Inner peace and timeless faith


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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 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 figures like Tirukkodikaval Krishna Iyer, Veena Seshanna of Mysore, Ponnuswami Pillai, Naina Pillai, Chittoor Subramaniam Pillai, Venkataramana Dass of Vizianagaram. Invariably, Kunjamma would be jerked forward to sing. ‘Though I was always 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 Iyengar.

‘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.

M.S. has been sheltered and protected through all her 89 years. Like everybody else, she has had ups and downs, faced hurdles and setbacks, known heartbreak. 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, including the Bharat Ratna, and of significant international recognition.



But 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 also realised by the multitudes on occasions when her devotional songs were telecast by Doordarshan, as at the time of Indira Gandhi’s 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 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 30 January 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 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 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. 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 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.

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 tribute with this prophecy to her countrymen, ‘You will be proud that India in this generation has produced so supreme an artist.’

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 (‘Na manoongi’, Mishra Khammaj; ‘Neer bharan kaise jaaon’, Tilakamod; ‘Mano mano kanhaiyya’, Jonpuri), 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. 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 Siddheswari Devi rolling the beads to keep the 108 count.



To many North Indian business barons, an M.S. recital at a family wedding is no 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 M.S.? A Bombay-based industrialist’s reply to the naïve question was, ‘True! We can listen to good music from 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 (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 (the renowned Kesarbai’s brother, himself a musician) 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 at the end,’ M.S. 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 M.S. 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 M.S. fan.



What is M.S. 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 sloka recitations, she is a strict follower of all the prescribed rituals of the suman-gali 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 M.S. image. ‘It is not right to describe her as the Maria Callas of India. Callas has fans, frenzied legions of them. But not devotees! M.S. does not sing, she makes divinity manifest.’

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

Born in the temple town of Madurai on 16 September 1916, to veena player Shanmukhavadivu (her initials 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 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 Shanmukhavadivu’s approval. ‘My earliest interest in music was focused 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.

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 made to god and guru Madurai Srinivasa Iyengar. 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 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 practised music for long hours, lost in the vibrations of the tambura which she would tune reverently. The M.S. 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 (in 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 ‘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.

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 yearly Ramanavami festivals he organised, there would be puja, music and a 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 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 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, 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 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 himself sang nationalist songs in public while courting lathi-charge and arrest, introduced M.S. to the great Congress leaders – Rajaji, Nehru and Gandhiji. Sadasivam, who made an early mark in the advertising field and in publishing, was always the organiser.

To Sadasivam and M.S. 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 M.S. and G.N. Balasubramaniam – ‘Anandamen solvene’, ‘Premaiyil’ and the sparkling ‘Manamohananga’. Sadasivam also inspired M.S. 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 M.S. 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 Sadasivam who saw music not as an aesthetic exercise, but as a vehicle for spreading spirituality among the populace. For this reason he insisted on her giving predominance to bhava and bhakti in alapana, kriti and niraval, while minimising technical displays in pallavi rendition and kalpanaswara. Though M.S. had learnt pallavis from the old stalwart Mazhavarayanendal Subbarama Bhagavatar, she readily followed her husband’s instructions.

Believing that his wife’s wealth of voice should not be used for personal gain, Sadasivam channelled 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 M.S. raising crores through singing.

What is responsible for the flawless presentation of an M.S. ‘concert’? Undoubtedly it is the shrewd programming masterminded by Sadasivam to suit each place and event. While this strategist designed 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 allotted the duration for each individual piece. M.S. herself laid out and embellished 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 signalled changes likely to please the day’s audience. But the couple also made experiments, propagated lesser known/unknown composers, and flouted hidebound conservatism by championing the Tamil Isai cause of the 1940s.



Recognising sahitya as an integral part of Carnatic music, M.S. 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 into 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 raga malika by Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan, a string of 72 ragas mostly rare, with hair’s breadth variations 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 miracle of her performing full-length concerts at her age she attributes to the two gurus the Sadasivams revered all their lives: the sage of Kanchi and the Sai Baba of Puttaparthi. Even now, M.S. 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 song 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 were not undertaken with the freedom and ripeness of an autumn majesty. Retaining the sonorous sweetness and vitality through all these years of upward growth, ‘M.S. 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.

Towards the end of each recital M.S. sounds the cymbals in eyes-closed concentration for the Rajaji hymn ‘Kunonrum 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.


* Courtesy Frontline. An edited version of ‘Genius of Song’, 31 December 1993.