I began writing for The Hindu sometime in the 2000’s. That was a series titled Encore where I picked up old news items connected with Carnatic music in The Hindu and wrote a commentary on the event itself. This was a popular column and ran almost for ten years before I gave it up, chiefly out of fear that the stories could become repetitive. Of course, I continue to write for the paper and enjoy the assignments thoroughly. But this is the first article I wrote and I can never forget the joy that I experienced, when at the Singapore airport, I went to a browsing centre and saw that it had been published.

MS Subbulakshmi performing at the UN, pic courtesy The Hindu

16th September marks the birth anniversary of MS Subbulakshmi. Hers was a life of many towering achievements and among them was the concert at the United Nations in New York.

As per UN convention, a leading artiste of a member country was selected to perform on the opening day of its General Assembly session each year. MS was invited to sing in September 1965. The invite was organised by CV Narasimhan, ICS, then the Senior Under Secretary General at the UN. The Indo- Pak hostilities of 1965 however saw a tersely worded communiqué published in The Hindu that “in view of the present state of affairs in the country” Smt Subbulakshmi had cancelled her projected visit to the USA.

The invitation was repeated next year and an announcement was made on September14th that MS would sing on October 23rd at the UN in the General Assembly Hall. The Hindu of September 15th reported that MS would undertake a seven week tour of the US, giving 15 performances between October 2nd and November 19th. MS was to leave India on September 18th and proceed to Europe where she was to perform between September 20th and October 2nd. While returning to India she was to meet Pope Paul at a private audience in Rome. The same release announced the team of accompanists, comprising Radha Viswanathan (vocal), VV Subramaniam (violin), TK Murthy (mridangam), TH Vinayakaram (ghatam) and Vijaya Rajendran (tambura). It mentioned that performances during that tour would draw on a repertoire of 60 songs including the MS trademark bhajans and devotionals.

The high profile overseas tour and the media interest it generated was unparalleled. T Sadasivam, MS’ husband and mentor kept up the momentum by a series of press releases. Photo shoots of the concert team in full concert attire were organised and published. On September 18th it was announced that C Rajagopalachari had composed an English hymn for MS to sing at the UN. Set to music by Handel Manuel, Producer of Western Music at the AIR, Madras, lyrics of the song were published on 20th September. The idea of an English song had come from Gen. Cariappa. A controversy broke out in The Hindu on 23rd September with letters questioning the English hymn. A respondent wondered if Yehudi Menuhin would ever perform a Carnatic song.

Reaching Europe, MS sang in Geneva, at the Redoute Villa in Bonn where Beethoven had once performed and then in Paris at the Guimet Museum before arriving in London on September 30th. At the Gandhi Jayanti celebrations at India House on October 2nd she sang bhajans in the presence of the Indian Ambassador, Dr. Jivaraj Mehta. The group arrived on the same day in New York where MS began her US tour comprising nine states.

On October 7th, lyrics of a hymn (maitreem bhajata) composed by the Kanchi Shankaracharya for MS to sing at the UN were published. It was set to music by noted music director Vasant Desai. MS sang it first on October 21st at the Carnegie Hall, where CV Narasimhan presented her as the “first lady of Carnatic Music”.

MS suddenly lost her voice on the eve of the all important UN concert. Meditating on the Kanchi Acharya she found it restored to normalcy. On 23rd October afternoon, MS, clad in her usual “MS blue” and diamonds, mounted the stage to tumultuous applause. Sadasivam had flown in the usual circlet of jasmine and roses to adorn her hair from India. Introduced to the audience by CVN, MS held them in thrall. The Secretary General of the UN, U Thant, described it as “extraordinarily good music”. MS’ rendition of CR’s English hymn, though applauded at the UN, came in for some scathing attacks from Indians writing in the columns of the US press.

CVN and Sadasivam had worried about the reaction of New York Times critic Harold Schornberg to MS’ performance. He however praised it sky high and declared that “it would live in his memory forever”. MS returned to India via London where she performed to rave reviews. On December 4th, MS returned to a warm welcome in Bombay. She was described as an “Ambassador at large” for music. “I am glad you are back home. Tell MSS we are proud of her achievement” said Dr S Radhakrishnan, President of India, in a telegram to T Sadasivam. Arriving in Madras on December 5th, MS was accorded a civic reception at the airport with the city’s mayor in attendance.

It was a remarkable achievement and invokes awe even among present day jet setting musicians. But MS remained untouched by it all. She knew only her music and perhaps that is what gave her art that pristine quality which made it immortal.