In 1933, a mother and daughter duo migrated from Madurai to Madras seeking concert opportunities. It was just over a year since the 16 year-old girl had made a powerful impression at a concert during the Mahamakham festival at Kumbhakonam. In the capital city of Madras Presidency, they had called on the important personages in the field of music and the girl’s singing was praised, even by the hard-to-please Veena Dhanam.
On the 28th of December 1933, she gave her first public concert in Madras city, accompanied by her mother on the veena and T Gururajappa on the violin. No mridangam artiste is mentioned in the advertisements released for the occasion. The concert was at the Saundarya Mahal in George Town and was organised by the Indian Fine Arts Society, one of the two rival organisations then involved in the December Music Season. The other institution, the Music Academy, did not feature her that year.
The IFAS’ concert of December 1933 was very favourably received and from then on there was no looking back. MS Subbulakshmi became a fixture on the Madras concert circuit. But the Music Academy, by then the premier Sabha, still did not feature her. In 1934 she was invited to attend the Music Academy’s annual conference but was not asked to sing. She dutifully attended the theory sessions and the deliberations in the company of other women such as her mother, the Harikatha exponent C Saraswathi Bai, the singer Madras Lalithangi and the latter’s six-year-old daughter, the future star, ML Vasanthakumari. In 1935, MS was given a concert slot at the Academy’s annual season and that year she was one of the few singers who came in for praise from The Hindu’s acerbic critic KV Ramachandran.
MS’ popularity graph soared from 1937 onwards, her immense talent and golden voice aided in no small measure by the managerial abilities of T Sadasivam, the Advertising Manager of the magazine Ananda Vikatan. He was taking an enormous interest in her career and this led to her first film opportunity in 1938 – Seva Sadanam. The success of the film further heightened MS’ popularity and when the December Music Season of 1939 came around, her concert at the Music Academy on 30th December necessitated extraordinary police bandobust. The crowds would simply not keep away from her.
The Gramophone Company of India had advertised MS’ gramophone records on the front cover of the Music Academy’s souvenir that year. This was an unprecedented honour. Gate collections were great, with audiences at the Senate House, the venue of the Academy’s conference that year, from six in the morning. There was a great crowd to listen to MS that evening and even the cavernous hall was filled to capacity. Audiences had overflowed to the double winged staircase that led to the upper floor and the balcony beyond. The doors could not be closed and those outside clamoured to be allowed in. As the nightingale sang, organisers had a tough time in sending away those who could not get in. The next day The Hindu published an apology on behalf of the Music Academy to the public for the poor organisation that led to the chaos.
In 1940 too, MS made it to the cover of the Academy’s souvenir but differences of opinion between Sadasivam, by then MS’ husband, and KV Krishnaswami Iyer (KVK), the tough President of the Academy, led to her concert being cancelled at the last minute. Friends and well-wishers effected a reconciliation in the subsequent year and MS once again resumed performing for the Academy.
In 1941, efforts began in the Madras Presidency for ensuring that Tamil was recognised as a musical language. There were demands that concerts in Tamil-speaking regions ought to comprise songs only in that language. This was bitterly opposed by the Music Academy and the IFAS, both of whom feared that this would result in the loss of songs in other languages. The Tamil Isai Sangam came up in 1943 thanks to the efforts of the lovers of Tamil language. The first Tamil Isai Conference was held in December 1943 and MS sang for the Sangam, her concert netting Rs 3000 in ticket sales. The enraged Music Academy decided to boycott MS from then on. Encouraging them to come to this decision was TT Krishnamachari (TTK), the music-loving entrepreneur and Congress man, who was to later become a Minister in the Government of India.
The boycott of MS continued till 1947. Sadasivam actively promoted the Mylai Sangeetha Sabha, set up as a rival to the Music Academy. KVK worked assiduously to ensure that the Academy was successful. In 1947 this culminated in the purchase of the Music Academy’s present property. The institution began dreaming of building a modern auditorium on the premises and needed money. By then MS’ concerts for charitable causes were legendary. TTK had also become a fan of her music. Given such propitious circumstances, it was but a question of time before MS returned to the Academy. She sang once again for it on the 28th of December that year, accompanied by T Chowdiah on the violin, Kalpathi Ramanathan on the mridangam and Alangudi Ramachandran on the ghatam. And on the bill of fare were plenty of Tamil songs.
MS like several other artistes such as Semmangudi, GNB and DK Pattammal sang free for the Academy, helping it to save money. For years it was her practice to accept only the Academy’s printed souvenir as her remuneration. From the 1950s, as the Academy stepped into overdrive on its funds collection to build a modern auditorium, MS gave numerous charity performances for the cause. The dream became reality when on October 5th, 1955, Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister of India, laid the foundation stone for the new auditorium. The event was followed by a concert by MS and it was on this occasion that the prime minister remarked, “Who am I, a mere Prime Minister, to say anything about a queen, a queen of songs?” TTK in his speech singled out MS’ contribution and said that he would like to thank ” the lady who has by her innumerable benefit concerts helped many an educational and cultural cause in this country.” Later MS contributed once again to the cause of the Academy, by performing charity concerts. These ensured that the new auditorium was completed in 1962.
By then, it had become customary that each year, during the Season, MS would perform at the Academy on Christmas Day. The Hall would be full of people, all mesmerised by her music with several women in the audience taking careful notes of what she wore as well! The album here is that of a recording done at the Academy during the Season of 1956. It is noteworthy to point out that the mridangam accompaniment is by maestro V Nagarajan, who shortly thereafter became a kanjira artiste. In 1968, the Academy conferred the Sangita Kalanidhi, the highest award in the world of Carnatic music on MS. It was the first time a woman artiste was receiving it. Several women belonging to affluent families of Madras decided to get together and present a cash award to the MS on the occasion, only to have the star asking them to give it to the Academy. MS sang at the Academy every year till 1977 after which she and Sadasivam having decided that all of her concerts would henceforth be only for charity, her December performances ceased. But she sang again to raise funds for the Academy’s mini hall. In the 1990s, she was to lay the foundation for the Academy’s Teachers College of Music premises. As was characteristic of her, she did not once claim any credit for having helped the Academy at various times.
In 2004, when MS died, the Academy dedicated its annual season to her memory and the souvenir cover once again carried her photograph. Never has any other artiste made it to the cover of the Music Academy’s souvenir even once, let alone thrice. In 2006, The Hindu announced that the Sangita Kalanidhi designate each year would receive a cash award of Rs 1 lakh and that this would be known as the Sangita Kalanidhi MS Subbulakshmi award.
MS is no more, but the Academy is one of the testimonies of her musical greatness and her support for deserving causes.