Madras Week: MS Subbulakshmi

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M.S. Subbulakshmi of Madras

by

Hamsini Ravi

Many homes in Chennai still wake up to her Vishnu Sahasranamam. The woman with a golden voice, who used an initial that stood for her birthplace, Madurai, she spent the more significant part of her life in Madras. Just as she gave the city and its music loving populace an icon to look up to, the city gave her a platform, as a young, shy teenager, to blossom into one of the greatest Carnatic musicians of all time. Yes, Madurai Shanmughavadivu Subbulakshmi, was Chennai’s, through and through.

From her blue silk sarees, to her glass bangles and her reverence to Kanchi Maha Periva; the city loved and adored her. For them, she was one of them, only blessed with a talent so divine, that it felt like the Gods came down to Earth to catch a glimpse of her music. Kunjamma, as she was fondly known as, to near and dear ones, shied away from media glare, and hardly made public appearances, except for charity concerts, created a sweeping fashion statement with her “M.S Blue” sarees.

For the knowledgeable Madras Brahmin community that considered itself as the authority on Carnatic music, to honour a woman singer from the Devadasi community and to give her pride of place, would have been unimaginable a few decades ago. Yet, Subbulakshmi transcended caste barriers with ease, and with the same kind of élan, she sang some of Hinduism’s most sacred verses.

M.S. was the quintessential Madras wife of the 50s, submissive, quiet and accepting. Her husband, Sadasivam, was her mentor and guide, and his word was her law, without argument and question. It was this quiet charm that appealed to her fans, this simplicity and unassuming nature that made her a living legend, beyond her music. When he passed away in 1997, she retired from public life; it was like, her career, died had along with Sadasivam.

The first ever musician to receive the prestigious Bharat Ratna, no award or words of praise can do justice to what she has achieved. Her music, perfect diction and honey-coated voice, touches every heart, it comes across. From scholars of the art to foreigners who have no knowledge of classical notes, her music is deep and stirring. She was a picture of relentless devotion, a bhakti, of the highest order. The Paramacharya’s Maithreem Bhajata sung at her famous concert in the United Nations concert, invokes divine reverberations, as does Rajaji’s Kurai Ondrum illai.

I was fortunate visit her house, in 2000, and was struck by her simplicity, modesty and grace. As she offered us the customary chukku coffee, she told us that she was not keeping too well, but she spoke to us with genuine love and sincerity. “We are all one”, said the Ramon Magsaysay awardee innocently. It’s been 5 years since she departed, yet her immortal music and her bhav, both have their rightful place in the hearts and homes of the music fraternity in Chennai.

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