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Genius of Song

Print edition : Jan 24, 1998 T+T-

WE cannot think of more than a small number of Indians about whom it can be said in honesty: his or her achievement is likely to endure a hundred years from now. We can say it about Mahatma Gandhi, whose ideas will be remembered and debated for a long time to come even if honoured mainly in the breach. (We cannot, sadly despite Sonia Gandhi's intense advocacy-against-the-evidence, say this about Rajiv Gandhi whose life and political career were not a shining example of dedication to the public good.) We can say it about a great revolutionary like E.M.S. Namboodiripad whose contribution, at the conceptual and practical levels, to an impressive range of fields will endure. We can say it about Bhagat Singh, an exemplar of sacrifice and shining idealism.

We can say it about a major poet like Rabindranath Tagore or Subramania Bharati, a beloved short story writer like Premchand, a great novelist like R.K. Narayan: their creative works will be read in many editions and languages well into the 21st century. We can say it about Satyajit Ray, the towering film-maker and polymath. We can say it about a major artist like M.F. Husain, a pathbreaking scientist like C.V. Raman, an institution-builder like Homi Bhabha or Abdul Kalam. We can, of course, say it about Mother Teresa.

We can certainly say it about Sangita Kalanidhi M.S. Subbulakshmi, the modern age's Genius of Song (see cover feature in Frontline, December 31, 1993), whose music will remain fully accessible to future generations thanks to audio cassettes, compact discs and the rare offerings on video and film, notably HMV's recently released video presentation of her great 1997 Swaralaya Puraskaram concert at the age of 80.

The term Genius of Song encompasses a range of attributes and qualities that define greatness in the classical tradition. It is a greatness that has been recognised equally by expert and mass audience, Mahatma Gandhi as well as humble rural folk, over something like six decades. Its building blocks are well-known - purity; an uncompromising fealty to the Carnatic classical tradition combined with a creative willingness to adapt and change and reach out to meet the requirements of new times; an expanded, all-India domain; a progressive reaching out to other traditions without ever lapsing into eclecticism; unsurpassed bhava, or feeling, in the great Bhakti mode, resulting in a unique "capacity to lose herself in her music"; "perfect alignment of sruthi, complete command of laya, clarity of diction, faultless pronunciation in every language, immaculate execution"; a lifelong habit of meticulous practice and hard work; sincerity and humility that is humbling; "a voice that is heard once in a millennium"; and when everything else is said, a transcendental beauty that transports and elevates.

"A mighty stream of musical and artistic elements," wrote the exacting musicologist, T.S. Parthasarathy, in a citation presented to M.S. on June 29, 1997, "went into the making of her art and the results were an incomparable melodic richness and taste combined with an assurance and clarity that have no equal in the realm of Indian music."

An attribute of M.S.' artistic greatness that deserves celebration is its accessibility. Of few Indians can it be said that they gave so much over so long a period to so many without expectation of personal material reward. The M.S. appeal cuts across social classes and generations and geographical divides. Her musical and artistic greatness in many languages, with its universalistic appeal, has been a force for national integration and civilisational goodness.

"Who am I, a mere Prime Minister, before the queen of song?" exclaimed India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who half a century ago showed a touching practical concern that M.S. should not strain her voice through overlong concerts. "I should prefer to hear it spoken by Subbulakshmi than sung by others," replied Gandhiji to her husband T. Sadasivam on a famous occasion in 1948. This was with reference to Gandhiji's request that M.S. sing his favourite bhajan, Hari tum haro, and Sadasivam's demurral that she did not know how to sing this particular bhajan. And there are equally interesting stories about the response from very ordinary people, humble folk, coming a long way to hear M.S. sing.

For nurturing her exceptional gifts, shaping and presenting her musical greatness, protecting the lovable traits of both the person and music which have held audiences in thrall round the country (and occasionally abroad), inspiring personal philanthropy on an unparalleled scale, and establishing and sustaining a connection with the realm of the public good, the country owes a major debt to Sadasivam, M.S.' husband and exemplar of freedom movement virtues, who passed away on November 21, 1997 at the age of 95. (For a tribute, see Frontline, December 26, 1997.)

There is simply no other artist or creative figure in modern India who has consistently, over a lifetime, given away all that genius has earned. When totalled up and converted to present value, the donations made to a range of national, philanthropic and public causes by M.S. through concerts and recordings over the decades will run to many crores of rupees.

Every conceivable award and honour has come her way - culminating in the Bharat Ratna which brings enhanced relevance and honour to itself by honouring one who, so transparently, never sought it. It was entirely in keeping with M.S.' character that when President K.R. Narayanan spoke to her over the telephone personally to convey news of the Bharat Ratna, she could not carry on the conversation: sorrow over the realisation that her husband was not with her to share the happiness suppressed any sense of rejoicing over the award. "I am grateful to the President for conferring upon me the highest honour of our land, which I accept in all humility," was her unadorned public response.

As a newspaper tribute noted, M.S. Subbulakshmi has always been a Bharat Ratna; now it has been formally recognised.