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The Rediff Special/N Sathiya Moorthy

MS is happy in her sadness

E-Mail this story to a friend The mood was sombre and solemn, not one of celebration and cheer though it was Pongal, the annual harvest festival of Tamil Nadu.

M S Subbulakshmi, who on Wednesday became the first musician to get the Bharat Ratna, the highest national honour that anyone can aspire for, is happy in her sadness. She is sad that her husband and mentor T Sadasivam is not around to share the happiness. If anything, 'MS' has not recovered from the shock of his death in November.

No wonder she is not yet ready to meet the media, or even visitors who gather to greet her.

The soul that went into a cage with the passing of Sadasivam -- through whose eyes Subbulakshmi saw the world, including the world of Carnatic music, of which she has been the uncrowned queen for over six decades; her husband in turn saw the world only through her music -- is yet caged, unwilling to be unshackled. Her music that has been divine, strumming in life, breathing in the sweetness of honey and the softness of dew, is in melancholy and mourning.

For a young girl from the district town of Madurai steeped in the family tradition of Carnatic music, Subbulakshmi has come a long, long way. Not many know that she is not a brahmin by birth, but she has been more brahminical than the most devout and traditional of brahmins, in outlook and austerity, in music and maturity.

It was the Carnatic music circuit that evolved in the presidency capital of Madras with the annual Indian National Conference in 1929 that shone the light of glory on the likes of MS, the greatest of the women musical trio of Carnatic music of her times -- the other two being D K Pattamal and the late M L Vasanthakumari.

But Subbulakshmi's greatness was her own making, made possible by the efforts of her husband, who as a manager in HMV, brought her name and fame. Their constant contact and mutual dependence led to their unison in wedlock, with which Subbulakshmi also came to mother Sadasivam's motherless daughter through his first wife.

What has made MS great was not her music alone. True, she had no competitor in that field when she was at the zenith, which spanned over a few decades. But her greatness and deserving for national honours came from her humility and humaneness. There is not one great social cause which has not benefited from Subbulakshmi's contributions.

Charity performances, and large-scale contributions to social causes have been the hallmark of her musical career, unparalleled by those of her contemporaries. So much so that MS also became the first Indian music personality to be conferred the Magsaysay award.

If Subbulakshmi found a constant companion and silent co-worker in Sadasivam, the latter found in her a willing student who was not a prisoner of her vanity. His causes -- Sadasivam was a freedom fighter and a man of austere tastes -- were hers, and her progress in music was his own life's goal and ambition. He would sit with her, both at home, and in front of her in the sabhas, giving her a silent nod of approval at every sangathi and bhirga, every pause and every beat.

And together they made a team, and would not be cowed down when fate frowned upon them sometime back, when they had to sell their house and dispose of other properties to settle dues that had collected from their running the classical Tamil magazine Kalki, only in honour of a departed writer friend K Krishnamurthy. But they would not discuss it with anyone, not accept any help in that respect.

What, however, made Subbulakshmi a household name in the late forties was not her Carnatic music, but some of her all-time greats in Indian cinema. It was with great persuasion that the American director of Tamil films, Ellis R Dungan -- he is now leading a retired life back home -- made her play the lead in Meera, also made in Hindi.

She then acted in another film Shakuntal -- wife of King Dushyantnan from the epics and folklore. But that was also when MS decided to get out of cinema, when she was at the zenith, and give herself up completely to Carnatic music.

''It's sweeter than all the Pongal sweets,'' Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi was apt in describing the nation's Pongal gift to all Tamils. Karunanidhi was one of the first and few visitors that Subbulakshmi received.

''And this is possibly the first time that a musician has been awarded the greatest honour in the land,'' said Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, the pithamaha of Carnatic music.

The music world in this part of the country feels even more honoured than it had when a middle-aged woman in traditional Kancheepuram silk, her nose reflecting the glory of local diamond-work, her face reflecting the serenity and glory of the land from which she came, and the forehead smeared with sindoor and vibhuti sang to a world audience from the United Nations, a Carnatic music song written in English by C Rajagopalachari, a family friend for decades.

And there is no gainsaying the fact that a cross-section of India, both inland and overseas, wakes up with Subbulakshmi's Venkateswara Suprabhatam in the morning, and goes to bed with her Vishnu Sahasranamam at night, cutting the language barrier between god and man, through soul-filling music that's MS.

Bharat Ratna conferred on M S Subbulakshmi

The Rediff Special

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