In this biography, LAKSHMI VISHWANATHAN traces the journey of Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi from Madurai to Madras, where she came to be popularly known as the Queen of Music for decades. Exclusive extracts.
A treat for the lens... The Pondicherry-based photographer, the late Vidyavratha, captured Subbulakshmi in her prime at a session in Kalki gardens. Practice sessions at home before the U.S. tour also doubled as photo sessions with Radha and Vijaya.
Kurai ondrum illai kanna -
My Sweet Lord, I have no
TO write about a living legend has been a daunting task because nothing very new can be added to what many people have already said. With a personality like Subbulakshmi, one's objective and subjective views are the same for she defies criticism. Often, things negative are considered the more interesting aspects of a person's life. For those looking for such excitement, Subbulakshmi's life story would hardly be interesting. But for those who wish to know how the epithet `great' is earned by a remarkable woman and an outstanding artist, who rose from a modest background of hereditary musicians to touch the heights of musical glory, this biography will be an eye-opener.
People can never forget her concerts. The atmosphere would always be charged with excitement because her stage appearances were rare. When the curtains rose, a full ensemble would be in view with Subbulakshmi at the centre sitting majestically. She would habitually open with a Guru Vandana in Sanskrit in praise of Dakshinamurthy Siva as the Teacher of Truth. From that opening, she would take the listeners on a grand journey of a variety of songs by great composers in every South Indian language. In the latter half she would include lighter and familiar pieces. The finale would always be the song for world peace by Kanchi Paramacharya, where, gently keeping time with a pair of cymbals, Subbulakshmi's voice would rise to a crescendo in a fitting climax. The auditorium would empty very slowly, for her fans would linger on to catch one more glimpse of her. For hours afterwards, that crescendo would keep ringing in their ears. Like some of the greatest artists of the world, she honed her talent almost to the point of masochism to serve her work and find its meaning. To this end, through happiness and sorrow, the show never ended. She sang and searched for that elusive peace of mind in her own sadhana.
KUNJAMMA... ODE TO A NIGHTINGLE
Lighting the lamp in the pooja room of "SivamSubham", their home in Chennai
She is of course one of the most photogenic musicians of the twentieth century. Her fans have collected every scrap of paper on which her face has appeared, with an adulation one finds today only for the likes of Sachin Tendulkar.
From "Meera"... "When will I unite with you, My Lord?"... nothing could come in the way of Meera's love for Krishna, not even her regal set-up.
Writing about Subbulakshmi has been a singular experience for me in many ways. Firstly I was able to have long conversations with people who have known her for more than sixty years and who were spontaneous in sharing their thoughts, revealing Subbulakshmi the person. Secondly, there were lessons for me to learn as an artist from her dedication and discipline. Most importantly, I cherish the realisation that to have known her is one of the greatest blessings of life. Last, but not least, I deem it an honour and a rare privilege to write about her.
She is very frail and almost reclusive. A few months ago (December 2002) on the occasion of the Platinum Jubilee of the Music Academy, she was unable to take her place on stage along with the other greats of music, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Pandit Ravi Shankar and D.K. Pattammal, all of whom were to be honoured by the President of India, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. In a moving and spontaneous gesture, the President who has known her personally for a long time, made an impromptu visit to her house to greet her and present her with the medal.
A little forgetful and repetitive, she is, however, her usual charming self, speaking of people, recalling pleasant memories and displaying her inimitable wit and warmth. Athma who has been Sadasivam's assistant for fifty years looks after her like a loving guardian angel. Visalam, who came to work for her at almost the same time, fusses over her with patience. A long-time diabetic, Subbulakshmi tastes a spoonful of badam halwa on her eighty-seventh birthday, smiles and says, `It is my favourite sweet'.
And as I am about to leave, she says with a distant look, `There seems to be music everywhere. I am constantly hearing it ...'
Kunjamma ... Ode To a Nightingale,
Lakshmi Vishwanathan, Lustre Press, Roli Books, 2003, p.128.
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