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Vaisakh E Hari
Vaisakh E Hari

SUBBULAKSHMI CENTENARY

MS Subbulakshmi: The life of a legend

Composer AR Rahman performed at UN General Assembly in 2016, becoming the second Indian artist to do so after MS Subbulakshmi.

The year was 1987. Almost 30 years hence, memories of his marriage day remain firmly imprinted in the mind of prominent mridangam artiste K.V. Prasad. As the ceremonies came to a close, the newly weds stepped down from the podium to seek the blessings of M.S. Subbulakshmi present among the audience. “Kunjamma, sing two songs,” her husband, Sadasivam, lightly goaded the Carnatic music legend. “This was not a concert or a planned performance of any sort. She sat us both down in front of her and sang. Hearing her voice, visitors from all around rushed into the auditorium. The silence was deafening. It remains one of the most treasured moments of my life,” reminisces Prasad, who has had a 15-year-old association with M.S. Subbulakshmi, which began with a 1984 concert at Dharmaprakash hall in Chennai. He will perform at the UN General Assembly on October 2 as a part of her centenary celebrations.

Born on September 16 1916, Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi grew up with strong musical influences from her mother, of the Devadasi community. She was under the tutelage of musicians like Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, a doyen of Indian Carnatic music.  After an explosive debut at Kumbakonam during Mahamaham festival, she left a stunned audience in the wake with a performance at the Madras Music Academy in her teens. She would later go on to act in acclaimed films like Meera,in which she immortalised the Meera Bhajans in her own voice. In 1936, she married nationalist writer and freedom fighter T Sadasivam. The first Indian classical musician to perform at the UN General Assembly,  she is also the recipient of countless honours like Bharat Ratna, Padma Vibhushan, Ramon Magsaysay award and Sangeetha Kalanidhi. Personalities like Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and Sarojini Naidu heaped praises on her.  She passed away on December 11, 2004. 

 Veteran journalist and author T.J.S. George, who compiled a comprehensive biography, 'MS- A Life In Music', which explores how the girl from Madurai shattered the boundaries of Carnatic music, reminisces about a chance encounter with her. “Remembering a solitary meeting with MS, not planned and not an interview, still leaves me wonderstruck. I just happened to be in her house to meet some friends and she came in quite unexpectedly. She walked gently in, sat down, exchanged some pleasantries and was gone, as gently as she had come. In the following days, previously closed doors opened for me and previously unavailable sources became available. I believe she had some inexplicable power in her and that power worked in favour of the book I was writing on. Strange but true,” said George in an email response to THE WEEK. 

Many of her life events would later turn out to be huge influences on her art. As the lore goes, when she faced pressure from her mother ,Shanmukhavadivu, to move in with a wealthy Chettiar, a young MS Subbulakshmi slipped out of the house one night and got on to a train to Madras. She found refuge with Sadasivam, whom she would later marry. “If a Nobel Prize were to be instituted for music, it would surely have her name on it,” says music critic Ramesh Gopalakrishnan. “She made inroads into a completely male dominated Carnatic music industry and became the face of India's nationalist music. Thiagaraja once said- Without bhakti (devotion), there can be no knowledge of music. This is especially true of Subbulakshmi. While musicians like K.B. Sundarambal sang with a tempestuous bhakti, Subbulakshmi, probably owing to her Devadasi background, was driven by a selfless, servile devotion. Towards the end of her career, she seemed to be especially attached to songs like 'Kurai Ondrum Illai Marai Moorthy Kanna' which she rendered at the end of almost every concert, a reflection on her life experiences,” says Gopalakrishnan. And it is also here that the influences of her upbringing would come into play. “Look at Kathakali, a traditional art form in Kerala. While Namboothiris were the main enthusiasts and patrons, the performers were mainly Nairs. In the same way, communities like Devadasis were a big part of the temple arts,” he said. 

She would start practising her songs at least 10 days before a concert, says K.V. Prasad. “Before the performance, she would perfect her sruti with a tanpura for at least half an hour. Intense practice and hard work were key to her inspired performances. Moreover, she was always warm and kind. Anybody can perform on stage, but it requires a divine touch to exude the kind of magnetism that draws in an entire crowd, as only she can,” said K.V. Prasad. What better way to describe an artiste who could move thousands strong crowds to tears with a single, moving rendition of Vaishnava Janato?

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