MS Subbulakshmi

The “Ammu Paati” of Carnatic Music

GRK Murty

Man is endowed with divinity. It is natural for him to transcend gross materialism. Ideas take shape by an unknown alchemy from within. This force indeed pervades the whole of universe. Its natural destiny is true expression. Thus, emerge the arts—literature, music, dance, sculpture, etc. To enjoy literature—its architectonic quality, harmony between action and expression, the author’s intense feeling for the characters that he dramatizes, his allusiveness, the happy coalescence of matter and style, the marriage between the thought and the form that confirms to every mood of grace and dignity—one has to read, reread, think, and meditate upon to understand it; and the more one meditates, the more the rasa that one enjoys. Unlike literature, to enjoy music, one need not labor—the very act of listening makes one swing in beatitude. Which is why it is said: sisurvetti, pasurvetti, vetti ganarasam phanihi—infants, cattle and snakes too rejoice in the sound of music. Music, is known to be sadyaha paranirvrutini—an art that makes one instantly forget the external world, delivering an indefinable anand— joy, bliss. At least that’s what happens to the audience when MS Subbulakshmi, draped in emerald-colored Kanjeevaram silk sari, adorned with a diamond-studded nose ring that competes with her pious face radiating virtue which engulfs the audience in serenity, walks

on to the dais and sitting poignantly, sets her tone to the pitch of the shruti—that ceaseless drone; silence given sound so that never is there emptiness in the execution of raga; musical composition is never ‘void’, always ‘full’ filled with the silence of sound—and as the mellifluous words of the krithi, Teratiyagarada forming natural notes of music pour out … the listeners, be the lay or connoisseurs of music, simply get mesmerized by her golden voice, get transported to a new world. Every lover of music reveres her as an angel of music and as she renders krithi after krithi in her flawless style, even tone-deaf swing in trance. Ninety four years to this month Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi, considered as the very incarnation of bhakti, was born on 16th September of 1916 in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. She was introduced to Carnatic music at a very early age. She received training in classical Carnatic music under Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and Hindustani classical music under Pundit Narayan Rao Vyas. She released her first album at the mere age of 10! She gave a stunning performance at the Madras Music Academy at a young age of 17. Pundits of Carnatic music said of her: “Child you carry the veena in your throat”. Bade Gulam Alikhan, a thespian of Hindustani music said of her: Suswaralakshmi Subbulakshmi—goddess of perfect tone and auspiciousness. It is not the technique of execution of a raga, rather it

is the communication of a mood, an ecstasy of emotion— rasadhwani, the experience of the ultimate unison with the supreme—that enabled her to earn plaudits from fellow musicians belonging to different cultures and systems of music. Though she hailed from Tamil Nadu, she could sing Guru Nanak’s Nam japan kyon chod diya that is in a language other than her mother tongue, with ‘pleas’ pouring out from deep within. Her bhajans in Hindi in right intonation made her popular all over India. Listening to her singing the moving composition, Vaishnava Janato, one can’t but shed tears. Even lay men with no understanding of Sanskrit could sway with ‘bhakti’ that they could sense in MS’s rendition of Venkateswara Suprabhatam or Annapoornashtakam in chaste Sanskrit. The way she sings Vishnu Sahasranamam, her devotion, her tone, her pitch, her perfect pronunciation which is inimitable and flawless makes even pundits of Sanskrit wonder: “How does she have that flawless enunciation we scholars are unable to achieve through several birth cycles?” As she sings Annamacharya Samkeertanas, every Telugu speaking music lover listening to her rendition cannot but wonder if even Telugu people can pronounce Annamayya’s lyrics that are loaded with

aspirated consonants such as Nidhi… vidhanamu…; Idiye sadhanamu ihaparamulakunu… sulabhamu soukhayamu sobhana tilakamu, as MS could with perfection. It is essential to remember here that Tamil, the mother tongue of MS does not have such aspirated consonants and yet her diction is as perfect as that of a native speaker. This leaves one in wonder: How could she enchant the commoner as well as pundits of all languages of India by singing kritis written in so many different languages with equal felicity? The answer is simple: It is her phenomenal devotion to music which enabled her to go under the skin of each word in the kriti of whatever language, internalize its meaning and emote its soul through her golden voice in perfect sruti alignment and fidelity to raga. She remained a lifelong learner. She acquired compositions in several languages from a host of practitioners, all with a longing for perfection. She humbly practiced thinking more deeply and ripely about the bhava of every word and it is with respect and humility that she brought out the soul of the words in a kriti—be it in any language. It is simply her grasp of technique and immense devotion to tradition that made her a pan-Indian favorite. Here, we need to appreciate two facts of life: though our genetic inheritance proves that as individuals we derive from many other

individuals, we are nevertheless innately ‘tribal’ in our approach to the world, closely affiliated to small well-definable entities. Yet MS could overcome these barriers by practicing her music ‘counter-intuitively’ and transform herself into a multicultural and multilingual musician that too, with perfection. The central message of her musical accomplishments is that when a kriti is sung by acquiring a right proportion of the raga, bhava, and laya it becomes Sudharasam, nectar, leading consciousness. This great soul—Tapaswini of Carnatic music—passed away on 11th December 2004 in Chennai at the age of 88. Her sonorous music will, of course, live forever. listeners to tranquility and instant supreme

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