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M.S. Subbulakshmi: From Madurai to Merta

Keshav Desiraju's biography is a deeply researched account of the legendary Carnatic vocalist's life and times

M.S. Subbulakshmi, in the centre, accompanied by an ensemble of musicians, all of whom performed with her at the UN general assembly on 23 October 1966 (Photo: Courtesy Matrka/ T.M. Krishna)
M.S. Subbulakshmi, in the centre, accompanied by an ensemble of musicians, all of whom performed with her at the UN general assembly on 23 October 1966 (Photo: Courtesy Matrka/ T.M. Krishna)

To the pre-millennial generation, MS, as M.S. Subbulakshmi was known, was the voice that was heard at daybreak, when her rendition of Venkatesa Suprabhatam was played at temples across south India to wake up the multitude of gods and goddesses. In north India, MS embodied Meera, the 16th century poet saint from Merta and one of the leading voices of the Bhakti movement. Subbulakshmi’s was a voice that truly belonged to the entire nation despite the geographical, linguistic and musical boundaries.

To tell the life story (1916-2004) of the Carnatic music legend, author Keshav Desiraju begins with the history of the musical tradition in his book, Of Gifted Voice—The Life And Art of M.S. Subbulakshmi. Desiraju, a retired IAS officer and former secretary in the Union ministry of health and family welfare, has approached the biography with the rigour of a scientific researcher, with a list of citations that runs into 200 pages. These include references to biographies written by Gowri Ramnarayan and T.J.S. George, magazines such as Sruti, radio programmes, souvenirs published by the Madras Music Academy and articles published in various publications, most notably in The Hindu and Kalki. The origin of Carnatic music is not the only frame of reference that Desiraju offers. The first three chapters depict the politics of gender and caste that female performing artists navigated in the early 1900s to find their place on stage.

In stark contrast to MS, who divorced herself from her devadasi roots in Madurai to embrace the upper-caste Brahmin traditions of her husband, T. Sadasivam, Bharatanatyam danseuse T. Balasaraswati, a contemporary and close associate, sought to revive the devadasi tradition of the temple dance form through her practice.

Subbulakshmi’s life captured the imagination of a range of artists, from writers to weavers, across the nation. A line of saris dyed in MS Blue, the colour named after the vocalist, was rolled out in the 1960s. Desiraju points out that novelist R.K. Narayan alluded to her life in his short story Selvi. He writes: “In Narayan’s story, Selvi finally breaks away from her overbearing husband and returns to her lower-class roots and the home where her neglected mother has died. No such option was available to Subbulakshmi in real life, and we do not also know if this is something she would have wished for.”

How MS became an integral voice of the independence movement has been chronicled by many, and most recently by historian Lakshmi Subramanian in her book Singing Gandhi’s India. Gandhi believed accessibility was the most integral quality in a piece of music and felt the masses were not drawn to classical music in the same way that they responded to lok sangeet. This is also why Gandhi seldom invited classical musicians to render bhajans that comprised the Ashram Bhajanavali, a collection of 253 devotional shlokas that were performed every day at the Sabarmati ashram. He made an exception for Narayan Khare, a disciple of Hindustani classical vocalist and guru Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, who sang the original rendition of Raghupati Raghava Rajaram. Khare was also invited to become part of the ashram. The other exception was MS, whose renditions of Raghupati Raghava Rajaram and Vaishnava Janato, performed on several occasions at Gandhi’s request, made her voice an intrinsic part of Gandhi’s secular music movement to bring the nation together. This receives due credit in Desiraju’s book.

The book also sheds light on another uprising that divided the world of Carnatic music: the Tamil Isai movement, which implored Carnatic vocalists to promote musical pieces written in Tamil instead of focusing on the Telugu musical repertoire of the trinity—Tyagaraja, Syama Sastry and Muthusvami Dikshitar. The movement became an assertion of language, caste identity and music for all non-Brahmin musicians. Though MS had completely embraced the upper- caste traditions of her husband, this was a battle she was willing to fight for her mother tongue. MS was rooting for Tamil, her mother tongue as it were, and not for the cause of lower-caste musicians. Besides winning the support of MS, Tamil Isai was backed by C. Rajagopalachari, freedom fighter and leader of the Indian National Congress, and influential journalist Kalki Krishnamurthi. The movement ultimately lost momentum in the absence of superior compositions that could build a repository that would be on a par with the Telugu compositions created by the trinity.

Though it seems that the politics that plagued the Carnatic music sabhas (performance spaces) in Chennai is restricted to a single chapter, it’s hard to miss the way Desiraju skillfully draws attention to caste and gender biases through various chapters. It is easy to understand why—they have been long dismissed and stifled. In the first chapter, for instance, Desiraju explains how musicians were categorised into periya melam and chinna melam i.e., greater and lesser musical traditions that were based on caste and gender hierarchies. The thread continues to the last chapter where the author talks about how Kanan Bala and Begum Akhtar, two musical luminaries, who were born in a generation that succeeded MS’s and performed two generations later, when the caste and gender biases remained unchanged. Kanan Bala was socially accepted only after she transformed into Kanan Devi after marrying into an orthodox Brahmo Samaj family and Akhtar may have discarded her tawa’if mother’s past, but was never allowed to forget it.

While biographers such as danseuse Lakshmi Vishwanathan bring a sense of the personal into their account of MS’ life and work, Desiraju’s narrative draws from all published work, including other biographies. The transition from a bankable film star, whose musical prowess led to the success of films such as Savithri (1941), Sakuntalai (1941) and Meera (1945), to the toast of the Carnatic concert stage to humanitarian to a national icon has been meticulously recorded by Desiraju. And yet, Of Gifted Voice is remarkably devoid of over-familiarity that often borders on hagiography, though Desiraju admits to having briefly met MS over many years.

MS has over three biographies, a harikatha and a comic book to her name, but Of Gifted Voice is not just a biography of one of the most-loved voices of the last century, but also a commentary on the country’s sociopolitical order through her lifetime.

Of Gifted Voice—The Life And Art of M.S. Subbulakshmi, by Keshav Desiraju, HarperCollins, 599.

Lalitha Suhasini teaches journalism at FLAME University, Pune.

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