What made MS special? Was it her aura? Her appearance? Her humble nature? or was she just lucky? Interesting, isn’t it?, that all the above questions do not have anything to do with her music. MS was MS, because of her music and everything else came later. Many a time in the carnatic music world we forget about the musical qualities that made MS what she was. We talk about her as a great human being, philanthropist , one with a God given voice, her appearance and of course her national contacts. We forget that she was one of the greatest musicians ever.
Her music to me symbolized all the greatest qualities of a musician. The difference between a good musician and a great musician is the skill of communication. You may have all the technical skills in the book but unless you are in sync with the audience in front of you all your skills are a waste. M. S. Subbalakshmi was one of the greatest communicators. Everybody who went to her concerts would come out feeling one with her and her music. This was because she transferred to the audience every experience she was having while she sang. How did she do this? When a musician sings completely lost in the world of music then everyone around will be part of the experience. An experience of joy, sorrow, ecstasy, passion, happiness and above all sheer bliss. That was M.S.
As a student of music I was always told by my gurus to sing Krithis with clear diction, in perfect rhythm, whereby all the syllables in the lyrics fall at appropriate points in the tala structure and always render each Sangathi ( musical variation in a line) twice. For a very long time I did not realize the importance of this. Only when I listened to a rendition of a Krithi by M.S. amma I realized the impact and effect such a rendition has on a person. Her pronunciation was impeccable and definitely the best that the carnatic music field has ever seen. The way a krithi was built up from the Pallavi to the charanam was just out of this world. Every line, its Gamakas , and sangathis, repetitions were perfect. Never will you feel that she could have done more with a compositions. Her renditions of O Rangasayee, Sarojadalanethri, Devibrova, veenapusthaka dharini are etched in the minds of every discerning listener.
Singing a raga Alapana is not only about getting the raga right ( structurally) or progressing in the right fashion. Its about the grace, elance , majesty and power with which you can expand it. Whenever you heard M.S. amma singing a Alapana you felt that the whole presentation was so natural and easy for her. The movement of the raga was just about perfect and her use of the syllables tha da ri na ( used during Alapana) were always at the right places. Even when I write this I can hear her in my mind and the amazement continues.
Ikanainanaa a small krithi in a obscure raga called Pushpalathika. What can you do with this krithi? A very small krithi and a raga which hardly has any scope? Well if M.S.Subbalakshmi was with us today and singing you would have heard the answer from her. Her nereval at the line Akalanka Neeve took all of us to dizzy heights. Her nereval and swarapratharas for Krithis always had the right balance. There was never an excess in anything. Proportion is a very important aspect to the performance of music. M.S. amma had a perfect understanding of this. The Alapana length, krithi size and the amount of nereval and swaraprasthara always left you with a complete feeling.
Two very important qualities in carnatic music are Gamaka shudham ( purity of Gamaka) and vallinam mellinam ( softness and emphasis). M.S.amma’s feel for Gamakas was superb. Every Gamaka has a unmeasured valuation and as a musician its very hard to get the right value for a Gamaka or musical phrase. With amma it was always on the spot. She knew naturally how much to extend, oscillate or cut a musical phrase and was very particular that even her accompanists followed the same. The concept of vallinam mellinam is driven by the melody of the raga, the words of the krithi or the meaning of the lyrics. M.S. amma paid a lot of attention to this. In her renditions of Krithis, bajans, shlokas, or alapanas we find the optimum use of this concept.
Her voice and complete adherence to Sruti are often spoken about. Its not enough if you posses a great voice you need to know how to use it, enhance it and protect it. If we need an example in the carnatic music fraternity then the first name that comes to our mind is M.S.amma. Her open throated and clean use of the voice is like a guidance manual for every musician and student of music. Her two tamburas Lakshmi and Saraswathi were indeed very fortunate to have been the drone for such a great musician. M.S.amma and Sruti sudham are synonymous, that was the level of Sruti sensitivity and adherence M.S.amma practiced.
All the above aspects of her music were attained because of her never ending quest for perfection. Perfection is very hard to achieve and if anybody came close to it, it was M.S.Subbalakshmi. This was because she always wanted to give the best she could to the people who came to listen to her. She always was willing to learn, she learnt from Musiri Sri Subramania iyer, Semmangudi Sri Srinivasa iyer, learnt padams, Javalis and other rare Krithis from Smt T.Brinda and learnt many other musical forms like abhangs and bajans from many stalwarts. Its very easy for a successful artist to think that they have learnt enough and can continue their career with what they already posses. In the case of M.S. amma she never stopped learning. This never ending willingness to learn made her very special and enriched her music right through here life.
Today we have lost yet another connection to a different era of music. An era that symbolized musical classicism , purity and tradition. We do not have this great artist with us but I sincerely hope that the qualities that she symbolized are imbibed by us and in this way we keep her music alive.