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Saga of Steadfast Devotion - Book Release

Excerpt From the Book "MS & Radha; saga of steadfast devotion"

Book Release
Price: Rs. 708
Available at Sruti
9, Cathedral Road, Chennai 600086
Ph: +91-44-28128070; INDIA
New Horizon Media
33/15, Eldams Road, Chennai 600018
Ph: +91-44-42009601; INDIA  and
…A new chapter unfolded for Kunjamma when she began to accompany her mother in concerts. Soon the concert billing changed to vocal music by "Miss. Madura Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi accompanied by Miss. Veenai Shanmukhavadivoo". The diary entry of a listener described one such recital in February 1929, at the Malaikkottai temple’s hundred pillared mandapam in Tiruchi. The audience was initially disappointed to see Madurai Shanmukhavadivu instead of Tiruchendur Shanmukhavadivu whom they had expected. As some of them buttonholed the secretary of the sabha and started complaining that he should have advertised the right name, Shanmukhavadivu asked the girl in pavadai chattai and long plait, sitting a little behind her, to move forward. When the girl finished her first kriti, the mandapam echoed with applause and enthusiastic cries of "Shabhaash!". At the insistence of the rasikas the secretary announced the girl’s name as “Kumari M.S. Subbulakshmi, none other than the daughter of Shanmukhavadivu Ammal.” The rest of the concert was hers. A Muslim listener got up and raced down the steep steps of the hillock, only to clamber back before the concert ended, to place his gift, a gold medal that he had hurriedly purchased, in the hands of the young girl.

What were Kunja's siblings doing around this time? Sakti, a mridanga vidwan in the making, had decided to study for a degree, because he knew that second-line musicians, particularly accompanists, were notoriously underpaid. Vadiva was continually prey to undiagnosed illnesses that sapped her energy. When she was well, she delighted in playing with Kunja, hoping that one day she would accompany her on the veena as her mother did now. She was talented, but lacked verve. Shanmukhavadivu had to depend
on Kunjamma for the family’s future security.

Recordings were another source of income and publicity. The gramophone companies had come to stay and were producing ‘plates’ that burst into music from a needlepoint on a winding machine. Kunja cut her first disc at age ten, the recording company yielding to Shanmukhavadivu’s persistent demands that they record her little girl's voice as well. No one thought that the child’s shrill treble would be noticed, but Marakatavadivum, a song in praise of the emerald-hued goddess Minakshi, in raga Senjurutti, with Oothukuzhiyinile, a siddhar padal (mystic verse), became a hit everywhere. Other young singers began to aim at the same high six-kattai pitch.

The sales of this first record must surely have surprised the company. Evarimata in Kambhoji, sung on both sides of the record, was released under the Twin label, with the song title in Telugu and Roman scripts, by “Miss. Subbalakshmi (Madura)”. In those days a hit song was often prefixed to the name of the singer as in ‘Marubalka Semmangudi’ or ‘Nagumomu Musiri’. Kunjamma too was called ‘Evarimata Subbulakshmi’. As a grandmother, Subbulakshmi laughed heartily when a child imitated those shrill Kambhoji trills. She remarked, “That’s how it was in those days. I went wherever my voice took me. We only learn restraint with age.”

The songs on those discs could have been sung by any precocious child. After all, Carnatic music has seen too many child prodigies to be surprised by early talent. Their distinguishing feature was the way the voice soared effortlessly, in crisp union with the sruti.

Kunja never forgot that HMV gave her her first break. She did not shift to other companies, not even when HMV was no longer a big player in the field. In her seventies, you saw her painfully walking up the steep steps to the by-then-dingy recording room, in a dilapidated cobwebby mansion on a side lane off Mount Road, near Gemini Circle. She felt a happy comradeship with the familiar soundmen. Her recordings took time; when the red light was switched on, she could become nervous. She settled for nothing less than perfection and nobody minded the delays. Lunch came from her home in a huge multi-tiered tiffin carrier, with enough sambar sadam, tayir sadam and vegetables to feed everyone including the accompanists and the technicians. She never took a bite before checking if anyone was left out, and not until Radha said testily, “They’re not children. They’ll take care of themselves. Eat! You have to sing!”

Back in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Kunjamma was being recognised in a larger circuit, in places like Tiruchi, Ramanathapuram, Arcot, Tirunelveli, Tanjavur and Karaikudi. She hardly remembered those concerts though one of them, in the home of a Saurashtrian trading family in Madurai, could hardly be forgotten. She walked into a hall with mirrors on all sides. To see herself multiplied, and to sing with so many reflections of herself, from so many angles, was both distracting and amusing.

As was to be expected, women artistes were paid less than men, and had to depend on the patronage of affluent benefactors in the aristocracy, landed gentry and trading circles. In the devadasi community, marriage was not often an option. It was reserved for the untalented. Married or not, the women found themselves exploited, with no economic or social security.

Kunjamma’s star was on the ascendant. Everyone who heard her was full of praise for the modest girl who sang effortlessly, but she began to see the evils of her situation. As Shanmukhavadivu tried to establish her career, Kunjamma began to think of the security of marriage, of family bonds. Obsessed though she was with music, she began to wonder if art and career were so important after all. None of the women musicians she knew had it easy….

Gowri Ramnarayan
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