You are on page 1of 8


A Child Profile
Little Kunjamma
Born in the temple town of Madurai on September 16th, 1916, to veena player
Shanmukhavadivu (her initials M.S. record the birth place and mother's name), little
Kunjamma, brother Sakthivel and sister Vadivambal grew up surrounded and filled by music.
Her Grandmother Akkammal was a violinist. Their tiny home was close to the Meenakshi
temple. Her lawyer-father lived a few streets away. In the faded photograph which hangs in
her home today, his soft look and sensitive features bear an unmistakable resemblance to
his 'Rajathippa' (princess darling). That is how he called his pet daughter. Not a singer
himself, he was a true rasika and baktha. In the yearly Ramanavami festivals he organized,
there would be a puja, music and procession each day. How wonderful it was to the little girl,
when her father picked her up and placed her next to the picture of Rama taken around the
streets on a chariot! The recollection of such scenes from childhood brings real happiness
to her today. Whenever the deity was taken in procession through the main streets, the
nadaswaram players would stop where this street branched off and play their best for
Shanmukhavadivu's approval. "My earliest interest in music was focused on the raga. I would
try to reproduce the pipers as well as I could. My mother played and rehearsed constantly.
No formal lessons, but I absorbed a whole wealth by listening and humming with the veena."
Much later, experts were astonished at the way in which M.S. vocally rendered some of the
rare and singular 'gamakas' and 'prayogas' of both veena and nadaswaram.

Formal Education
The family was rich only in music. That was all the wealth they had. For the mother and
children, it was a frugal existence. For the two girls, it was confinement within the home,
while the brother enjoyed a little more freedom. Vadivambal died too early to fulfill her
promise as a veena player. Mother Shanmukavadivu wanted to start a formal training for
M.S. in vocal music. The coconut was broken and offerings made to God and guru Madurai
Srinivasa Iyengar. But the lessons couldn't go much beyond the foundations because the
guru passed away. Her formal schooling was stopped in the 5th grade when a teacher's
beating brought on her an attack of whooping cough. But she practiced music for long hours,
lost in the vibrations of the thambura, which she would tune reverently.

The Thambura Affair

The M.S. hallmark of 'sruthi sudham' can be traced to a game she used to play in her
childhood. As she sang, she would stop playing the drone at intervals and check if she
continued to maintain the pitch with and without the 'sruthi'. Throughout the day she would
sound the 'shadja panchama' notes and pluck strings to see if she was still aligned with
them. This natural ability, consciously developed through a kind of yoga, is responsible for
the electrifying effect her opening syllables have on the audience, whether she plumbs the
depths (mandara sanchara) or scales the heights (thara sanchara) of a fantastic range.
Another little known fact of M.S's early life was her fascination for mridangam which she
learnt to play from brother Sakthivel.
First Disc at Age 10
Intrigued by the gramophone records, Kunjamma would roll a piece of paper for the speaker
(as in the logo of His Master's Voice) and sing into it for hours. This game became real when
she accompanied her mother to Madras and cut her first disc at the age of ten. The songs
were 'Marakata vadivu' and 'Oothukuzhiyinile' in an impossibly high pitch. In fact, it was
through the Columbia Gramophone company records she was first noticed in the city of
Madras before she was in her teens. "My first stage appearance? When it happened, I felt
rather annoyed because I was yanked away from my favorite game - making mud pies.
Someone picked me up, dusted my hands and skirt, carried me to the nearby Sethupathi
School where my mother was playing in front of about 100 people. In those days that was
the usual concert attendance. At mother's request, I sang a couple of songs. I was too
young, the smiles and claps from the audience did not mean anything to me. I was thinking
more of returning back to the mud."

Madurai Mesmerized
It was always M.S.S or later M.S. to her fans, and Kunju or Kunjamma to her family - no one
ever called her Subbulakshmi. Madurai Shanmugavadivu Subbulakshmi , too long a name for
such a young singer, whom the rasikas of Madurai watched growing up right in front of their
eyes. They had watched and heard her with fondness and a growing astonishment from the
time when she as a girl of ten in a silk 'paavadai' and blouse, followed her mother, the
golden fingered Shanmugavadivu, on a concert stage and to the amazement of the audience
proceeded to give an entirely competent solo recital, while the visibly proud mother
accompanied her on veena. The child had evinced no stage fright. She just sat there looking
charming and bright, she just sang and sang. The voice had a childish treble, but there was
no hesitation. She sang with a totally natural joy. Who could resist such a talent? All of
Madurai fell in love with this girl, their own child prodigy.

M.S. in Her Teens

A Young, Timid M.S.
"She was perhaps 15 or 16 years and very good looking. She was invited to sing at a wedding.
Everybody spoke about her for weeks before she arrived at the wedding, with the result
that everbody forgot about the wedding. She sang for two hours. The audience sat there
mesmerized. It was that voice - sweet and firm and so effortless in its reaches. At that
time it was hard to associate a glamor with her, but there was a definite quality she brought
to Carnatic music then.... a sort of warm, emotional quality... a touch of magic ... " says a

Early Exposure to Vidwans

It was obvious that by 1932, MS had already become a sort of cult figure to a whole
generation of young rasikas. At that time, she lived in a two storyed house in
Hanumantharaya Koil Street. in Madurai, close to the Meenakshi temple. The family
consisted of her mother, and her two siblings. Music in the household was of the highest
quality. Young M.S. learnt music not only from her mother and her first guru Madurai
Srinivasa Iyengar, but also from listening to almost all the great musicians of her time, who
visited her mother's house. When Dakshinamurthy Pillai, the famous Mridangist visited
their home, he was so impressed by the young M.S.'s singing that he brought Ariyakkudi
Ramanuja Ayyangar with him when he visited the house the next time. Ariyakkudi taught her
a thodi varnam and Saraguna Palimpa in Kedara Gowla. Once she had begun singing at the
concerts, there was no going back. Singing came naturally to her and in the process she
didn't have the time to regret the passing of her childhood.

First Concert in Madras

Gathering fame in Madurai was fine, but it was not the same in Madras. Mother
Shanmugavadivu decided to go to Madras in 1932. The Mylapore sub-culture was just born
at this time, but confined itself to political things like the freedom movement. Mylapore was
definitely the central platform of cultural activities. T. Sankaran, grandson of Veenai
Dhanammal remembers .."I first heard M.S. at a concert in Soundarya Mahal. I remember
being impressed by her voice, but the performance on the whole was a juvenile affair.
Women musicians were not taken seriously in those days. The music platform was entirely
male dominated.Women did not perform frequently, they were not allowed to attend
concerts. As for the performers, they were usually from the devadasi caste, who already
had a tradition of entertaining the public with dance and music. Male accompanists of any
repute condidered it infra dig to accomapany female musicians ...."

Breaking the Barrier

It was into this scene that M.S. made a debut as a serious musician. Her advantage, apart
from the undeniable beautiful voice and charming looks was her obvious earnestness about
music. An elderly Madras rasika rembers..."There was a feeling, until then, that women sang
principally to attract male attention. Consequently, we didn't quite know what to make out
of this young woman from Madurai who sang as if her life depended on it. There was no
flippant stage mannerisms. 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.

Thanjavur Exposure
1933 was the year of Mahamaham. An exposition of dance and music was arranged that year
in Kumbakonam to coincide with Mahamaham. The chief organizer of the exposition, director
K. Subramaniam had arranged for a concert of M.S. Her name was already known in
Kumbakonam as an up-coming artist. So, there was a good deal of anticipation regarding her
concert. She took the town by storm. The concert was such a huge success that the
organizers had to arrange another concert by her. Even the hard boiled critics could find
nothing to complain about her or her music. Carnatic music flows in the veins of Thanjavoor
rasikas and as such approval from these rasikas is hard to come by , but very rewarding if
the approval came. In the case of M.S. these rasikas not only approved her but also praised
the young artist!.

The Music Academy Debut

The approval of Thanjavur seemed to be reflected in Madras. M.S. was invited to give a
concert at the Music Academy. M.S. had just turned seventeen few months before that.
She went up the dias at the festival to sing for the most elite gathering of music lovers in
Madras. She had indeed broken the male oriented music barrier at this point. Thereafter,
trips to Madras were frequent. The family rented a house in Purasawalkam. This seems to
have been a carefree period for M.S., also she was the principal source of income for the
family. She developed a circle of friends. Veenai Dhanammal, her daughters Brinda and
Muktha, dancer Balasaraswathy, all soon became good friends.

M.S. the Nightingale

Those who knew M.S. in those days speak of her gaiety and infectious laughter. She
continued to be a diligent student of music, learning, growing, but there was also a certain
flowering of her personality from the reserved and shy girl from Madurai to a more open,
more friendly young woman. Magazines especially like Ananda Vikatan had begun reviewing
her performances regularly. She was constantly referred to by the press as Kokilam or
nightingale. In short, she was a celebrity in her teens.

M.S - the Wife and Celebrity

The Newly Wed M.S.
At the time M.S. met Sadasivam, he was a fairly well-known figure in the Madras Congress
circle, he was also a protege of Rajaji. He was a tall personable man with a can-do attitude.
He was also married and the father of two children. Such was the man who was to change
M.S.'s life for forever. With his wide connections in the journalistic and political world, he
became instrumental in the continued success of her already flourishing career. The
courtship lasted for four years and had its up and downs. Friends recall that at times M.S.
seemed like backing out of the relationship, because of Sadasivam's possessiveness. But
such spells did not last long and she was a contented happy woman when the couple were
married in Thiruneermalai, in 1940. In the meantime, M.S.'s career had taken a new
direction. She entered films.

The Stellar Years

In the 30's most concert vocalists acted in films.It was not surprising that M.S., with her
lovely voice and charming personality, joined films, although it it was said that she resented
this idea. The reasons were obvious for she was a shy person who was probably
uncomfortable in displaying herself on the screen. The only expression that naturally came
to her was her music. And it is for that reason that all four movies she acted in are
'Sevasadanam', her first movie was released in 1938 where she acted as a poor young girl
who married a rich old man. This was followed by 'Sakunthalai' where M.S. played the lead
role, the most glamorous of all her roles teaming up with G.N.Balasubramanian, the most
attractive vidwan of the time. The film contained some of the most haunting of all her movie
melodies - 'Endan Idathu Tholum', 'Premayil', 'Engum Nirai Nadha Brahmam'. This was
followed by 'Savithri' (directed by Y.V. Rao) which was released in 1942. M.S. played as
Naradha with the North Indian star Santha Apte as Savithri. This film too did extremely
well at the box office. The income from this movie was largely used to start the 'Kalki'
This was the time when M.S.'s persona as a star was established, that of a quite type of a
glamor queen. She dressed slightly more flamboyantly, sported some make-up and was
naturally gossiped in the press. She was also imitated widely. This image remained intact
until the release of 'Meera' in 1945. When 'Baktha Meera' was released in both Tamil and
Hindi, it created a swelling wave of appreciation that gave M.S. an all India status as a
musician. It also marked the end of her film career. It is said that Rajaji himself advised
the couple against any more involvement in the films. Perhaps Sadasivam saw a greater
benefit in preserving the somewhat saintly image that M.S. had acquired after the film.
Whatever, M.S. gave up films once and for all and turned wholly to concert music.

The Making of a Saint

Once M.S. left films, her public image shifted slightly once again. Sadasivam took her to see
Mahathma Gandhi. She sang 'Bhajans' for him. In 1944, M.S. started conducting benefit
performances to collect funds for a variety of social and religious causes. The part of
'Kalki' magazine in her image building was not small. Almost every other cover featured her,
with a reverential little article inside about her charity performances. Kalki, in fact played a
big role in projecting M.S. as a saintly musician, that has endured to this day. M.S., thus had
arrived at the national scene, as a personage, not just a musician. In 1947, Mahathma Gandhi
had sent words to M.S. to sing 'Bhajans' for him. M.S. was unable to honor his request, but
sent a recorded version of 'Hari Tuma Haro' to him. A.I.R. played this after the
announcement of the Mahathma's death.

The Soaring Recognition

Meanwhile, she did not allow her musical career to flag down even for a minute. A series of
top musicians, notable among them Semmangudi, Musiri, Brinda, composer Papanasam Sivan,
'bhajan' singer Sidheswari Devi of Banares, were persuaded to teach M.S. fresh
compositions and styles of singing. This widened her repertoire and appeal of her concerts
to the general public. She was by now giving concerts all over the country. In the 50s and
60s , M.S's life style was hectic. She travelled constantly. The couple bought "Kalki
Gardens', the sprawling mansion in Chetput which symbolized the couple's lifestyle at that
time. M.S. had also by now become an accepted and integral part of the Madras elitist
society. It became an honor to have her at a wedding or a gathering. Always a trend setter,
M.S. became a kind of fashion apostle for the upper class Madras wife. Her sarees, her
diamonds, the particular style in which she wore flowers in her hair, all became trademarks.
In the 50s, almost every Madras housewife had at least one saree of the M.S. blue shade.
For most part, M.S. had adjusted magnificiantly to her new life. Along with her public VIP
image, she developed an equally strong private life of the orthodox Hindu housewife whose
husband's word was her command.

In the World's Eye

Another M.S. achievement is that she played a large role in spreading the concepts of
Carnatic music to Western musicians . In the Western world, hardly anyone knew of the
complex Carnatic music system, which was deemed inexportable. M.S's concert at the
Edinburgh festival and at the United Nations changed this concept. M.S. was invited to tour
U.S. again from coast to coast giving 22 concerts. Since then, M.S. has travelled all over the
world , the high points of her travels being the fund-raising concerts held right across
America, her concert at the prestigious Carnegie Hall, the inagural concert at the festival
of India in London in 1982, her trip to Manila in conjuction with the Magasaysay award, her
concert in front of Russian musicians and musicologists in 1988 and so on.

M.S. the Philanthrophist

In 1944, according to Rajaji's suggestions, M.S. conducted a series of benefit concerts to
collect funds for the Kasthurba Memorial Fund. This was perhaps the first (known) of the
benefit concerts which M.S. has been conducting ever since to collect funds for a variety of
social and religious causes. M.S. still treasures the letter she received from Gandhiji in
appreciation of her work.

The Suprabhatams
Through the years, both M.S. and her husband Sadasivam have helped a staggering variety
of public causes both by donating rayalties from her LPs and by holding benefit
performances for raising funds - the amount runs to crores and crores of rupees. M.S's
recordings (she has set a record in this respect) have played a big part in this activity. Her
'Venkateswara Suprabaatham', the proceeds of which went to the Thiruppathi
Devasthanam, set a trend following which every south Indian singer cut at least one
'suprabhaatham' disc. The 'Vishnu Saharanaamam' proceeds went the 'Ramakrishna Math'.

More Charities
M.S. has cut discs to provide funds for the Bhaarathi Memorial Mantap, Gaandhi Memorial
mantap, Hindi Prachaar Sabha, the Kaamakshi temple, the Raamanathawsami temple ... the
list goes on. Another commendable donation she has made is to the Sankara Netraalaya
research Foundation, Madras. The Magsaysay award was given to M.S. not for her music, but
for her public service. The award amount of ten thousand dollars was promptly donated to
three different worthy cause in India.

Personal Sacrifice
Perhaps the most touching aspect of M.S. and Sadasivam's involvement with charity work
was when Sri.Sadasivam announced that M.S. would no longer sing for money - it came at a
time when the couple were in serious financial difficulties following the near collapse of
'Kalki'. Kalki Gardens was sold to met the debts. From a very lavish lifestyle, they had
stepped into a far simpler one. The decision to perform for charitable causes alone, when
they themselves needed financial help, required courage, to say the least. Referring to this,
a friend of the couple said with considerable sadness, "They have done an unbelievable
amount for public cause. Now they are forced to live in a rented house. I don't suppose they
give a second thought to this. But, it reflects on the rest of us. In Japan, eminent artistes
are declared as national treasures and are protected and nourished by the state. Why can't
our government implement a scheme like this?"

Charity on her 80th birthday - from the Hindu (Sept 16, 1996)
The Dr. Rajah Sir Annamalai Chettiar Birthday Commemoration Award was presented to
music maestro, Mrs. M. S. Subbulakshmi, here on Monday. Mrs. M. S. Subbulakshmi, who
turned 80 today accepted the award, instituted by Rajar Sir Annamalai Chettiar Memorial
Trust, from Mr. K. S. Bhaktavatsalam, Judge of the Karnataka High Court. She donated the
proceeds of Rs. 50,000 to Sri Mathrubutham Trust towards the construction of a ``Mani
Mandapam'' in memory of the Kanchi Paramacharya.

Mr. Bhaktavatsalam, who presided, said that over the years, the pristine quality of the
music of Mrs. M.S. had remained unchanged. This was mainly because, the maestro took to
music as a penance and a means of surrender to God.

M.S. Her Personality

Home Maker
What is M.S. like in her real life? The answer would be: except for the hypersensitivity of
all great artists, no different from any other South Indian homemaker, mother and
grandmother of her generation. Fame and adoration of hundreds of thousands have left her
transparently untouched. She is meticulous and neat in personal life, even in the delicate
lines of 'kolam' she draws everyday. She excels in putting up all kinds of visitors at ease,
with a genuine interest in what they have to say of themselves. Gifts which please her most
are strings of jasmine and mild French perfumes.

Conservative in Looks
In appearance and life style, she remains conservative: the long 'pallav' of her handloom
cotton or silk tucked around the waist, flower-wreathed 'kondai', diamond nose and ear
rings, glass bangles between gold, not to forget the row of 'kumkum' and 'vibuthi' from
many temples dotting the turmeric-washed face. Regular in the performance of pooja and
sloka recitation, she is a strict follower of all the prescribed rituals for an Indian woman.

Graceful & Traditional

Owning no jewels beyond what she wears and with a giving away attitude of everything that
is gifted to her by her admirers, she has never tried to appear younger than what she is.
Thousands see her as the embodiment of grace and tradition of Indian womanhood - kind,
considerate, compassionate, self-spoken, self-sacrifying and somewhat unworldly. She
breathes the tenderness of a mother to the child, the baktha to the God.

No Maria Callas
Looking at her self-effacing deportment, one has to remind oneself forcefully that she is a
world-traveled artist, a globally-acclaimed career person who has changed the definition and
image of 'carnatic music' in the 20th century. A first-time foreign listener at her concert
was quick to note the simplicity of the M.S. image. "It is not right to describe her as the
Maria Callas of India. Callas has fans, frenzied legions of them; but no devotees. M.S. does
not just sing; she makes divinity manifest".

Still Rehearsing
M.S. does not flinch from self-criticism. What seems satisfactory while in the motion-
charged stage ambiance is reviewed for improvements. She tells you that she had to work
on 'varjaya' ragaas for easier control. At 80, one finds her still learning, rehearsing new
pieces with note books balanced on Sruthi box.

A Legend
M.S., the Nightingale of Carnatic Music, in the cultural renaissance of the 1940s and the
succeeding decades is a legend. But saying that she is a legend is not saying everything
about her. M.S. has said again and again that 'she is what she is', solely because of her
'pathi' husband. "He is my friend, philosopher and guide" says M.S. while referring to her
husband Sri Sadasivam.

A Woman with no Regrets

Towards the end of each recital, M.S. sounds the cymbals with her eyes closed in
concentration for Rajaji's hymn, 'Kurai onrum illai' (I have no regrets). It becomes obvious
that for all the splendor of her music, it is her image as a saintly person which will probably
endure long after this century, just as in the case of 'Meerabai'. For, in the highest
tradition of Indian way of life, M.S.Subbulakshmi links her art with the spiritual quest,
where modesty and perseverance assure the 'sadhaka' of grace.

A Humble Tool of God

Finally, what does M.S. have to say about her own music? I am including a beautiful piece of
M.S.'s acceptance speech on August 31, 1974, while receiving the Ramon Magasaysay Award,
in Manila. Smt. Subbulakshmi spoke of Indian music as being 'oriented solely to the end of
devine communion'.She added: "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".