It is a year since M.S. Subbulakshmi passed away but her legacy, of humility in success, continues to serve as an example for younger artistes.
Photo: The Hindu Photo Library
Woman out of the ordinary: M.S. Subbulakshmi with Sadasivam.
I MET M.S. Subbulakshmi for the first time in 1943, in a dingy, run down theatre called Olympia Talkies. It felt great to watch a "talking movie" in those days. And this was a "singing movie". There she was, dangling her legs from a tree branch and singing Anandam en sholvenen... with total abandon, while her screen paramour GNB hovered in the background. My infant mind was thrilled beyond words.
I saw a picture of the same dazzling girl hanging over a doorway when I went to interview MS for an article in 1993. She had travelled a long way during those 50 years. So had I, and those of my generation. From the days of sitting glued to the HMV gramophone and listening to her high-pitched voice singing Bharathiyar songs to her graduation into the rich cadences of Bhaavayaami and Shambo Mahadeva on long playing records. We drenched ourselves in Annamacharya kritis on audiocassettes; and, still later, melted with her immortal Kurai ondrum illai.
Those of us who grew up with MS witnessed her transformation from a charming debutante with a voice that knew no limits to a graceful artist who took you "one step nearer to God". We were the fortunate ones who were able to experience something "that happened once in a millennium".
When I finally saw Subbulakshmi in flesh and blood in 1993, I was struck by her awesome simplicity that left you weak kneed. Her homely offering of sukku kapi with the recipe thrown in may have come from any housewife in Chennai and not from a superstar who took the world by storm with her music. Her naοve confession of feeling nervous before a performance spoke of humility rather than lack of confidence.
A statement supported later by her accompanists who recalled her asking them minutes before a concert: "Do you think I will sing well today?" Maybe, it was this innocence of her own eminence that set Subbulakshmi apart from others. Her multiple achievements in cinema and music, her rise to fame from small town girl in Madurai to the United Nations forum, are well known. I prefer to recall more intimate moments of graciousness shared by those who knew her personally. People like Semmangudi who was not just her guru but also a bridge crony of her husband Sadasivam. The veteran musician often recalled how she would send the car punctually at 2.00 p.m. every day to pick up the foursome who played cards with her husband while she herself acted the perfect hostess.
Or, her adopted son's teenaged friend who could not forget the delectable dosas she would make for two hungry boys. Years later, she would come all the way from Madras to Bangalore just in time for his wedding to sing Sita Kalyaanam Vaibhogame while the swing swayed to her music and the entire wedding hall listened in hushed silence. "That was MS," according to Acharya, the lucky recipient of this warm gesture.
Then, there was "Papa" Venkataraman, the sound recordist for the Hindi version of Meera. He would describe her affectionate concern for the Pandyan brothers and other technicians at Sree Sounds Studio where the film was made. And, her amazing patience with Ellis Dungan who directed the film, or her childlike glee when N.S. Krishnan and T.A. Mathuram performed Villu Paatu at Kalki Gardens.
"She was such an extraordinary person that I used to wonder why someone had to cover my eyes and warn, `Don't look at her!' when this 16-year-old girl entered the Music Academy in Madras for the first time in 1932." Amazingly even her close acquaintances have always been reluctant to talk of her early years. They prefer to shroud it in secrecy although it is that same "unmentionable past" that made her a Bharat Ratna. In early 20th Century Tamil Nadu, with its conservative and often hypocritical attitudes, it was not surprising that a Brahmin family would admonish a son for walking near Hanumantharayar Koil Street in Madurai where Veena Shanmughavadivu lived. My brother-in-law Narasimhan, who spent his early years in Madurai, never forgot how his mother thrashed him for stealing past the musician's house to see her and her lovely daughter, Kunjamma, practise on the veena. Finally, it took a Gandhi and a Kanchi Periyaval to recognise Subbulakshmi as a woman out of the ordinary.
Yet, unmindful of the calumny and criticism heaped on her by an uncharitable press and a still more uncharitable society, MS bravely travelled that long and difficult road from Madurai to Rashtrapathi Bhavan. We too have come a long way from the days when even a great vidwan like Ariyakudi Ramunuja Iyengar admonished All India Radio for paying him the same performing fee as "that woman". It has taken us just half a century to realise that "that woman" was one in a million with her incredible singing talent, her scholarship in music, her purity of diction, her bhakti in life and performance.
Venkatachalam would ring me whenever MS and Sadasivam visited his family in Bangalore. On one occasion, some of their old friends like Nittoor Srinivasa Rao, Veena Doraiswamy Iyengar and others were present. It was a great photo opportunity. Seated in a corner of his living room, I was taking pictures when she walked up and said: "Why don't you also sit with us for a photo?"
She asked Athma to take my camera and moved over to make place on the sofa. That picture next to MS, which she later autographed, is a prized possession. That was when I told Sadasivam that it would give me great pleasure to write a book on her. "The pleasure may be yours, but the risk is ours," he retorted. Then, more kindly, "Write whatever you want after we are both gone!"
It may take generations before we find another Subbulakshmi. One year ago today, she vanished from our midst. But she has left a priceless legacy for younger artists. The legacy of humility in success.
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