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A tribute to M.S. Subbulakshmi, the first voice from the South to have been so widely heard and so intensely enjoyed, written by K. Swaminathan in this 16 October 1976 edition of Swarajya.

FOR OVER four decades now, the music-loving world has drunk deep from the nectar-ocean of M. S. Subbulakshmi’s music, enriched with pearls and gems from many regions. Today, ‘M.S.’, as she is familiarly called, is a house-hold word and a source of pride to millions of her countrymen.

Amalgam of Melody and Devotion

The appeal of a classical musician, particularly of the Karnatak school, is limited, being confined, by and large, to those already grounded in the tradition; the untrained ear only too quickly tires of the slick, linear meanderings of this melody. It is here that Subbulakshmi scores over her illustrious contemporaries. Gifted with a voice that is a perfect amalgam of the melodious, the meditative and the devotional, Subbulakshmi holds her audiences enthralled by a natural charm more powerful than mere technique. Truly has she opened the portals of Karnatak music to a vast appreciative audience, both at home and abroad. Hers is the first voice from the South to have been so widely heard and so intensely enjoyed.

Pristine Purity

Hard-boiled, dyed-in-the-wool purists in music have heen rendered defenceless by her mastery over the medium which only gains by her slight departures from rigid norms and her judicious play with the nuances of Hindustani music. But the assimilation to the dominant spirit and sound is such that there is no suggestion of experiment and innovation. The pristine purity of the song is preserved. In all cases, whether it is a Thyagaraja kriti or a Mira bhajan, the original singer’s devotion comes through in its purity. The word in her mouth is more than a vehicle of music, it is charged with meaning, with poignancy, as when she invokes the Lord, “Rama … Rama”, in Yennaganu, or, when she pours forth the ecstasy of Mira in Hari tuma Haro. Every swara, every syllable, fulfils its function, for M.S. rids it of its ordinariness and re-invests it with the composer’s own depth of feeling. The songs thus recreated by her golden voice cut across barriers of creed and language, to reach an ever-widening audience, transforming a personal experience into a collective experience.

Charismatic Appeal

The art of Subbulakshmi is at once disciplined and unpretentious, even as the artiste. Her charismatic appeal stems from this combination of nature and culture in her personality. The apt medium for its communication is her golden voice. Taking into account the smooth, flawless texture of her voice and the harmony in which it blends with every note, it is small wonder that she reigns supreme as the nightingale of India. She herself says, “Students of music should devote their attention to the acquisition of purity in voice and strict adherence to sruti. To achieve this it is essential that they should practise voice-culture assiduously.”

She went, She sang, She Conquered

There have been eminent exponents of the bhakti cult in music, Paluskar in the North and Sundarambal in the South, to mention but two. Paluskar’s soulful renderings of Tulsidas and Mira bhajans were as appealing in their pathos as Sundarambal’s moving lyrics on Lord Muruga. So were the film songs of K. L. Saigal, who rendered the-songs of Surdas with his Jeep, resonant voice. While Paluskar, Saigal and others in the tradition were heard avidly in the South, the singers of the South, however popular, had been relegated to their local milieu. M.S., who belonged to this genre was, rather, the exception. She went to the North and conquered it with her Mira bhajans. She is unique in maintaining the rigorous standards of Karnatak music and at the same time stirring the hearts of all people everywhere with her popular stock of devotional songs. Bhakti is the essence, the very soul, of the music of M.S. Any raga that she touches comes alive, replete with the bhava of bhakti aspiring towards the Supreme and transporting the listeners to a higher state of bliss. In Subbulakshmi’s words. “They have the higher purpose of directing the minds of the listeners towards God and His manifestations. In other words bhakti is the keynote of these great compositions”. She rightly appeals to the students of music to “give prominence to raga alapana and explore the full possibilities of each raga; while singing the songs they should bring out the bhakti which is intertwined with the sahitya and pay special attention to improvisation.” In conformity with her own belief that only bhakti music can plumb the depths of the human heart, M.S. has, over the years, preserved the predominantly devotional quality of her music. She is equally at home with a Thyagaraja composition as with a Mira bhaian. Whether singing the praises of Rama or the longing for Gopal, her voice is a potent instrument of bhakti.

Grace Abiding

The wonder-voice is equally “an instrument of great causes”. Of this nightingale it was said by that other enchantress, Sarojini Naidu, “Every child in India has heard about Subbulakshmi for the beauty of her voice, the magic of her personality, the gracious charity of her heart ...... I want my living words to go to the uttermost corners of the world so that people may realize how one great woman artiste in India has been able to move the hearts of millions of men and women by her songs. I believe the feeling roused in me will be roused in everyone who hears the enchanting voice of this enchanting singer who is abundantly gifted. It may not be known to many that that golden voice is an instrument of great causes.

Disarming Humility

Subbulakshmi’s untiring and massive help to deserving causes stands in a class by itself. Every one of her benefit concerts anywhere in India brings an immense amount of pleasure to the audience, a welcome windfall to the organizers and deep personal satisfaction to Subbulakshmi. Notwithstanding such resounding and munificent philanthropy, she retains her poise, charm and disarming humility. Born in 1916, to the great Vina Vidhushi, Shanmukavadivu, Subbulakshmi was the natural inheritor of a rich tradition. Endowed also with a God-gifted golden voice, ‘Kunjamma’ (as she is affectionately known) began in early age to accompany her celebrated mother at recitals. The thirties brought her success and fame, and in 1940, dowered with this precious possession of music, she became the wife of Sri T. Sadasivam, who has since been to her a steady source of inspiration, her “friend, philosopher and guide”, “Whatever fame I enjoy today”, says M.S., “is entirely due to him”. With the release of her film “Meera” the voice of Subbulakshmi came to be loved by all and the fame of M.S. spread all over the country. Her soulful rendering of the bhajans revived the very spirit of Mira and roused the dormant spirituality of the millions in the North and the South of India.

Against Any Innovation

In an era when acrobatics and ratiocination in music tend to detract from its meaning and melody, Subbulakshmi has serenely sustained her music above pedestrian paths and even elevated it to loftier heights. Though she readily meets the aesthetic needs of mixed audiences by singing classical as well as popular tunes, she frowns on the fusion of the Hindustani and Karnatak styles of music in the name of innovation. With fine discernment she says, “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 individuality and pristine purity of their styles, will ever agree to an integration of the two schools.”

Yet, M.S. has done not a little towards integration of cultures by taking Karnatak music to the Western world. She had the rare distinction of singing before the United Nations in 1966. Earlier, in 1963, she had participated in the International Music festival in Edinburgh. On both occasions the notices in the Western Press were full of enthusiastic praise.

Hindustani music had already gained much popularity in the West, but the public there had till then had very little knowledge of musical traditions of South India. As a critic pointed out, “Appreciation and understanding of this music is lagging behind that of Hindustani music. For many, the concert by Mrs. Subbulakshmi meant their first encounter with the music of South India and it was extremely gratifying that in her the necessary factors for the basis of a successful contact between her music and a new audience- highly developed artistry as well as stage presence-were so convincingly present.”

Truly, ‘a revelation’

The New York Times (November 18) acclaimed “her merit in glowing terms: Subbulakshmi’s songs of India bring excitement to town hall - her vocal communication transcends words. The cliche of the voice used as an instrument never seemed more appropriate. It could fly flutteringly or carry on a lively dialogue with the accompanists. Subbulakshmi and her ensemble are a revelation to Western ears. Their return can be awaited only with eagerness.”

What began in the thirties as a small service to society found its culmination in the Magsaysay Award for Public Service, which M.S. received in 1974 for her unique success as an artiste and a public benefactor. Subbulakshmi’s popularity remains unequalled and unsurpassed. In India’s capital alone, the number of her recitals approaches a century.

Subbulakshmi completed 60 on the 11th of October, 1976. She has traversed the years behind her with grace and dignity. Likewise, her music has grown in width and depth. Time has not staled her charm. It has only added to her wisdom and the bonds of affection between her and her countless admirers.

-Courtesy: The Sunday Standard.