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January 20, 1998


Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi

E-Mail this story to a friend Grandmothers are best at telling stories about things which happened once upon a time, long, long ago. I too am a grandmother now, and I would like to begin with a story.

M S with Sarojini Naidu and Jawaharlal Nehru
M S with Sarojini Naidu and
Jawaharlal Nehru
Once upon a time, long, long ago, King Malayadhvaja ruled over the Pandya empire which spread across the land of the Tamils. His capital was Madurai, the city of temples and towers, in the deep south of India. The king had everything his heart could desire. But he had no child to make him happy. Therefore, on the advice of holy men, he performed a great yagna (prayer involving sacrifices) to the Gods.

As the priests chanted the Vedas, and poured ghee (clarified butter) into the fire, a little girl rose from the golden blaze. She was as beautiful as the full moon shining in the starry sky. That is how the Goddess came to Madurai as a human child. The delighted king named her Minakshi.

When she grew up, Princess Minakshi decided to expand the Pandya empire. Gathering an army as vast as the oceans, she set out on a war of conquest. Wherever she went, she was victorious.

Finally, the princess reached the Himalayas. She decided to storm Mount Kailasa, the home of Lord Siva. But when Minakshi looked at the God in all his glory, the arrow dropped from her hand. Siva too was overwhelmed by Minakshi's beauty.

However, it was not in the Himalayas but down in Madurai that their marriage was celebrated. To win Minakshi, Siva had to give up his snakes and ashes. He came dressed in gold and silks as the handsome Sundaresvara, a fit groom for the Pandya princess!

So now you know that Madurai, my hometown, is no ordinary place!

As a child, I was often taken to see the puja at the Minakshi temple. I remember gazing at the splendid image in the inner chamber. When the priest circled burning camphor round her face, I could see the beautiful eyes of the goddess. They were full of love, full of sweet blessings. So you see, faith and prayer came to me in childhood. It was part of the way I was brought up.

Later, when I became a concert signer, I would sometimes sing in praise of Minakshi. When I repeated the line "Madurapuri nilaye…" which described her as the deity of Madurai town, I would always remember the long and lovely eyes of the goddess which had thrilled me as a child.

I spent my childhood in a tiny house wedged between a row of tightly packed houses. This was in Hanumantharayan street, very close to the Minakshi temple. Oh yes, it is still there! The street is just as narrow, dusty and crowded now as it was in those days. The little lane was often occupied by cows which refused to budge. Certainly no cars could get by. The cows would sit comfortably and chew on, pretending not to hear the shouts and the honks.

But it was a special place for musicians because of my mother, Shanmukhavadivu. She played the veena. It is an ancient musical instrument. In paintings and temple carvings, you will see it in the hands of Goddess Saraswati. The tone of the veena is both rich and sweet. It is supposed to calm the mind, and bring good thoughts. I know this is true because that is how I felt when my mother practised and performed on the stage.

The initials before my name, stand for the two influences on my life -- M for my hometown, Madurai, and S for my mother, Shanmukhavadivu. She was my first guru. It was she who made me the singer I am today.

We were poor, but rich in music. I was brought up with music all around me. Singing came more naturally to me than talking. I was a timid child. Mother's strict discipline made me even more silent. Mother wouldn't let me or my sister Vadivambal step out of the house unnecessarily. In fact she didn't like it if we stood too long near the front door, or looked out of the window. My brother Saktivel had a little more freedom because he was a boy. We girls had to be satisfied with indoor games. With these restrictions, how could I make friends?

M S Subbulakshmi Our home was very small -- two rooms, a kitchen and a courtyard. A staircase went up to the terrace on top. Our house was always packed with elderly aunts and uncles who were often sick. We had to be quieter then. Our life was simple and frugal. We had coriander coffee in the morning -- made by boiling roasted coriander seeds to which a dash of milk and jaggery were added. We had rice and buttermilk at night. I was very fond of jasmines. But we couldn't afford to buy flowers everyday. And candy? Vadiva and I would pound tamarind, chillies and salt together, roll it into little balls and put a stick through each one. There was our lollipop!

I never felt we lacked things. Didn't we have each other? Learning music was fun because we three children learnt and practised together. I would sing, Vadiva would play the veena and brother Saktivel would make the room echo with his mridangam. His drumming was so good that I actually learnt to play the mridangam from him. We would laugh and talk as we practised. But mother's footsteps were enough to make us fall silent. She did not tolerate distractions of that sort.

When I was a child, television was of course a thing of the distant future. Films were few and something to talk about with open-mouthed wonder. I never saw any.

In those days there was a popular art from called Harikatha, which drew the evening crowds to a temple courtyard or marriage pandal (decorative tent). A narrator called the bhagavatar held the listeners spellbound with legends and epics. These tellers of tales were linguists and scholars who knew verses from many languages -- Tamil, Sanskrit, Telegu, Hindi and Marathi. This made their stories more fascinating, especially as they set the verses to music and sang soulfully. Some of the bhagavatars were such experts in music that professional musicians came to hear them.

Harikatha was usually performed by men, but there were a few women who excelled in the art. Saraswati Bai was a famous 'star' among them. Like the many artists of those times, she was deeply influenced by Mahatma Gandhi. She became a supporter of the Indian National Congress, and spoke eloquently about the campaigns it launched to free India from British rule.

Once, I was taken to hear Saraswati Bai. That day, her discourse described the gathering of Rama's army of monkeys on the sea shore. Suddenly Ravana's brother Vibhishana appeared in the sky, fleeing from Lanka to surrender himself to Rama. Bai painted the whole scene with a rousing fervour. And then she burst into a song in Raga Khamas, in adi tala (a time cycle of eight beats). Most unexpectedly, it was in English!

This is the occasion,

For our liberation,

This is Congress resolution

Gandhiji's inspiration.

It was a terrific blast which rose to a crescendo with the crash of drums, chipla bells and cymbals. Perhaps the lady thought she had to sing in English to make the British understand and tremble!

After the last note of the ringing challenge, Saraswati Bai thundered in Tamil prose: "And that is how Vibhishana fell from the sky, at the feet of the Lord!" And that is when I felt my mother's sharp pinch, admonishing me to stop giggling and behave -- or else…!


Excerpted from Past Forward, as told to Gowri Ramnarayan, Oxford University Press, 1997, Rs 275, with the publisher's permission.

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