Written by Kirtana Y. & Krishnan S. on 11 October 2019
Few singers have crossed over from being esoteric to a household name like M.S. Subbulakshmi. If you are from South India, chances are that your mornings have started with her mellifluous rendition of “Shri Venkateshwar Suprabhatam” and it would have been your introduction to Carnatic music as a genre itself!
But did you know, this iconic singer was more than a jewel in the Carnatic crown – she was also a runaway hit in just 5 movies – immortalising the role of Meerabai in Meera?
Her particular shade of blue Kanjeevaram made her a style icon and she would spread Carnatic music beyond the borders of her country, to go on to be the first musician to win India’s highest civilian honour – the Bharat Ratna.
Born in the temple town of Madurai on the 16th of September in 1916, M.S. Subbulakshmi was introduced to music at a young age by her mother. Her mother Shanmukavadiver Ammal, who belonged to the Devadasi community, used to play Veena and was a regular stage performer. This exposed M.S. Subbulakshmi to a lot of music concerts and artistes – the likes of Karaikudi Sambasiva Iyer, Mazhavarayanendal Subbarama Bhagavathar and Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar who deeply inspired her young mind.
Subbulakshmi mastered the nuances of Carnatic music under the tutelage of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. At the same time, she also learned Hindustani music under the famous vocalist Pandit Narayanrao Vyas.
The young prodigy gave her first public performance, at the age of eleven, in 1927, in the Rockfort Temple, Tiruchirappalli along with legendary accompanying artists Mysore Chowdiah on the violin and Dakshinamurthy Pillai on the mridangam. At the young age of 13, in 1929, she also gave her first performance at the prestigious Madras Music Academy, Chennai. This was a breakthrough performance that won her many accolades and praises.
Subbulakshmi’s music was known to be steeped in Bhakthi and devotion. While she sang the Meera Bhajans, it was as though she was Meera calling upon the spirit of her Krishna. Perhaps this devotion is what her audiences glimpsed in her iconic role of Meerabai in the movie Meera.
Subbulakshmi acted in five films in a film career that lasted a decade. The films are: Sevasadanam (1938), Sakuntalai (1940), Savithri (1941), Meera (1945 and 1947). MS Subbulakshmi and GN Balasubramanian, noted Carnatic vocalist, worked together in Sakuntalai. It was the only instance of two high-caliber musicians coming together to act in a film. The film contained a number of “tukdas” (short musical compositions, light in melody).
The immortal “Baso more nainen mein” from the movie “Meera”
At the time when the Carnatic music field was dominated by male artists, she was breaking stereotypes. She rose above all barriers and became a world-famous artist. Her concerts were always houseful and audiences would throng to concert venues just to get a glimpse of the lady in blue.
The "MS blue" silk saris, synonymous with Subbulakshmi was not ‘peacock neck’ blue but ‘middle sea’ blue, according to renowned Carnatic singer T.N. Seshagopalan. He shared that Muthu Chettiar, an independent weaver in Madurai (the birthplace of Subbulakshmi) had specially made a sari in ‘middle sea’ blue colour for the singer. It became ‘MS blue’ after she started wearing the blue colour sarees in her concerts, he said.
It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that there was no one who was not mesmerised by Subbulakshmi’s voice. Mahatma Gandhi was one of them. Knowing that she might not be able to sing a song he had requested, Gandhi is supposed to have said, “I would rather hear her recite the lines than hear anyone else sing it". Here you can judge for yourself, her rendition of the Mahatma’s favorite bhajan.
Her fan list included Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sarojini Naidu, Lata Mangeshkar, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Kishori Amonkar.
Her fans affectionately called her ‘M.S. Amma’, ‘Kunjamma’ or simply ‘M.S.’. The nightingale of Bollywood Lata Mangeshkar referred to Subbulakshmi as Tapaswini (the ascetic).
Subbulakshmi’s music crossed borders – geographical and metaphorical. The hills of Thirumala (as well as a number of households) play her Suprabhatam each morning.
In the 1960s Subbulakshmi performed across the globe, including the United Kingdom, the erstwhile USSR, the USA and France. She played a large role in spreading the concepts of Carnatic music to the Western world where only a few knew about its complexities.
In 1966 she was invited by the then UN Secretary General, U Thant, to perform at the General Assembly in New York on United Nations Day on October 23. The United Nations also issued a stamp in her honor to commemorate her birth centenary. Subbulakshmi did a seven-week concert tour at that time with her talented team of accompanists: V.V. Subramaniam (violin), T.K. Murthy (mridangam), T.H. Vinayakram (ghatam), and her daughters Radha Viswanathan (vocal) and Vijaya Rajendran (tanpura).
At the United Nations Day concert Subbulakshmi sang Maitreem Bhajata:
She was a recipient of innumerable awards and recognitions including the Padma Bhushan (1954), Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1956), Ramon Magsaysay (1974), Padma Vibhushan (1975), Indira Gandhi Award for National Integration (1990), and of course, the Bharat Ratna (1998).
Subbulakshmi lived life with a motto: earn to give. While accepting the Ramon Magsaysay award in Manila in 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.” She donated her entire prize money from the Award to several welfare schemes.
On 11th December 2004 she passed away in Chennai, aged 88. Her funeral was attended by numerous fans and national leaders, including the then President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. In 2005, a postage stamp of Subbulakshmi was released. Later, the United Nations also released commemorative stamps on her birth centenary.