A tribute on her birth centenary (16 September 1916 – 11 December 2004)
(About three months ago, there was a burst of discussion on SoY on MS Subbulaxmi, initiated by a new member RSR (RS Ramaswamy) to which many others joined. Shalan Lal posed a question why MS had not been covered yet on SoY. Around this time, I had come across an article on her in the Hindustan Times on the occasion of her birth centenary. N Venkataraman informed that he had collected some materials on her. While her birth centenary was passing by, he said he would be able to put out an article within the calendar year, which could be published on her death anniversary December 11. Thus, we have this wonderful article on her as a tribute to her in her centenary year.
The first person from the field of music to be conferred the highest civilian honour of Bharat Ratna, MS’s fame rests mainly as a doyenne of Carnatic classical music, but she has acquired an indelible image as Meera-incarnate among the people at large, not only for her role in the bilingual film Meera (Tamil/Hindi), but also for her Lord Venkatesh Suprabhatam, and the devotional songs and bhajans like Bhaja Govindam, Vishnu Sahasranamam etc. Her journey from Kunjamma to Meera is a saga of toil and struggle for perfection and rebellion against social prejudices. I am delighted that SoY is able to pay a worthy tribute to a great soul of India with thanks to Venkaramanji for this erudite article. – AK)
The life of M S Subbulakshmi is an extraordinary story with all the elements of a fairy tale; a journey of a small-town singer who reached the pinnacle of glory.It was an extraordinary transition from what was good to what was moulded to be great to what became grand. Guy De Maupassant once wrote “Our memory is a more perfect world than the universe; it gives back life to those who no longer exist”. In keeping with the saying, this post is my humble effort to recount her life and her art, and thus pay my tributes to the celebrated musician Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi, on her birth centenary year.
M S Subbulakshmi or MS as she was popularly known as or Kunjamma as she was called in her childhood, was born to Shanmukhavadivu on 16th September 1916 in the ancient city of Madurai. Her roots can be traced to the Devadasi community (an ancient tradition) who dedicated themselves to the service of the temple gods. The Anti-Nautch Movement, which coincided with the Purity Movement in England in the last decade of the 19th century, brought in a vast change. Ritual dancing almost came to an end by this time. But the all-round training they had received in music stood in good stead at their hour of need.
Since MS was born in a class of temple singers, it was natural for her to identify with her matrilineal lineage. MS’s mother Shanamukhavadivu was an eminent veena artist and MS’s maternal grandmother, Akkammal was a violinist. Although Madurai Pushpavanam Iyer (a distinguished Carnatic musician) was referred to as MS’s father, as per T J S George the biographer of M S Subbulakshmi, ‘MS herself had gone on record saying that Subramania Iyer was her father. There the matter should rest’. She lost her father at the age of ten. MS’s sister Vadivambal was a promising veena player but her life and career were cut short untimely. Her brother Saktivel was a mridangam artist and had accompanied MS in the early years of her career. MS received her initial training in music from her mother and later she was trained by Srinivasa Iyengar, who passed away soon. Later in life, even after becoming the doyenne of Carnatic music, she had no hesitation in learning to sing kritis (Carnatic classical songs) from her contemporaries like Thanjavur Brinda, Musiri Subramania Iyer and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. Among others who helped her to build up her vast repertoire were Dilip Kumar Roy, Pt. Narayan Rao Vyas and Vidushi Siddheswari Devi. She gave her first performance in Madurai at the age of ten and cut her first disc at Bangalore at the age of thirteen.
After the demise of MS’s father, Shanmukhavadivu along with MS shifted to Madras. MS was 12 years old then. Madras was the new cultural and music capital, replacing the ancient city of Thanjavur. Mylapore was the home of the Brahmin male vidwans, who dominated the classical music scene, and George Town became the home of the women musicians from the Devadasi community. Her natural talent and beauty made her vulnerable in a ruthless male world. At this stage she needed the benefaction of the Sabhas, the new platform providing patronage to art and culture. In 1932, her performance at the Kumbakonam Mahamaham festival attracted appreciation from various artists and paved the way for her first major concert in Madras. In 1935, MS was at the prestigious Music Academy’s annual season and that year she was one of the few singers who came in for praise from the press and the public. And, later on in the year 1968, when she was honoured with the title of Sangeetha Kalanidhi, the first woman to be conferred with this title by the Music Academy, she acknowledged that in conferring this honour on her the academy has sought to honour the womanhood of this country. With her immense talent and golden voice, aided in no small measure by the managerial abilities of T Sadasivam, MS’s popularity graph soared from 1937 onwards. Within ten years of her arrival in Madras she became the reigning queen of melody appreciated by the connoisseurs and the commoners alike.
The year 1936 can be considered as the turning point of her life. She met T Sadasivam, 14 years elder to MS. He was a freedom fighter, working for the popular Tamil magazine Ananda Vikatan. T Sadasivam was taking enormous interest in her career and this led to her first film opportunity. Seva Sadanam was published as a weekly serial in Ananda Vikatan, translated from the novel, Bazar-e-Husn, written by Munshi Premchand. K Subramaniyam, well-known producer-director of south Indian movies then, wanted the rights of the story. Sadasivam struck a deal that MS should act in the movie. Shanmukhavadivu didn’t agree to this and MS took the courageous decision to leave her home and landed in Sadasivam’s residence in Triplicane, much to the chagrin of Sadasivam’s mother and wife. This landmark film was close to MS’s heart. The story dealt with marital issues, domestic abuse, prostitution and women’s liberation. One of the early Tamil films set in a contemporary social settingand to advocate reformist social policies, the film and her songs became immensely popular. The success of the film further heightened MS’s popularity.
Thus we come to the first songof this post from her first film Seva Sadanam (1938). MS had trained under the guidance of Pt. Narayan Rao Vyas for a brief period. The song was adapted from a Bhajan sung by Pt. Narayan Rao Vyas. I could not find any video link to this song. Here is an audio link to the song from Seva Sadanam. To listen to the song please click against song number 7.
Shyamsundara Kamalvadana, film Seva Sadanam (1938), lyrics and music Papanasam Sivan
The bhajan rendered by Pt. Narayan Rao Vyas
Buoyed by the success of Seva Sadanam, Sadasivam decided to turn to production and launched Sakuntalai with MS in the title role. Their association with the American director Ellis R Dungan began with this film. And then there was GN Balasubramaniam, or GNB, as he came to be called – a dashing and handsome musician, six years older than MS. She was mesmerized by GNB’s unrivalled singing style. By the time they started working together for Sakuntalai, MS’s reverence for GNB had blossomed into a full-fledged affair of the heart. The feeling was mutual, as evident from the fact that he kept all her love letters (written between 1939 and 1940) safe, until the end of his life. But things took a different turn. Sadasivam rushed through his marriage (10th July 1940) with MS, soon after his first wife’s tragic death. Thus her romantic affair with GNB came to a rather abrupt end. The film Sakuntalai was released in 1940 and had 24 songs mostly sung by MS, including two duets with GNB, and all of them were hits.
My next song is from her second film Sakuntalai (1940). Here MS by way of her beautiful rendition does full justice to the wonderful lyrics and music. The first line of the song goes like this “I surrender to the all-encompassing Nadabrahmam”, the primordial sound.
Engum nirai Nadabrahmam, film Sakuntalai (1940), lyrics Papanasam Sivan, music Thuraiyur Rajagopala Sharma
The tune of the above song was adapted and used in the Hindi version of the film Meera (1947).Thus we enter into the sphere of Meera. Unable to accept Meera’s single-minded devotion to Lord Krishna, a distressed Rana, orders the demolition of the temple at Chittorgarh by use of cannon and sends his brother Vikram to execute the job. Meanwhile, Rana comes to know from his sister the failed attempt earlier by Vikram to poison Meera and the truth dawns on him. He rushes to the temple to stop the demolition and in the process gets injured. Meera declares to Rana that she has failed as a wife and queen and she expresses her desire to leave for Dwaraka in response to the call from Lord Krishna. Here MS playing the role of Meera renders the song Mere to Giridhar Gopal doosaro na koi.
In the meantime MS acted in the role of Narada, in Savitri (1941). A mythological, Savitri, attracted considerable attention. Savitri had many songs, mostly sung by MS and some by Shantha Apte, who played the title role. Then Meera came. The film was produced by T Sadasivam under the banner Chandraprabha Cinetone. ‘Kalki’ Krishnamoorthy and T Sadsasivam wrote the script. In the Hindi version Amrit Lal Nagar was part of the team. Ellis R Dungan was the director for both the versions. Dilip Kumar Roy played a vital role in the selection and composition of the songs for the Hindi version. Naresh Bhattacharya, G Ramanthan and Thuraiyur Rajagopala Sharma were part of the music team. And Paapanasam Sivan and Pt. Narendra Sharma were part of the lyrics section. The Tamil film was released on the Deepavali day, in the year 1945, followed by its Hindi version two years later on 5th December 1947 at the Plaza Theatre, New Delhi. This was her only Hindi Film and her last film too. The film Meera and its songs propelled her to national fame. I would like to present some of the songs out of the 15 exceptional solos she rendered for the film Meera. People may have complained about MS’s accented Hindi, but they adored her music, its mellifluousness and its sanctity.
Even after her marriage to Rana of Mewar, against her wishes, Meera’s love for Lord Krishna remains unaltered. Soon after her marriage, Meera, while wandering around the royal gardens, entranced by the drifting sweet melody of the flute, renders this beautiful song. A perennially popular song, Kaatriniley Varum Geetham, is said to be adopted from a Bengali song sung by Juthika Roy. Here is the immortal number from the Tamil Version.
MS stands unparalleled in her bhakti and devotion. Maybe it was the presence of the implied shringara rasa transformed into bhakti in her music. Let us listen to the equally enchanting Hindi melody, Hari aawan ki awaaz, aaj suni mein.
Responding to the request from Meera and out of his love for his wife, Rana constructs a temple for Krishna at Chittorgarh, capital of Mewar. Much to the disappointment of Rana, Meera spends most of the time in the temple, singing in praise of Lord Krishna along with the other devotees. Kannan leelaigal chaivane is one such song rendered by MS (with chorus) in the Tamil version. In this song we can find the touch of Dilip Kumar Roy.
Let us listen to the Hindi version of the song Mane chaakar raakhoji.
Meera is criticized by the royal family for her unworldly ways. To get rid of her, Vikram gives poisoned drink to Meera through his sister, but Meera is saved by the grace of Lord Krishna. Krishna’s idol at Dwaraka turns blue due to the effect of the poison. The temple door closes spontaneously and remains shut till Meera reaches Dwaraka (at the end of the film). Meera expresses her gratitude to Giridhari for saving her life by rendering this song Aaravene…. Giridhari unadhu arule.
Now I present the Hindi song, Pag ghunghroo re set to the situation mentioned above. During the filming of Meera, the Maharana of Udaipur said to MS and her husband “In the olden days I would have exchanged my whole kingdom for her singing. Now I shall give you whatever help you need by way of horses and elephants for the shooting.” This incident speaks volumes about the beauty and grace of her music which over a period of time matured into greatness. Let us listen to the song. I am presenting an audio of this song recorded much later, since the video of the film, available in YT, ends abruptly.
Legend has it that the Mughal Emperor Akbar, on hearing about Meera’s singing and devotion to Lord Krishna, accompanied by Man singh, travelled all the way from Delhi to Chittogarh in disguise to see and listen to Meera, with an offering of a pearl necklace as gift. The song Unnaiye enathu uyir thunai enru is set to this situation. Another superb song. The polarities of seeking and finding, loss and conquest, desire and fulfillment are realised in her rendition and the lyrics. The song comes after a viruttam/ aalap Characharam unnaiyavum thedume.
In the Hindi version, the song Main Hari charanan ki daasi is set to the same situation. Please listen to this captivating song.
After the cannon incident (mentioned earlier), Meera leaves Chittor in quest of her beloved Lord Krishna. On reaching Brindavan, on her way to Dwaraka, she breaks into another enthralling song, laden with spiritual ecstasy. The Tamil song Brindavanathil Kannan valarndha.
Followed by the Hindi version Yaad aavey, Brindavan ki mangal leela set to the same situation and tune.
The next pair of melodious songs is set to the situation where Meera leaves Brindavan for Dwaraka to attain her ultimate goal. The Tamil song Enggum niranithaye followed by the Hindi song Kunjan ban chhaadi he Madho kahaan jaaun.
In the decade 1935-44, we find MS in a different mode, a defiant and daring woman who could walk out of her maternal home for a career in films, a woman afflicted by love, who loved all good things in life. MS was a sensitive person and she was saddened by the gossips/ scandals doing round in the local magazines/Journals. All this started changing in 1944 and ended in 1947. With Meera came the transformation of MS. MS’s aesthetic changeover was clearly visible,the transcendence and actualizing Meera in herself. She deeply immersed herself in the role of Meera and that association would never leave her. Meera was a national success, launching a small-town south Indian singer into the national headlines. Sadasivam ensured that MS never acted again, thus etching the image of Meera, an image of divinity and dignity, forever on the frame of MS. Thus the makeover from Kunjamma to Meera was complete.
And the journey after………
MS was primarily a Carnatic classical singer who also acted in a few films. I would not discuss her Carnatic classical songs here, nor would I present any of her renditions form this genre. If any of the readers feel like, we can bring in this genre for discussion in the comments section. The image of Meera would never leave her, and there was never a concert which did not have Meera bhajans. MS also rendered and recorded a wider repertoire of Bhakti Sangeet, including the works of Tulsidas, Kabir, Nanak, Surdas, Tukaram, Narsi Mehta and other composers. She also learned Rabindra Sangeet. Thus she acquired many identities in her music. I would post a few of her non film bhajans.
A Tulsidas Bhajan, Shri Ramachandra kripalu bhaja mana, preceded by a Shloka / Stotram.
In MS’s singing there is a partnership between the singer and the sung which arises from the depth of her being. A false note from MS was unimaginable. There could not be any slip, her concerts had to be as impeccable as her personality. In my next offering a Surdas bhajan, Ankhiyan Hari darsan ki pyasi, at the end of the clipping /rendition you can notice MS (4:25), giving a rebuking look, when Radha Vishwanathan slips / falters and goes off key.
MS’s association with Dilip Kumar Roy is well known and needs no further elaboration. Indira Devi, a trained and accomplished dancer, who later left everything to become a Yogi and a disciple of Dilip Kumar Roy, had penned few devotional numbers. My next presentation, Ghunghroo baandh pag ayi Meera, a Bhajan penned by Indira Devi and set to music by Dilip Kumar Roy.
During the course of filming of Meera, MS came into the national limelight, attracting the attention of Mahatama Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sarojini Naidu and others. She was handpicked by Gandhi to sing two of his favourite Bhajans, Hari Tum Haro jan ki Bhirh and Vaishnava jana to. My last offering would be the Bhajan, Vaishnava jana to penned by Narsi Mehta.
MS received many an accolades including the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1974 and Bharat Ratna in 1998. After the death of her husband T Sadasivam in November 1997, she stopped all her public performances. MS left for her heavenly abode on 11th December 2004. Thus an era ended.
Borrowing from T M Krishna, an eminent Carnatic musician of this era and a Ramon Magsaysay Awardee this year, I quote:
“Every time she sang, she allowed every moment of her life experience to imbue the melody, letting go of all her inhibitions, abstracting herself into the raga. Once in a great while, we experience an unadulterated sense of what is real, so tender and vulnerable that our fences break down when it touches us, and we see ourselves like never before. MS, more than any other musician, can gift us these moments of self-realisation.”
Thus I bring to close my post on M S Subbulakshmi.
I have hinged heavily on a few books, articles and writings from various magazines and internet for doing this post. I have simply gathered materials/ information collected from various sources and collated/ arranged them in a best possible way known to me and the real credit goes to the authors of these books and articles. I owe responsibility for any mistakes or wrong information
Acknowledgements & References:
1. Menon, Indira. The Madras Quartet: Women in Karantak Music. Indira Menon. Roli Books
2. George, TGS. MS, A life in Music. Harper Collins Publishers India
3. Articles/writings of Gowri Ramanarayanan, grandniece of M S Subbulakshmi and author of the book MS and Radha: Saga of Steadfast Devotion, New Horizon Media, Chennai, published under the auspices of the Suswaralakshmi Foundation for Classical Music and Performing Arts
4. Krishna, TM. MS understood. The Caravan
5. Dhananjayan, G. Pride of Tamil Cinema: 1931 to 2013. Chennai:Blue Ocean Publishers
6. Talks by V Sriram on MS, (author of Carnatic Summer: Lives of twenty Great Exponents) published in Rasika.org
7. Ramakrsihan, Nivedita. MS Subbulakshmi’s Hindi Meera. Cinemacorridor.blogspot.in
8. Saregama Tamil, Alkananda 2007, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting and other uploader(s) of the songs
Let me convey my wholehearted thanks to all of them. My apologies to the authors and writers of those books and articles, whom I might have inadvertently missed out or failed to remember.