Radha Padmanabhan, New Sunday Express, Dec 19, 2004
I can’t pretend to have known MS well, but she came to stay with us on three occasions in the early seventies. I lived in Calicut (Kozhikode) in those days. It was a small town then, but it was visited by MS and her husband Sadasivam because it was on the itinerary for her concert tours.
I think the lack of good vegetarian hotels in Kozhikode was one reason she chose to stay with us. But then she would have been a welcome and honoured guest for just about anyone in the town and I took private delight in the fact that she chose to stay with us. I suspect this made some people in the town a little envious – one or two of our friends too.
As someone who is an illiterate in Carnatic music, I had imagined it would be a great challenge to entertain someone like MS. But she had an uncanny way of making me feel at home in my own house. I used to wonder what kind of conversation I could strike up with her, but MS invariably put me at ease by asking me about my family. She was concerned that my eldest son who was studying in Delhi and lived in a hostel, would be served a diet of boring chapati instead of rice. She was unobtrusive and seemed to merge with the household. I recall her asking me to make raw bittergourd salad (with green chillies and lime) for lunch and saying that idlis and chutney were a must before any evening kutcheri (concert). Apparently, the bittergourd was good for her throat and the idlis and chutney gave her the sustenance to last through the concert.
She was friendly, simple and refreshingly informal. It made me forget that a truly great person was a guest in my house: I was touched that someone like her should show an interest in me and my children. I cannot forget how she clapped her hands in joy and laughed like a child whenever she heard something amusing.
Of the flood of memories, I would like to recall two specific incidents. On the afternoon of her concert, she left her bedroom, went to a spare room and bolted the door. I wondered what she ‘was doing and whether she needed anything special. Minutes passed and the door did not open. I waited with some anxiety. Her husband, Sadasivam, was busy talking to the members of a local music sabha. I could not ask him what she was doing in the room. I paced up and down until my anxiety grew and I could bear it no longer. I knocked loudly fearing she had fainted inside; She opened the door at once and smiled at me. I then realised what she had been up to.
On the table was a wooden box which could be opened up and made to look like a mini altar. Miniature pooja articles were on the table – kumkum, sandal paste, and agarbatti. I apologised and retreated shamefacedly. She had been praying! Seeing that there was no pooja room in my house, she had opened up her little box which she usually carried whenever she stayed in hotels: She must have always prayed for a long time before a kutcheri. No wonder she moved and touched people as very few other great musicians could.
That evening, at the Sree Narayana Centenary Hall, I listened as only an ignoramus in Carnatic music could. But I listened. Towards the end of the perlormance, when the sun was about to set, she started singing a song by Bharatiyar on Muruga. Or was it some other composer? As she sang calling out repeatedly to Muruga and the song reached a crescendo, the temple bells next door started ringing. She stopped. She bowed her head. She raised her hands in prayer and then continued. It electrified the audience. There was a silence such as I have never heard before. Tears ran down the faces of many of the listeners. If ever I felt that there was a divine presence in the universe, it was at that magical moment.