Chitravina N Ravikiran

There is not a tinge of doubt that M S Subbulakshmi was one of the most beautiful artistes to ever adorn the world music scene. Beautiful in all senses of the term…

It is often said that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder but she was an artiste whose beauty transcended relativity. Because it was a beauty that she was not merely born with, nor was it solely dependant on resplendent jewellery or attire.

This was beauty she enhanced every day, every hour and minute that she lived, through her thoughts, words and deeds.

And of course, through her music – impeccable and inimitable.

One can analyse and micro-analyse her music and career for years but still not find all the reasons for her stupendous success that others can only dream of.

She certainly was endowed with a voice that had most qualities required for weighty, classical Carnatic music. It was also a voice that could do her bidding when it came to light classical, devotional and film music. Her voice also possessed what I term as the ‘ring of auspiciousness’, a bell like quality that could make even a Kshetragna padam seem like Suprabhatam… But it was not merely this.

She was meticulous beyond measure to ensure that her music was not just attractive but also acceptable from any standpoint – be it the grammar of the raga, accuracy of tala, pronunciation and more importantly, the correct accent as dictated by the language. But again, this does not complete the picture.

She was a model of assiduousness when it came to concert planning. A lot of us plan but never execute because we dream of the results without ever putting in the necessary effort. Today’s busy professionals often end up with a glow about their scrupulous preparation if they have glanced at completely new song in an unfamiliar and odd tala a few hours before rendering it in a concert or recording! MSS never worried about the results but put in days of practise after learning a song, which is what made her sing absolutely unfamiliar songs with such silken sheen that one could be forgiven for believing that these songs were part of the Carnatic repertoire for ages and had been polished by numerous maestros in the past. But again, this is not all.

People talk about the bhakti element in her singing and it was unquestionably a major factor in influencing millions of listeners. Not only did she possess true devotion but she could make her listeners experience what true bhakti was. Her bhakti was born from an outlook where simple faith ruled as opposed to intellectual cynicism.

Ever the perfectionist, she was not even conscious of stardom, let alone covet it. She possessed one of the greatest qualities required for growth – the attitude of a perpetual seeker. Even at her zenith, she constantly learned from maestros such as Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and Brinda-Mukta to make sure that her repertoire had the stamp of authenticity.

In terms of consistency, she was almost Bradmansque. One would hardly hear of about a concert by MSS that was less than excellent.

In terms of stage presence, few could match her. Off stage too, she was just as beautiful.

However great each of these attributes are, they still create a whole greater than the sum of its parts…

The truth is there was some invisible magic in her persona which has made her invincible. That is God’s grace – not just given but earned…

This, in my opinion, is the biggest thing we can all learn from her. Without eve spelling it out, she has shown that if one possesses the other qualities she had, God’s grace will naturally follow.

On a personal note, I have had a privileged relationship with her even before my ‘conscious’ years. My parents have always remembered with fondness the incredible reception for me that she hosted at her house soon after my debut as a two-year old, in 1969.

My first memory is when I gave a vocal concert at a wedding in Trichy when I was 5 or 6. MS amma was to sing the following day at the same wedding but she made it a point to come a day ahead and sat through the whole concert – even though I distinctly remember that I sang well below my standards and incurred the wrath of my father at the end of the day!

My mother – to whom MSS was like a goddess – told me how fondly she had talked about my grandfather Gotuvadyam Narayana Iyengar and how she was convinced that I was his re-incarnation. A true blessing indeed. However, I was too young to be aware of the significance of all this.

I had several interactions subsequently with her that I cherish very much. I will only share one here.

I had a disagreement with All India Radio and Doordarshan (about the name change of my instrument from gotuvadyam to chitravina) and had stopped performing for them for a couple of years. During this time, when I once went to MS amma’s house, she gently chided me saying, “Yours was one of the few concerts I have always looked forward to on the Radio as I rarely venture out. If you stop this, where is the tonic for people like me in my old age?” Needless to say, I felt extremely humbled and resolved that I would resume playing for AIR again (who coincidentally agreed to my stipulation around the same time).

When I received an SMS from a friend about her demise around 4.30 am, I rushed to her house right away. There was absolutely no one there at that time except her family and I did indeed feel as much a part of the family as one could ever be. For, it is absolutely true that to me that this loss amounted to a shrinking of my own family…