Hundreds of people have written about M S Subbulakshmi or simply MS, who would easily rank as the most well documented Carnatic musician ever. Mere mention of her name makes every Carnatic musician or music lover burst with pride for she has not only touched so many lives and hearts but also elevated Carnatic music to a high pedestal at the national and global levels.
It has never ceased to amaze me that one person could have made a difference to so many people’s perception of music, womanhood, beauty, devotion, philanthropy and so on. I particularly feel that in the last few decades when feminism and equality have been the much-bandied words, we have an example like MS who enjoyed success at the highest levels with all her feminine grace intact. She totally disproves the myth that in a man’s world one has to adopt aggressive means to achieve success. The values she brought to the table were her music, which was a combination of abundant natural talent and her own tireless efforts towards perfection, her bhakti, her natural humility and her well-known golden heart.
One of my earliest musical memories of MS is her rendition of Bhavayami Raghuramam. My mother, who was a great fan of hers, would always hold MS’ bhakti and bhava as the lofty standards for every Carnatic musician to emulate. I still remember being impressed by the crystal clarity of her voice, the delivery of her phrases and the economy of her paatham. Since then, I have heard many concerts and recordings of hers and these characteristics of her music have repeatedly made their presence felt! At the risk of sounding like thousands of others before me, I am going to confess that one of my favorite all-time recordings of hers is her rendition of Bhajagovindam. That particular rendition conveys just the right mood and tone that the song intends – introspective and gleaming at the same time. Personally, it has never failed to create this sense of tranquility and inner joy in me. Many have been the mornings when I would automatically tune into that song.
One of the words commonly used to describe her music is ‘impeccable’. I think it is a perfect choice for the music of MS. Being gifted with a naturally melodious and glittering voice is one thing, but to be motivated to use it in the right way is quite another. Most people with gifted voices fall into various traps along the way, mostly musical abuse or overuse. But not MS. Clearly she followed the correct methods of practice, which was not just confined to the use of her voice but was also directed towards good musical values. Her rendition of anything always gives this feeling of flawless perfection, be it a Varnam in two speeds or a mammoth composition like the 72-Mela Ragamalika which song itself runs to about an hour. Every aspect of her music – sruti, laya, melody, bhava, pronunciation, enunciation – would stand out as the golden standard even under the strictest scrutiny.
In my opinion, one of the biggest contributions of MS is also how much she influenced succeeding generations of music. Though Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar popularized the concert format, I think MS took it much farther than that. Not only did she know what and how much to sing, she also knew how to present them in a way that everyone in the audience, from a connoisseur to the layman, would be able to take home something from the heady mix she offered. Today hundreds of musicians emulate her consciously or otherwise, and we have also started using the term ‘packaging’ as a matter of course in our conversations about Carnatic concerts. MS was definitely the pioneer in such ‘packaging’, although she might not have thought of the term herself!
All through my life, MS and her music have been a constant presence. The few occasions on which I met and interacted with her will be some of the most cherished moments of my life. I remember being awestruck at the artistic humility with which she regarded her own seniors and peers, not only speaking of each musician highly, but also by surrounding herself with pictures of them in her living room. Her interaction with my father and brother would show the same level of dignity and graciousness (without being patronizing, which of course wouldn’t have been out of place for a senior vidushi of her stature) as her interactions with my guru, the late T. Brinda.
Perhaps only some know that MS, on the suggestion of music connoisseur and UN member C V Narasimhan, also learnt from Brindamma. The mutual regard and warmth they carried for each other was unmistakable to those who knew them personally. There were many occasions during my class when MS would call Brinda ‘Akka’ to enquire after her health and chat with her about the then-current music scene and various other things at a very personal level. Invariably right after these calls, Brindamma would get very nostalgic and talk about her in very affectionate terms. By the time they were in their late 70s and early 80s, when traveling to Tiruvaiyyaru for the annual Tyagaraja Aradhana wasn’t easy because of their age and health, MS would call Brindamma to find out if she would attend the one at the Tyagaraja Sangeeta Vidwat Samajam in Mylapore. The Pancharatnam rendition here would be a grander affair, with all the doyens like Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Brinda-Mukta, MS, D K Pattammal, Dr. Balamuralikrishna and others adorning the session. One had to actually be present to see the natural humility with which MS gracefully let her seniors lead the proceedings even though she was definitely better known than all of them.
It was indeed a sad day when we lost this unique gem. My family was among the first to be at her house, when the world was still waking up to the news of her demise. I remember thinking that with her, we have lost a whole set of values yet again, perhaps forever.