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M S Subbulakshmi: 'Nightingale' of Carnatic music

December 12, 2004 02:57 IST
Last Updated: December 12, 2004 02:59 IST

M S SubbulakshmiMadurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi, the 'nightingale' of Carnatic music, started her career by singing in temples before becoming one of the best-known artistes in her field during her lifetime, enthralling audiences all over the world, including the Carnegie Hall in London and at the United Nations.

Born in Madurai, Tamil Nadu on September 16, 1916, as Kunjamma, Subbulakshmi grew up surrounded by music. Initially, her mother Shanmugavadivu, a veena player, trained her.

Intrigued by gramophone records, Kunjamma would roll a piece of paper and sing into it for hours. She cut her first disc at the age of 10. The songs were maragatavadivu and Oothukuzhiyinile in an impossibly high pitch.

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From her formative years, MS worked hard to perfect her diction, understand the inner meaning of the composition and spent months memorising Sanskrit texts. Even in her seventies, she learnt new songs and recorded them.

"Music is an ocean and I am a student. For a vocalist, voice practice is important. It has been my habit to learn the meaning of songs I have to sing and the correct pronunciation of each word," she once wrote in a magazine, when she was 73.

It was through the Columbia Gramophone Company records that she was first noticed in Chennai even before she was in her teens.

When she was 15 or 16, she was invited to sing at a wedding, where she sang for two hours while the audience sat mesmerised.

By 1932, she had become a sort of cult figure for a whole generation of youngsters. In 1932, her mother Shanmukhavadivu decided to shift to Chennai.

The move was a blessing in disguise, as MS got a break in films, acting in many successful ones, including the all-time Indian classic Meera.

In 1933, the year of the Mahamaham, a festival celebrated every 12 years in Kumbakonam, film director K Subramaniam organised a concert of MS in the town.

MS took the town by storm. It gave her a chance to give a concert at the Music Academy in Madras.

Magazines like Ananda Vikatan began reviewing her performances regularly and she was constantly referred to by the press as 'Nightingale'.

It was at this time she met Thiyagaraja Sadasivam, a freedom fighter and fairly well-known figure in Chennai's political scene as a protégé of the late C Rajagopalachari, popularly known as Rajaji. They fell in love and married in Thiruneermalai, near Madras, in 1940. From then on, her career took a new direction.

Subbulakshmi's first movie Sevasadanam was released in 1938 in which she acted as a poor girl married to a rich old man. It was followed by Shakuntalai in which she played the lead, a glamorous role teaming her with G N Balasubramanian, the most attractive intellect of that time.

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The next movie was Savitri, which was released in 1942, in which MS played Narada with north Indian star Shantha Apte as Savitri. It did extremely well at the box office. The profit from the movie was largely used by Thiyagaraja Sadasivam to start Kalki magazine, which played a big role in projecting MS as a 'saintly musician'.

MS maintained her image as a glamour queen until the release of Meera in 1945 both in Tamil and Hindi. It created a wave of appreciation that gave her an all India status as a musician. It also marked the end of her film career. MS turned wholly to concert music.

In 1941, Sadasivam took her to see Mahatma Gandhi, for who she sang bhajans. Three years later, she performed five concerts to raise funds for the Kasturba Memorial Trust. At that time, she started conducting benefit performances to collect funds for a variety of social and religious causes.

In 1947, she rendered a concert on All India Radio on the occasion of Gandhiji's birthday on October 2, during which she sang her famous Meera bhajans and Thulasidas, Kabirdas kirtans.

In 1947, Mahatma Gandhi sent word to MS to sing bhajans for him, but MS was unable to honour his request and sent a recorded version of Hari thumo haro to him. All India Radio played this song after Gandhi's death in 1948.

She immortalised many songs, including Vaishnava Janatho, a favourite of Mahatma Gandhi, Meera bhajans, Annamacharya kirtans and the like. Certain ragas like Shankarabharanam and Kambhoji bore her 'unmistakable stamp'. People were invariably moved by her Meera bhajans.

Kurai ondrum illai (I have no regrets) often evokes sighs and tears when MS rendered it as the concluding piece in every concert. She never referred to notes when she sang on the stage.

She was the first woman to be honoured with 'Sangitha Kalanidhi' by the Madras Music Academy, a title, which is a dream of every Carnatic musician.

She had the rare privilege of rendering songs penned by the late Chandrasekerandra Saraswati, the 69th pontiff of the Kanchi Mutt, and the first and last Indian governor general of India, C Rajagopalachari, praying for world peace.

Former prime minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru hailed her as 'Queen of songs' and poet Sarojini Naidu gave her the title 'nightingale of India'.

She has performed across the globe, including the United Kingdom, erstwhile USSR, the USA and France. She played a larger role in spreading the concepts of Carnatic music to the Western world where hardly anyone knew about its complexities.

Her concert at the Edinburgh festival and the United Nations changed this concept and she was invited to tour the USA from coast to coast giving 22 concerts and since then MS had travelled all over the world.

The highpoints of her travels were the fund raising concerts held right across the US, her concert at the prestigious Carnegie Hall, the inaugural concert at the festival of India in London in 1982, her trip to Manila in conjunction with the Magsaysay award, her concert in front of Russian musicians and musicologists in 1988, and so on.

Her career touched its peak in 1966, when she was invited to render a concert before the UN General Assembly, where she kept the audience, comprising many heads of states, spellbound.

The quality of MS' inestimable musical expression reminded one of the words of Congreve, a music critic, who said: "Her music has the power to soothe a savage beast, soften rocks and bend a knotted tree."

The core of classical Carnatic music is devotion. Without any contradiction, it is the easiest path to lead a life of detachment, without being a slave to material and terrestrial needs. MS lived such a life with the motto: earn to give.

A Magsaysay award winner, MS donated her entire prize money to several welfare schemes.

In 1996, she was honoured with the nation's highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna. She is the only Carnatic musician to have received the award so far.

She stopped singing after her husband's death in 1997.

A devotee of late Chandrasekerendra Saraswati (of the Kanchi Mutt), she breathes the tenderness of a mother to the child and a baktha (devotee) to God.

Accepting the Ramon Magsaysay award in Manila on August 31, 1974 she said, "If I have done something in this respect, it is entirely due to the grace of the almighty who has chosen my humble self as a tool."

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