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M.S.Subbulakshmi; the Songbird of Carnatic Music in South India

Updated on July 25, 2022
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Radhika is interested in learning various genres of Classical music. She enjoys the tune of songs mostly composed during olden periods.

M .S. Subbulakshmi in Meera movie
M .S. Subbulakshmi in Meera movie | Source

The Classical Music of South India, Carnatic Music saw its uplifts after the nightingale Smt. M.S. Subbulakshmi’s heartwarming renditions. Her dedication and discipline towards Carnatic Music is so much commendable that she made it adorable and respectable by people beyond boundaries, regardless of religion. She was the first musician ever to be awarded the Bharat Ratna, India's highest civilian honor.She is the first Indian musician to be honored with the Ramon Magsaysay award, Asia's highest civilian award in 1974 with the commendation "Exacting purists acknowledge Srimati M. S. Subbulakshmi as the leading exponent of Classical and semi-Classical songs in the Karnataka tradition of South India."

Even if Carnatic music is her forte, her mellifluous singing attracted so many musical maestros of different genres that she was chosen to learn and perform their compositions too. Her repertoire of songs in various languages is a treasure of gold that can not only heal minds, but also physical ailments. In addition to the gifted voice and melodious tone, M.S.Subbulakshmi’s physical appearance is also praiseworthy for which she was invited to act for lead roles in some music based movies.

Childhood days of M.S. Subbulakshmi

Born in a musically conducive family, M.S. Subbulakshmi could draw fans in a very early age with her mind-blowing songs renditions. On 16th September 1916, her mother Shanmugavadivu, an able exponent of Veena, gave birth to the beautiful songbird of Carnatic music, M.S.Subbulakshmi. Hailing from a Devdasi family, she was fondly called as ‘Kunjamma’ in her childhood days in Madurai. She lived in a small house in a narrow lane near to Meenakshi temple that used to echo with music. M.S. listened constantly to Veena when her mother played and rehearsed regularly. Her raga expertise is the result of those Veena strings that put a strong foundation in her little minds when she listened and hummed along-with them.

The venerated Madurai Srinivasa Iyengar was her first guru in Vocal Carnatic music. But due to his tragic demise, she didn’t learn much from him. Meanwhile she had the fortune to learn Hindustani music from Pandit Narayan Rao Vyas for a short term. Once she said,” I loved to hear Abdul Kareem Khan and Bade Ghulam Ali Khan in the silence of the night, from the neighbour’s radio, by the windowsill above the staircase”.

M.S. Subbulakshmi practised music for long hours tuning the tambura. Her ‘sruti suddham’ quality of music can be credited to a game she used to play while singing. She would stop playing the drone at intervals and check if she continued to maintain the pitch with and without it. This gave the electrifying effect in her concerts during her ‘sancharas’ in the higher or lower range. At the age of 10, M.S. accompanied her mother and gave her first performance after mastering a repertoire of several Carnatic kritis.

M.S. Subbulakshmi had the fortune to be with several legendary figures of Carnatic music that used to visit her house to listen to her mother’s renditions in Veena. They prodded her to sing and encouraged, but she says, “I never lost my timidity before them”!! She remembers her favorite game of making mud pies when someone took her to accompany her mother for her first performance. She was too young to receive such a great applause from the audience as she was still in agony for having yanked from her play with mud heaps!!

M.S. Subbulakshmi’s debut as a solo performer was at the age of 17 in Madras Music Academy. It was a delight for the top ranked musicians of the time, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar and Tiger Varadachariar for having found such a new gem in the field of Carnatic Music. Karaikudi Srinivasa Iyengar remarked, ‘Child, you carry the Veena in your throat!’

Married life

The divine songbird M.S.’ career was further shaped by her marriage with Sri Thyagarajan Sadashivam, the firebrand journalist and freedom fighter in 1940. He was not only a good husband for her, but a soul of virtue who transformed her brilliant virtuoso into a consummate artist. They formed a good pair by choice and by interests in life. The illustrious concerts of M.S. were masterminded by Sri Sadashivam. He would select the number of compositions, kind of compositions by various composers, kind of languages to be included and the duration of each piece from long Varnams to small Tukadas in her concerts. The couple together conducted researches and brought into light various compositions of lesser known composers, thereby preserving the rich cultural heritage of Indian Classical music.

Her career was not limited to a singer; the tranquil beauty and attractive voice opened the doorsteps of Indian cinema into her life. Sri Sadashivam’s co-operation and encouragement made her heroine in films Seva Sadan, Savithri and Sakuntala. In 1945, film Meera got released in which M.S.Subbulakshmi succeeded in delivering the saint-like life of Meera to the audience with her natural piety and intrinsic spirituality. This musically-hit film had most of the songs sung by her, in which ‘Kaatriniley…….varum geetham’ still creates waves in the minds of her admirers in its lofty spirits. After its dizzying success, M.S. never returned to films and determined to concentrate on concerts only.

Marriage photo of M. S. Subbulakshmi
Marriage photo of M. S. Subbulakshmi | Source

Kaatriniley Varum Geetham

'Pag ghunghroo re' in Meera

Traits of M.S.Subbulakshmi’s recitals

M.S.’ dedication to Carnatic music was innate and immortal. She gave attention to each and every aspect of singing a Carnatic kriti and became well-versed in singing it. Her guru Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer sights her Niraval singing as the best he has ever heard from women. He appreciates her Tanam portion as her reach in the lower octaves is as pleasing as the details in the higher.

The permutations and combinations of rhythms, flow of Alapana, precise Sangatis, control of Sruti, formidable Raga ornamentations and Karvai balam (elaborating straight without using curves) are all her technical feats of Carnatic music. She would learn the meaning of the lyrics of the song, in whatever language it may be, then sing it giving it the required Bhava that was another veritable quality of her style of singing. She insisted on the Ragaswarupa of each song to be established at once. Listener must be able to differentiate between ragas from the way the singer dwell on the notes.

M.S.’ recitals have included Bhajans of various North Indian poets such as Meera Bai, Indira devi,Tulsidas, Kabirdas, Surdas, Nanak and the Abhangs of Tukaram. She has learnt Chotte Khayals and Thumris from Dwijendralal Roy in Calcutta and from Siddheswari Devi. Her lovely mesmeric voice and fine-tune gave these songs more radiance and color. She used to tell, “If there is radiance in the heart, there is radiance in the music”.

M.S. Subbulakshmi never lost her politeness even after being honored with so many accolades. She used to listen to the requests of each of her fan and tried her level best to fulfill them. This is quite evident throughout her concerts in which she gives salute and respect to the composer of each song she vocalizes.

M. S. in her concert
M. S. in her concert | Source

Niraval in Sankarabharanam

Ragalapana of Pakkala Nilabadi

Dhano dhanya pushpa bhora

Life-time achievements

M.S. Subbulakshmi’s devotion to Carnatic music and her husband’s commitment to the genre made her acclaimed beyond boundaries and she got enshrined in the hearts of music lovers then. She has been conferred with various titles from great maestros and other famous personalities of her era. Princes and heads of state have bowed before her music. During the film shooting of Meera, Maharana of Udaipur happened to hear her Kalyani raga. He was carried away by her golden performance and he uttered, “I would have exchanged my kingdom for this Kalyani raga. Now, I shall help you by means of horses and elephants in your shooting location for the film Meera.”

Jawaharlal Nehru, former Indian Prime Minister remarked, “Who am I, before the queen of melody, a mere Prime Minister!” Mahathma Gandhi, father of India, too, had great comments for her songs. When he was told that M.S. was not in a position to sing the song ‘Hari tum haro’ on his demand at a particular instance, he remarked that he would prefer to hear it spoken by M.S. Subbulakshmi rather than sung by others. Such was her divine voice that stood with her to achieve musical triumphs.

The expansion of Carnatic music into North India also gets credited to M.S. Subbulakshmi. Her concerts in Jalandhar, Jaipur, Kanpur, Pune and several other places have drawn a larger audience and her recitals became an inevitable custom in the weddings of families of North Indian business lords. Hindustani musicians too were not frugal in felicitating her; adept Alladiya Khan was charmed by her Pantuvarali (Puriya Dhanasri) and Bade Ghulam Ali Khan addressed her, “Suswaralakshmi Subbalakshmi”. While Lata Mangeshkar called her Tapaswini,, Roshanara Begum found her lengthy concerts to be delectable.

M.S. got recognition in the Western world where she was invited several times to render before the music lovers. In 1966, her two hour long concert in front of the U.N. General Assembly held it in thrall. Those were the pride moments for all Indians when her singing was glorified as ‘extraordinarily good music’ by the Assembly General then. It was the first time she sang an English hymn, “May the lord forgive our sins” by C. V. Rajagopalachari. The music critic Harold Schornberg of The New York Times exalted MS's performance and declared that it would live in his memory forever.

Another milestone in her life was the pellucid rhythmic chanting of Vedas. The Venkatesha Suprabhatham has become a morning raga in each and every Hindu home and waking up hearing her divine prayer would brighten the day with cheer and joy. It revealed M.S.’s skill in reciting the holy verses and it got accepted in the shrine of Tirupati, where there was a tradition of women not being allowed for chanting Vedas.

M. S. and Sadashivam traveling to Edinburgh
M. S. and Sadashivam traveling to Edinburgh | Source

Sri Venkatesa Suprabhatam

Characteristics of M. S.

Smt. M. S. Subbulakshmi and her husband were so generous minded that they won admiration and deep respect from millions. They’ve made several donations to charitable institutions, Hindu temples and other medical, scientific and educational institutions. They always insisted to be generous givers and not takers.

M. S. Subbulakshmi was always humble and never wanted to stand up against her elders. When she was awarded the honor of Asthana Vidwan from the Tirupati Devasthanams, M.S. accepted it only after her senior vidwans Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Musiri Subrahmania Iyer and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer were honored.

M.S.’ love towards her husband was eternal. When she received the Sangeetha Kalanidhi award from Madras Music Academy, she recorded her gratitude towards him by saying that, “ I’ve been indebted to many in life, but the debt I owe to my husband, I cannot describe with words……….!”

Despite all these recognitions and rewards, M.S. Subbulakshmi lived a simple, orthodox life like that of a common South Indian housewife. She was meticulous and neat in her household chores. She dressed traditionally following all the rituals and was deeply religious, inspired by the revered Sai Baba and Sri Sankaracharya.

 M S Subbulakshmi shares a short moment with Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi (right) after she was conferred honorary degree of 'Doctorate of Letters' by Delhi University
M S Subbulakshmi shares a short moment with Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi (right) after she was conferred honorary degree of 'Doctorate of Letters' by Delhi University | Source

Devadi Deva

Kurai Ondrum illai

Talent won’t shine if one’s virtues are not good. In order to bring up that talent you’ve got, your behavior and attitude also need to be polished. Some inherit such qualities by birth, but some would cultivate them during their life period. M.S.Subbulakshmi is described as the embodiment of grace and compassion that flows through her gifted golden voice of music.

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© 2013 Radhika Sreekanth


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