Artists > M. S. Subbulakshmi

M. S. Subbulakshmi

While Lata Mangeshkar called her Tapaswini (the Renunciate), Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan termed her Suswaralakshmi (the goddess of musical notes), and Kishori Amonkar labeled her the ultimate eighth note or Aathuvaan Sur, which is above the seven notes basic to all music. Her many famous renditions of bhajans include the chanting of Bhaja Govindam, Vishnu sahasranama (1000 names of Vishnu) and the Venkateswara Suprabhatham (musical hymns to awaken Lord Balaji early in the morning).

Born in the temple town of Madurai in South India (center of southern Hindu culture) on September 16th, 1916, Subbulakshmi was further blessed by being born in a home where music was valued and votaries of music gathered. Her parents were Subramanya Iyer and Veena Vidushi Shanmukavadivu, a renowned singer and player of the veena - a plucked instrument popular in the south (her initials M.S. record the birth place and mother's name). Her Grandmother Akkammal was a distinguished vilonist.

MS Subbulakshmi started learning Carnatic music from a very early age. She made her debut as a singer at the age of eight and went on to perform in concerts, a domain traditionally reserved for males. She began her Carnatic classical music training under Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and then Hindustani classical training under Pandit Narayan Rao Vyas. By the age of 10, Kunjamma, as Subbulakshmi was affectionately known, was accompanying her mother at concerts. Endowed with a captivating, quicksilver voice, MS could reproduce any nuance with amazing clarity. She cut her first record at this age. She gave her first performance at the prestigious Madras Music Academy (the prestigious center for the study and promotion of Karnatic music) at the age of 17.

Two fortuitous events brought Subbulakshmi early into national prominence. The first was her participation in the All-India Dance Conference in Bombay, organized under the Vikramaditya Celebrations, in 1944. Every Indian musician of importance was present and her performance created a sensation. The second was her appearance in the title role of the Hindi-language film Meera. In fact, MS starred in four movies - 'Seva Sadan', 'Shakuntalatai', 'Savitri' and Meera'. It was in and as 'Meera' and her soulful rendering of Meera bhajans, that the masses totally identified with her. Her absolute devotion in her concerts, her stress on 'bhakti' (worship) -soaked compositions. Her songs captured the hearts of the entire nation. In this film she sang the bhajans of north India. Bhajans are folk music of a devotional nature, simple and compelling enough to be known, understood and loved by all. Already recognized as a distinguished singer of Carnatic classical ragas - which in general demand a musically sophisticated audience, her voice enticed listeners and held them spellbound as she took them through the intricacies of Carnatic music.

Former prime minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru hailed her as 'Queen of songs' and poet Sarojini Naidu gave her the title 'nightingale of India'.

She has performed across the globe, including the United Kingdom, erstwhile USSR, the USA and France. She played a larger role in spreading the concepts of Carnatic music to the Western world where hardly anyone knew about its complexities.

M.S. style of singing is not based on identifiable techniques of execution but on the communication of a mood, of an ecstasy of emotion. Ancient theoreticians called this 'rasadhwani' when art becomes an experience of the ultimate bliss, within and without. M.S. exemplifies this in her choice of raaga and saahithya, balance of mood and technique, people find in the compelling melody and sweetness of her bhajans, or folk spirituals, "a deep, pure and abstract emotional appeal," transporting them to a sense of unity with the supreme deity. Rooted in millenia of Indian culture and mythology, her bhajans are a means of prayer and solace in the villages where bhakti marg, or the way of devotion, supersedes more intellectual philosophies.

Mahatma Gandhi was so charmed of her Meera bhajans that he requested her to sing the song Hari Tum haro Jan ki bheer (Lord, please dispel the fear in mankind). She regretfully declined as she had a cold that day. A prompt reply came back from the mahatma's side saying "I would gladly hear subbulakshmi speak it than hear it sung by others".

"She never referred to notes when she sang on the stage" Proud to All Indian Women.

Subbulakshmi also contributed to elevate the status of women classical musicians. Prior to her advent as a performer, the classical music stage was dominated by men who, by and large, were chauvinists. Subbulakshmi along with D.K. Pattammal, and M.L. Vasanthakumari, made all but the incorrigible chauvinists concede that women singers could not only match them but also excel them

"She essayed into serious elaborations of ragas without apparently being aware that she was breaking fresh ground as a female vocalist. ..." . Madras audiences began to sit up and take notice of M.S. Subbulakshmi.

M S Subbulakshmi has the distinction of being the first woman to have presided over Music Academy Conference in Madras in 1968. She gave the inaugural concert at the India Festival, London, in 1982, and has also performed in Tokyo, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Manila, Singapore and Malaysia.

Awards & Honors

Although she was bestowed with enormous prize moneys on these awards, she donated most of them to charity.

Prominent personalities in the field of classical music congratulated the doyenne of Carnatic music on being conferred the highest civilian award. Renowned vocalist Pandit Jasraj said the event was a moment of glory for classical music in the golden jubilee year of India's independence.

Santoor maestro Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma described Subbulakshmi as the "voice of the nation."

In her own words,
"If I have done something in this respect, it is entirely due to the Grace of the Almightywho has chosen my humble self as a tool. But He is beyond my gratitude. Yet, in a way, I take Him to have come within my reach in the benign personality of the Sage of Kanchi."

Accepting the Ramon Magsaysay award in Manila on August 31, 1974 she said,
"If I have done something in this respect, it is entirely due to the grace of the almighty who has chosen my humble self as a tool."

Subbulakshmi herself concluded,
"if one sings with sincerity and devotion, such music has the capacity to move the audience to divine experience, irrespective of their religious beliefs, their language and the countries to which they may belong."

After the death of her husband Sadasivam in 1997, MS Subbulakshmi stopped all her public performances. The doyen of Carnatic music M S Subbulakshmi died on December 11, 2004 in Chennai after a brief illness at the age of 88.

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