Indian Classical Music


Musician M. S. Subbulakshmi

Born on September 16, 1916 in Madurai, Kunjamma, as M. S. Subbulakshmi was known as a child, grew up in an atmosphere of music.

Without any formal lessons in music, the little girl sitting in her modest house in a lane near the famed Meenakshi temple, used to hum along with the notes of the nadaswaram which filled the air during festivals and the strains of veena played by her mother.

Soon, she graduated from providing vocal support to her mother to solo performances. Endowed with good looks, she took to the silver screen in the backdrop of the freedom struggle and the social reform movement. Her first role in Seva Sadanam (1938), focussed on women's liberation.

After her marriage with Thyagarajan Sadasivam, a freedom fighter who took to film making, a couple of films followed. The film `Meera', was a runaway success and MS became a household name across the country.

Ms. Subbulakshmi also got the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1974, Spirit of Freedom Award in 1988 and the Indira Gandhi Award for National Integration in 1990. Recently she was conferred with the Bharat Ratna, India's highest award. Her other major honours include the Padma Vibhushan, the Kalidas Samman, the Desikotthama, and the Sangeeta Kalanidhi.

India has a flourishing tradition of classical music enriched by great artists in every generation. What sets MS apart is perhaps the complete self forgetfulness she achieves for herself and her listeners from the first note - the shadja - with which she aligns herself to the tambura strings; to the last gandhara in the upper register, as she concludes with a prayer for the welfare of humanity.

From a trilling nightingale to a soaring seeker of the supreme sound, the Nadabrahman, MS' journey was long but seemingly effortless, almost pre-ordained. Husband Sadasivam played a major role in the evolution of the eclecticism of her music, her keen understanding of the languages in which she sang, her painstaking labours to master the enunciation of their lyrics. These songs in numerous Indian languages from her vast repertoire which made up her concerts, were meant to knit India together. But in reality the words were quite immaterial. She only had to open her mouth and sing a single note in perfect unison with the sruti, to cast a resonant spell on her audiences, regardless of region or nationality. That is why she won Western audiences, the first Carnatic musician to do so, at the Edinburgh Festival (1963), at the United Nations (1966), at the Carnegie Hall in New York and at the Festivals of India in Great Britain and the erstwhile Soviet Union.

MS is also remembered for her roles in films ``Sevasadan'', ``Savitri'', ``Sakuntalai'' where her songs and duets with G.N. Balasubramanian were instant hits, and ``Meera'' whose Hindi version made her a national celebrity overnight. Fifty years after the film was released, Meera bhajans continue to be a moving part of the MS concert. They underscore the fact that the 20th Century vocalist follows the path of the saint-poet- composers of the bhakti tradition.

MS is likely to tell you that the most memorable moments in her career were when she sang kritis on the Devi as the Paramacharya performed elaborate pujas during the seven days of Navaratri. Or when Mahatma Gandhi asked her to sing the Ramdhun during evening prayers at Sabarmati.

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