As the world marks the birth centenary of M.S. Subbulakshmi, we reproduce here an interview of the great artist that was published in a 1974 issue of Swarajya.
A LIVING LEGEND in Indian music, M. S. Subbulakshmi has no parallel in the annals of contemporary Karnataka music. Her reputation, versatility and range of genius are fabulous. Smt. Subbulakshmi’s earliest mentor was her mother, the late, Veena Shanmukhavadivu of Madurai in South India who was herself a renowned musician. Before she was ten, Subbulakshmi accompanied her mother in her recitals and at sixteen, she was giving major performances. By the end of 1971, she had given about 1,500 performances– 200 of which were benefit concerts in support of public causes which gave them financial help of about Rs 10 million–and had completed four decades of a glorious career in music.
A classicist by training and temperament, Smt. Subbulakshmi also renders bhajans (devotional songs) with great emotional fervour. Her style is a happy blend of the classical and the popular, and her vast repertoire includes compositions in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada, Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, Bengali, and Sanskrit. An American music critic, John Dwyer, wrote: “A more educated and pedigreed singing art would be hard to imagine. The listener may well find himself under something close to a hypnotic spell.”
Your name is familiar in music circles everywhere. Could you tell our readers when you first became aware of the great gift with which you have been endowed?
It was really my mother, the late Veena Shanmukhavadivu of Madurai, who first discovered my precocity for music. Ours was a home where music was valued and where musicians, and votaries of music gathered. At ten, I realized that I could successfully accompany my mother in the recitals at which she used to sing while playing on the veena (a string instrument). A couple of years later, I could give full-fledged vocal recitals on my own. After my marriage in 1940, my husband, Sri Sadasivam, has been my friend, philosopher and guide, and through his fostering care and guidance, I was able to discover many gifts with which God has blessed me.
Could you give us some idea of the period of your early training in music and any memorable experience you might have had?
In my case, my mother was also a music teacher. While little knowledge of music I possess today, I owe, in the first instance, to my mother. Next I remember with gratitude the late Sri Srinivasa Iyengar of Madurai who commenced my music tuition in the conventional way and taught me up to the varnam stage. After that, as I was unable to go for advanced tuition, I continued to learn from my mother. In later years, I had the good fortune of learning from several great musicians and, among them were Sri Musiri Subrahmanya Iyer and Sri Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, both of whom are happily in our midst today. A memorable experience, when I was a young girl, was my meeting the great veena player Dhanammal, to whose house my mother took me. After hearing me sing, Dhanammal said: “This girl has a bright future,” and these words still ring in my ears.
Your programmes have been a blend of classical and light classical pieces, including devotional songs. What is your reaction to the view that such a “mixture”, to some extent detracts from the value of classical music?
I catch the point. In a Karnataka music concert, like any Hindustani concert, the heavy classical items like raga alapana, kriti, swara singing, tanam and pallavi come first and occupy the major part of the time. I still maintain this pattern when I sing to a south Indian audience. Towards the close of the concert, we sing padams, javalis, tillanas, ragamalikas and bhajans (south Indian style), just as thumris, ghazals and bhajans come after khayal in Hindustani concerts. When I sing to a mixed audience,
I change my pattern slightly and sing a few bhajans in the middle of the concert because many north Indians are eager to hear them in preference to Karnataka classical items.
One should remember here that kritis and kirtans, which represent the peak of classical music in the Karnataka system, are also devotional in character, although cast in a different mould. In my opinion, an occasional mixture of this kind will not detract from the value of classical music.
Is your preference for inclusion of lighter musical pieces in your concerts the consequence, directly or indirectly, of your participation in films in devotional roles?
I have been singing bhajans and other lighter pieces in my concerts even before my participation in films in devotional roles. While proceeding to Calcutta in 1941 to play the role of Narada in the Tamil film Savitri, my husband and I broke our journey at Sevagram and I sang a few Hindi bhajans before Gandhiji who was much impressed by them.
In the film Savitri, I sang only one Sanskrit bhajan of the south Indian type. It was the Hindi version of my film, Meera, released in 1947, that made my bhajans famous all over India, and my present preference to include a few songs of this type in my concerts is to meet the growing demand for such items from my audiences.
Would you tell us what the elements that should constitute an ideal concert programme are?
The elements of good music are simple and universal. The basic requirement is strict adherence to the sruti (tone) and the tala (rhythm). Voice culture is absolutely essential for a vocalist. The singer must also know the meaning of the songs sung, learn how to pronounce the words with proper intonation and render the songs with feeling and emotion. I would rather put it this way: the singer must not stand between the composers and the audience while rendering the songs.
An ideal concert programme should be well-balanced so as to appeal to audiences with different tastes. Heavy classical items should be evenly distributed among other pieces and the composition of as many composers as possible should be sung to ensure variety. The sequence of the items as also their representative character are important factors for the success of a concert.
Above all, the musician must create a rapport with the listeners because an appreciative audience draws the best out of a musician. In my four decades of singing experience, I have been particularly lucky with my audiences. In these days, when the audience generally consits of people who have numerous avocations to attend to, it is not desirable to sing for more than two and a half hours.
This duration is sufficient to accommodate all the conventional components of a Karnataka music concert and for the musician to exhibit his or her manodharma (creative faculty) fully.
Would you like to say something on the present position of Karnataka music as compared to what it was two or three decades ago?
It is an unfortunate fact that, nowadays, the quality of music is declining. Knowledgeable persons consider that the reason for this is the disappearance of the gurukulavasa system (the pupil residing with teacher). It may not be practicable to bring this system back again but students who study music in colleges and take degrees and diplomas should apprentice themselves to an experienced musician for two or three years thereafter to learn the finer points of the art which only a performing musician is in a position to teach.
Present-day audiences show preference to light classical music, and this is leading to the gradual disappearance of some old classical items like Pallavi singing. A number of new ragas and compositions have come into the field and are replacing the time-honoured classics. Music is becoming more broad-based at the expense of depth.
How would you assess the role of some of the great masters in fostering Karnataka music?
The present generation of musicians has every reason to be grateful to some of the masters of Karnataka music who have laid for us the royal path for giving concerts.
About fifty years ago, three giants, Ramanathapuram (Poochi), Srinivasa Iyengar, Madurai Pushpavanam Iyer and Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha lyer strode the South Indian music world like colossuses. I was too young then to appreciate them. They were succeeded by equally eminent vocalists like -Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Maharajapuram Viswanatha lyer, Musiri Subrahmanya lyer, Madurai Mani Iyer and G. N. Balasubramanyam and these musicians gave body and shape to the present concert pattern.
Each of them had a distinctive style of his own but they collectively made significant contributions to enriching the idiom of Karnataka music and making it delectable and popular. I had the privilege of imbibing their styles and learning many pieces, particularly from Sri Musiri Subrahmanya Iyer and Sri Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer.
What would be your advice to young people, both in regard to training in music and making a career of it?
Students of music should devote their attention to the acquisition of purity in voice and strict adherence to the sruti. To achieve this it is essential that they should practise voice-culture assiduously. One should not be content with just possessing a sweet voice; it should be cultivated to get the best out of it. The voice should be made to traverse the three octaves with felicity, curbing the tendency to branch into falsetto. A knowledge of the exact position of swara (notes) is most important.
This cannot be learnt from notation or written texts. The manner in which the swaras are woven into the various ragas of Karnataka music can best be studied by playing them on the veena. It is only the veena that can demonstrate the nuances of swarasthanas (the position of notes) and the part played by overtones and harmonics in our music.
Students of music should make the veena their teacher. Tyagaraja has called upon students of music to discard sleep and practise assiduously to the accompaniment of a good tambura (the drone instrument) tuned properly. It is only in this way that the Karnataka vocal musicians will be able to emulate Hindustani vocalists who have achieved fame by their voice culture.
As a leading musician of the south who has performed before a variety of audiences in India, how do you feel about the much talked of integration of the Karnataka and Hindustani systems of music? Or, how do you think that Karnataka music can be made more popular in the north and the Hindustani system of music in the south?
Till about the 13th century, there was practically a single system of classical music in vogue throughout India. The cleavage into Hindustani and Karnataka systems appears to have taken place in the 14th century. Although the two systems stemmed from the same source, they now differ considerably from each other in their idiom and their approach to ragas.
I do not think that the followers of either system, who are interested in maintaining the individualist and pristine purity of their styles, will ever agree to an integration of the two schools.
In my opinion, the two styles should be left to develop in their own way without any attempt being made for a “merger”. There is, however, no reason why the musicians of the two schools should not come closer to each other than before and and try to understand the finer points of the respective systems. We can also adopt the traits of one system which do not come into conflict with the essential features of the other. In fact, I am happy to find that this welcome development is already taking place.
What is your experience of audience reaction to your concerts in India and abroad.
I must say that I have been singularly fortunate with my audiences, both at home and abroad. Indian audiences are very large and and react to music in their own way, clapping often during the singing and sometimes humming the tunes along with the singer. They are fond of listening to the tune over and over again and if I do not oblige them they send written requests to the dias.
Foreign audiences are small in comparison. and well disciplined and although in the United States I sang in what was an “unfamiliar idiom” and “a foreign musical culture” to them, they listened to me in rapt attention. trying their best to understand, what I meant to convey to them. No one came in or left the halls during any performance.
With your enriched art do you see the possibility of greater interchange of musical ideas, expressions and artistes on a global basis?
World music can be broadly divided into two categories; Western music with its accent on harmony, and Oriental music with melody as its base and of which Indian music is a true and complete example.
A music critic who reviewed my concert at Boston in 1966 wrote: “For ears conditioned to meter, harmony and cadence. Indian music, with its basis of pure melody set in tonal formulae and marked by rhythmic circles, usually represents an enigma.”
In view of this, one’s receptive faculties will have to be adjusted before there is a free interchange of musical ideas and expressions. At present the scope is limited. During my visit to Europe in 1962 and to the United States in 1966, I, however, found increasing interest being exhibited in Indian music by Westerners, and I am sure that this will pave way for a greater interchange of music culture on a global basis.