Music

The M.S. phenomenon

Print edition : February 06, 2015

M.S. Subbulakshmi with Jawaharlal Nehru. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

December 31, 2004

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 magic 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 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. 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 distinguished audience of needle-sharp rasikas and fellow musicians at the Music Academy in Chennai 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.

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 Iyer, Musiri Subramania Iyer, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, Rajamanickam Pillai, Rajaratnam Pillai, Palghat Mani Iyer, 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. “ 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 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. 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 tumbles. 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.

“What were you like in those days?” brings a change of 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. 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.

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 Nehru’s tribute to her, “Who am I, a mere Prime Minister, 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 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.”

Nearly half a century after this incident, M.S. and Sadasivam recalled 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.

Often laypersons 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 Kedarnath 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. There are others who swear that listening to her recorded music helped them tide over troubled times, even traumas and tragedies.

More remarkable is her popularity outside the Carnatic belt. According to traditionalist stereotype, the north Indian is supposed to be indifferent to Carnatic music, but M.S. concerts drew 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.

Delightedly surrendering her title “The Nightingale of India” to M.S., Sarojini Naidu introduced her in the film’s first reel. A slender M.S. 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.”

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 folded both his hands and closed his eyes as he spoke her name.

Another M.S. achievement was that, virtually for the first time, she astonished the Westener 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 M.S. he broke into a smile, “But not in your case!” M.S. would always add, “By God’s grace, what he said came true when I sang at the Edinburgh Festival, at the United Nations and the 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 from The New York Times.

He was to call ecstatically next morning. “You have won. The press overflows with praise.” So it did after everyone of the string of concerts M.S. gave in the U.S. and in some parts of Europe before all-white audiences, most of whom were strangers to any music from India.

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 or Beethoven. Many would attribute it to the Indian Bhakti tradition of poetry and song to which the singer belonged. 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.

Recognising Sahitya as an integral part of Carnatic music, M.S. cultivated impeccable diction in the different languages of the lyrics she sang. 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 into their proper components. These techniques highlight the meaning. Here her knowledge of Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Sanskrit and Hindi was of immense help.

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.

Towards the end of each recital M.S. would sound the cymbals in eyes-closed concentration for the Rajaji hymn “Kuraionrum 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 for long, just as in the case of Meerabai. For, in the highest tradition of the Indian way of life, Subbulakshmi linked her art with the spiritual quest, where humility and perseverance assure the sadhaka of grace.

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