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What made M.S. Subbulakshmi a national icon


Keshav Desiraju’s book on M.S. Subbulakshmi comes alive with stories from the lost world of Carnatic music

Let’s take a quick offhand count of the number of books that have been written on M.S. Subbulakshmi, the maestra of Carnatic music. MS – A Life In Music by TJS George, MS and Radha, A Saga of Steadfast Devotion by Gowri Ramnarayan, The Madras Music Quartet by Indira Menon, Lakshmi Vishwanathan’s Kunjamma – Ode to a Nightingale and Family Pride: MS Subbulakshmi, Lakshmi Devanath’s illustrated short biography, and Song of Surrender, A Centenary Tribute to MS Subbulakshmi by Savitha Narasimhan, Gowri Ramnarayan and V. Ramnarayan, are some. This is apart from books in regional languages: at least four books have been published in Kannada alone, besides a translation of TJS George’s book, in the last five years.

The life and music of M.S. Subbulakshmi continues to capture the interest of several writers. Who she was, where she came from, and what she became forms the canvas of most books. If the journey of M.S.’s life is the journey of her music, the reverse is true as well. Of Gifted Voice: The Life and Art of M.S. Subbulakshmi by Keshav Desiraju (Harper Collins) — the latest book on the musician — tells her story yet again. It is neither the linear narration of Indira Menon nor is it the reinvigorating telling of George, who took advantage of his position as someone who strayed into music.

Keshav Desiraju, a retired civil servant, educated at Harvard and Cambridge, lays out facts that you find in other books on the musician, but his quiet and responsible understanding of these facts builds a meaningful difference, especially in a world filled with noisy debates.

It is all about author perspective and Desiraju does two interesting things: with extensive and meticulous research, he reconstructs the artistic richness of the times in which M.S. lived. The book abounds with hundreds of wonderful stories and anecdotes, some heard, some unheard. Introducing you to all the extraordinary women musicians and dancers who were contemporaries of his protagonist — in Hindustani and Carnatic worlds — Desiraju asks us, even as he explores, what made M.S. special, a national icon?

The book layers her musical competence alongside the remarkable Rajam Pushpavanam and N.C. Vasantakokilam (“…the only two singers who had the potential to rival Subbulakshmi, and if the fates had been less wilful, to overtake her.”) K.B. Sundarambal (‘a superb musician with an enslaving, rapturous voice…”), Philomena Thamboochetty, D.K. Pattammal (“rare specimen of voice, fresh and untainted, pure and healthy”), Balasaraswati, Roshanara Begum, Mallika Pukhraj, and Gangubai Hangal, among others, who were in no way inferior to the musical prowess of M.S. but did not scale her heights. In bringing all these women into the narrative, Desiraju seems to ask how M.S. became the face of India. What made her the favourite of the masses? From Nehru to Mountbatten to Rajaji, she was feted by the political-cultural-social elite of India. What role did Sadashivam play in her life and what kind of choices did she make? The narrative probes these complex realms.

What made M.S. Subbulakshmi a national icon

Secondly, Desiraju presents the world’s perceptions of M.S. through a series of reviews, reports and opinions that were published at different periods of her life and career. A rasika compares her popularity with other musicians: “M.S. challenged them all for the attention and affection of music buffs… the joy of listening to M.S. was an experience in itself.”

There are many statements like this, but there are also unhappy ones. For instance, when M.S. plunged into the Tamil Isai movement and presented a Tamil repertoire, or when she became the embodiment of bhakti and presented ‘devotional’ songs (‘shrill and high-pitched’ as one critic said) she also elicited unfavourable responses.

One sensitive listener listening to an AIR concert in 1968 said: “From M.S. we seek music which soars aloft, not the kind of pieces carefully chosen by those who have lost the voices of their youth.” Apart from those that directly reacted to her music, there were also reports that commented thus, following a concert in Delhi, in 1947: “Oddly and sadly, the presence of politicians, businessmen and other socially prominent people, without any sense of musical appreciation, was a feature of M.S. concerts, to which Sadashivam was obsessively attached.”

M.S., slowly and steadily, shut the doors on the world she came from. The world that she now entered watches her ‘refashioning’ keenly. The book, therefore, builds an objective narrative in which you have social details, people’s opinions as well as the author’s suggestions.

M.S. with Jawaharlal Nehru at the December 1947 release of ‘Meera.’

M.S. with Jawaharlal Nehru at the December 1947 release of ‘Meera.’  
| Photo Credit:
from the book

The disintegration of the Devadasi system, its impact on the artistes and their abundant cultural heritage, the new patronage, the eventual institutionalisation, the nationalist project, Gandhi… the book discusses all this at length. There are precious nuggets that have the potential to become full-fledged studies. Writing about Dhanammal’s superlative music, Desiraju cites an advertisement for her concert on July 16, 1933: “Men can get the best seats for a rupee but women only the second-best at half a rupee!” Ironically, this is for Dhanammal, who refused to conform to male standards of music. In an “extraordinary diatribe” titled, ‘Notes on music, women singers,’ C.R. Srinivasa Iyengar writes, “… a lady singing Pallavi recalls to me the picture of a dog trained to walk on hind legs — it is ungainly, uncouth, unseemly and uncalled for. Her native element is padams, keertanams or erotic pieces.” He later wrote a series of articles for The Hindu in 1925 against women singers titled ‘Music and Sex’. Desiraju says the content of most is “unprintable”.

On the other side, the book is also a treasure trove of generous moments — there are recollections of how Omkarnath Thakur came to listen to M.S., how Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer said that none can sing the Melakarta Ragamalika like her. Though Palghat Mani Iyer, the great mridanga vidwan, never played in a public concert for M.S., he said in an 1978 interview that Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar and M.S. Subbulakshmi were the three artistes with outstanding voices who sang straight to the audience. It is also true that M.S. rarely chose to have a female accompanist — was it a choice made by M.S. herself? It is hard to tell.

As Desiraju suggests, one may disagree with the choices the singer made, her music may not gain total approval of the connoisseur, but she truly was one of India’s finest artistes. Her dedication and commitment to art are unquestionable. Desiraju quotes historian Ramachandra Guha, who argued for the Bharat Ratna to be conferred on M.S. and Lata Mangeshkar: “We know them as M.S. and Lata, not out of easy familiarity, but because we love, cherish and honour them, because we cannot imagine life or India without them.”

The life and times of M.S. are exciting: history takes control of her music and eventually she becomes her music. There will be more books, surely.

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