Charsur recently released a 3 CD pack of a live recording of MS Subbulakshmi made in 1977. This is what I wrote in tribute to that great soul. Nothing new, just a rehash of facts but the life of MS is like the Ramayana. You keep reading about it and get more and more fascinated with it.
MS Subbulakshmi – The Queen of Song
MS Subbulakshmi is one name that will be familiar to even those who may not have heard of the art form called Carnatic music. Her melodious voice, her support for charitable causes, her rendition of numerous chants, the careful career management that her husband T Sadasivam supervised; all these went into the making of a legend. The lady in question however, remained completely untouched by fame and fortune and their vicissitudes. To her the greatest joy was in singing and through it she communicated directly with godhead, leaving her listeners in ecstasy.
MS as she was popularly referred to, was born on 16th September 1916, into a Madurai-based family that was traditionally dedicated to the arts. Grandmother Akkammal was a violinist and mother Shanmukhavadivu was a veena player. The family, comprising MS, her mother, her brother Shaktivel and sister Vadivambal, all lived in Hanumantharayar Koil Street in Madurai. The modest dwelling was where many musicians came to stay when they had a performance engagement in the town. Almost all of them were enchanted by MS’ voice and taught her some pieces from their repertoire. She had formal training under Seithur Sundaresa Bhattar and Madurai Srinivasa Iyengar. Pudukottai Dakshinamurthy Pillai was a great influence as well. From the age of eight she began accompanying her mother for the latter’s veena performances and sang specific pieces. At the age of ten she cut her first disc and musicians and music aficionados praised her high-pitched voice and its total adherence to pitch.
The first major breakthrough came in 1932 when the Mahamakham festival was celebrated in Kumbhakonam. K Subrahmanyam, later to become a well-known film director, was in charge of arranging entertainments for the vast crowds that had descended on the temple town. He gave MS a slot and such was the impact of her performance that she was given one more opportunity to sing, the second being in a prime evening slot usually reserved for top-ranking stars. Encouraged by this, Shanmukhavadivu took her daughter to Madras, which was then emerging as the cultural capital. Here MS sang for the Indian Fine Arts Society and by 1933 became a popular artiste. The Ananda Vikatan magazine planned a feature on her and coordinating this effort was T Sadasivam, a freedom fighter who was employed as the Advertising Manager. Sadasivam took charge of MS’ budding concert career from then on.
In the meanwhile her first film opportunity came when K Subrahmanyam cast her in the lead role in his film Seva Sadanam (1938). The film was a great success and established her on the silver screen. Next came Sakuntalai in 1940, produced by Sadasivam’s Chandraprabha Cinetone and directed by Ellis R Dungan, an American who had made a name in Tamil films. This film, which had GN Balasubramaniam as the hero, was a success too. MS married Sadasivam after this venture and became a mother to his two daughters Radha and Vijaya, both of whom were born to his first wife who passed away in the late 1930s.
Sadasivam and Kalki R Krishnamurthy left Vikatan in 1940 and set up their own magazine- Kalki. Funds were needed for this venture and MS donned greasepaint once again, this time acting as Narada in the film Savitri (1941).
By this time she had become a top-ranked artiste, cutting numerous discs and performing frequently. Her support and that of Sadasivam proved crucial to the fledgling Tamil Isai Sangam whose championing of Tamil as a musical language struck a ready chord in MS. In 1944, she gave a series of concerts for the Kasturba Memorial Trust thanks to Sadasivam’s mentor C Rajagopalachari or Rajaji. This brought the couple into close contact with nationalist leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. It also made MS a national figure.
In 1945 the film Meera was made by Chandraprabha Cinetone. This proved to be the biggest hit in MS’ film career. People saw that she completely identified herself with the role of the singing devotee of Lord Krishna. The Hindi version of the film, complete with an introduction of MS to North Indians by Sarojini Naidu, premiered at the Regal theatre in New Delhi in 1947 and the screening was witnessed by Lord and Lady Mountbatten, the Prime Minister and several cabinet ministers. After this, at the instance of Mahatma Gandhi, MS bade farewell to films.
MS and Sadasivam maintained open house at their palatial Kalki Gardens in Kilpauk, Madras. The house, set in vast gardens, also housed the Kalki magazine and press and had a steady stream of visitors, VIPs and commoners alike. Mealtimes saw forty or more sitting down to eat food that was traditional and famous for its exquisite taste. The couple also became famous for their numerous acts of charity and MS’ sang more concerts in support of worthy causes than those which she sang for remuneration. An estimate after her death revealed that she had earned and given away for charity a sum of Rs 2 crores through her performances. During these years a succession of great gurus such as Musiri Subramania Iyer and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer honed her skills to perfection. The Paramacharya of Kanchi and the Sai Baba of Puttapurthi became her spiritual mentors and she always sought their blessings. Her deep piety and faith saw a natural outlet in the recording of numerous chants, the most famous of which are the Venkateswara Suprabhatam and the Vishnu Sahasranamam. In all the performances and recordings she had the able support of her daughter Radha Viswanathan who was her companion and disciple. The MS bhani came to be characterized by total fidelity to pitch, emotion soaked singing, extensive niraval and melodious alapanas. That she was an artiste who could rise to the challenges of the most complicated pallavis was well-known, but under the Sadasivam baton she chose to strike out to a wider audience. Her concerts eschewed technical exercises and the lighter pieces comprised songs from a great variety of composers including bhakti and nationalist poets and seers such as Sankara and Guru Nanak. Several tunesmiths set these verses to music and MS made them immortal songs.
MS travelled West in 1965 to participate in the Edingburgh music festival. In 1966 she had the honour of being the first Carnatic musician to sing at the United Nations, New York. From then on foreign tours became a matter of routine. In 1977, she embarked on a coast to coast tour of the US to gather funds for several temples in that country. Ironically, the tour coincided with the sale of Kalki Gardens to compensate business losses in the Kalki magazine. Returning to India, MS and Sadasivam moved into rented premises and lived in Gandhian simplicity. It was also at this time that Sadasivam announced that MS would henceforth sing only for charity.
Numerous awards came MS’ away. Among these were the Presidents Award, the Padma Vibhushan, the Sangita Kalanidhi of the Music Academy, Madras and the Ramon Magsaysay Award from the Government of the Philippines. In 1998 the Government of India conferred the Bharat Ratna, the country’s highest civilian honour on her. It came when her life was shattered by the passing of T Sadasivam, her husband, mentor and architect of her sensational career. After this MS was rarely seen in public. She passed away on the 12th of December, 2004. It brought to a close a life dedicated to music, noble causes and complete devotion. MS will always remain unique in the annals of Carnatic music and the history of India.