukhavadivu, too, moved to Chennai in an attempt to establish her daughter's career.

In Chennai, M.S. met Thiagarajan Sadasivam, a veteran nationalist and a journalist. It was also a meeting of minds. In 1940, they were married at Tiruneermalai in the presence of The Hindu's Editor Kasturi Srinivasan and "Kalki" Krishnamurti.

Kunjamma's family now became Sadasivam's two daughters, his orphaned nephew and niece, an aged grandmother, and numerous relatives who needed to be housed, educated, married, treated in times of ailment. Elder daughter Radha became inseparable from M.S. Through the decades Radha was her vocal accompanist, emotional support and sympathetic companion until her own illness in the 1980s.

Sadasivam's firebrand nationalism identified M.S. with the freedom movement. Rousing national songs were part of her concerts and the couple remained close to national leaders from the Gandhi-Nehru era. She became known to Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi through C. Rajagopalachari, who was Sadasivam's friend. In 1941, Sadasivam took M.S. to meet Mahatma Gandhi, for whom she sang bhajans. Three years later, in 1944, she performed five concerts to raise funds for the Kasturba Memorial Trust. In the following years she gave benefit performances to collect funds for a variety of social and religious causes.

Her voice and charming face drew her to the world of films and between 1937 and 1947 she starred in four movies - Seva Sadan, Shakuntalai, Savitri and Meera. Savitri was to raise money for Sadasivam and family friend "Kalki" Krishamurti to launch a nationalist magazine. It was in and as `Meera' that the masses totally identified themselves with M.S. Meera not just made her a national icon, but, in a sense, made her know herself. The shy girl from Madurai could hold her own with experienced film actors, and bring tears to the eyes of American director Ellis R. Dungan when she sang, every note throbbing with rapturous devotion.

By the 1950s, M.S. was a household name but success brought humility and not arrogance. "Music is an ocean and I am a student. For a vocalist, voice practice is important. It has been my habit to learn the meaning of the songs I have to sing and the correct pronunciation of each word," she once wrote in a magazine, when she was 73.

Her seeming effortlessness was rooted in technical mastery, endless practice, restraint and constant self-appraisal. Listening to her rendering of the "Vishnu Sahasranama", Agnihotram Thathachariar could wonder: "How does she have that flawless enunciation we scholars are unable to achieve through several birth cycles?"

Householders innocent of Sanskrit identify with the bhakti in M.S.' suprabhatams of Venkatesvara, Visvanatha or Meenakshi. Though her Hindi bhajans made her known beyond the South, Subbulakshmi's Thyagaraja kritis too could keep North Indians in their seats.

Yehudi Menuhin was enraptured by the golden voice and Zubin Mehta was reluctant to take the stage after an M.S. concert. Pilgrims thrill to her voice amplified in temple prakaras from Kedarnath and Badrinath to Rameswaram and Kanyakumari.

For the last 25 years of her singing career (her last public appearance was in 1998), her music, rehearsals and recordings were monitored by Kadayanallur Venkatraman. He set to music many of the Annamacharya compositions that the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam commissioned her to propagate.

In all her achievements, Sadasivam was accompanist and mentor. When the Music Academy conferred on her the title of Sangita Kalanidhi - the first woman to receive it - in 1968, she described Sadasivam as her "friend, philosopher and guide". M.S. always maintained a low profile, content to let her husband be her public face. Sadasivam guided and moulded M.S.' music and concerts to perfection.

Honours have been heaped upon M.S. so much so that the legendary Rukmini Devi Arundale apparently once quipped to her: "Kunjamma, you must leave some awards for others!" She was conferred the highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, in 1996. The President's Award, the Padma Vibhushan (1975), the Padma Bhushan (1954), the Ramon Magsaysay Award (1974), Kalidas Samman (1988), Konarak Samman, Fellowship of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the Hafeez Ali Khan Award, the Indira Gandhi Award for National Integration and the Desikottama are the other honours she was conferred.

M.S. began withdrawing from public concerts from the 1980s, performing only for exceptional causes. She stopped singing after the demise of her husband in 1997. For an artist of world acclaim, M.S. never gave a single interview, letting her music speak for itself. But she received unprecedented press coverage.

M.S. is an inspiring role model, not only for her music but also for her rare qualities of humility, compassion and principles of conduct and discipline. Her quest for perfection, sincerity of effort and concentration were not reserved for the stage. It was her empathy with the downtrodden - in daily life, not just in cheques donated on platforms - and humility that gave her music a unique quality.

INDEED, on December 12 at her house in Chennai, all those who knew M.S. came away treasuring the impact she had on their lives. Dancer Sonal Mansingh summed it up thus: "She was Good with a capital `G'. Take away the `o', and she was god-ly."

K.V. Prasad, who accompanied her for 15 years on the mridangam, says, "Amma and mama (the Sadasivams) were everything to us. They treated us so kindly, as members of their family. And they gave without flinching. I have seen her give away money got at wedding kutcheris for worthy causes immediately, as `taking it back home may result in a change of mind'. It was a wonderful experience playing for her. Sometimes I have felt like just keeping the mridangam aside and listening to the flow of her bhava."

`Vikku' Vinayakram, the ghatam virtuoso, who accompanied M.S. to the United Nations in 1966 and London in 1982 for the "Festival of India", said, "It is amma's rasi (luck) that today I am playing at several international venues. She gave me the first opportunity to play abroad."

Carnatic musician T.N. Seshagopalan complemented M.S.' strength in excelling in the male-dominated world of music during her time. He said musicians owed her a musical anjali (homage).

There were others, rasikas, who could not express themselves in the language of music but were sure she would live on in cassettes and compact discs.

M.S.' "Venkateswara Suprabhatam", a soulful rendering of the invocation to the presiding deity of Tirumala, has thrilled every layman who has heard it played at the temple in the wee hours. The long-play (LP) version was first recorded in 1963. Today it is the only continuously selling cassette of M.S. Says `HMV' Raghu, a musician and engineer, who has been with the recording company for 35 years: "In spite of pirated versions, 10,000 genuine cassettes and CDs of `Venkateswara Suprabhatam' are sold every year."

M.S. wanted to reach every rasika alike. Raghu says:

"She wanted to make recordings as contributions for posterity. She realised she had a voice meant for the microphone, for recordings. By virtue of her family tradition she had the spirit of classicism to scale great heights in Carnatic music.

"She wanted to highlight the whole width of the vistas of classical music repertoire, especially with respect to the gamut of composers from traditional, modern, neo-classical, light and similar versions. She wanted to record scholarly works like the 72 melakartas of Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer. That shows her love for music both for the connoisseur and for the layman. These projects were taken up when she was in her 70s, which no musician in his prime would want to attempt. She wanted to complete the melakartas before it was too late. Such scholarly works require industry and application. She had it. She would record any number of times until it was perfect. She counted on me when she recorded Bhaja Govindam."

SUBBULAKSHMI had a strong female following in Tamil Nadu. Women of her generation emulated her, and were inspired to sing like her or even dress like her (no wardrobe was complete without an `M.S. blue' saree). But M.S. encapsulated much more than poise, dignity, dress sense and beautiful voice; she had an inner beauty that could not be easily copied. A resplendent glow filled her face when she closed her eyes in devotion, when her lips vibrated as the gamakas gushed forth even as the face remained serenely aloof to the tonic trembles of the lips or when she folded her hands in sincere greeting.

If the magic of her voice transported rasikas to new heights in spirituality, her ennobling qualities endeared her to everyone who had a chance to know her. Ardent rasikas, Vamanan and his wife Bhuvana, say that after every meeting with "M.S. amma" they returned learning the significance of life. Vamanan says: "She was an accommodative person and made people feel at home. These were perhaps the values she picked up as a young girl from her mother." Adds Bhuvana: "She gave others dignity. She attended my engagement along with mama. She would send me gifts."

"She gave a lot of herself to music," says Vamanan. "Her extraordinary personality was that it married music with life. She was submissive. She would tell my wife, `always listen to your husband'. As an artist she was independent. She is perhaps the only musician who came close to the supranormal. She had purity of music, character and life."

It is common knowledge that M.S. faithfully followed the Kanchi Paramacharya's exhortation to "self-restraint, generosity and compassion" in his composition "Maithreem Bhajata". "The HMV royalty of Rs.10-20 lakhs annually that M.S. earned was given away," says `HMV' Raghu.

Between 1944 and 1987, M.S., according to records, gave 244 charity concerts, sometimes 16 in a year. Athmanathan says the latest such donation was the Lifetime Achievement Award money of Rs.11 lakhs given by the Delhi government in June this year. This was given to the Kanchi Mahaswami Manimantapam project, coming up at Orirukkai village near Kancheepuram.

She gave so much, took little away. Even in her passing she has left so much music everywhere that we can constantly hear.

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