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MS Subbulakshmi – Gently breaking gender barriers

The Carnatic music legend, who would have been 101 last weekend, also acted in films for a while after running away from home to escape a match that she did not approve of.

Manigandan KR

It has been over 13 years since Madhurapuri Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi — better known as MS Subbulakshmi or, to lovers of her art, as simply MS — passed away aged 88. But even today, most South Indian Hindu households wake up to her voice rendering 'Suprabhatham' (or hymns to awaken the lord), and will continue to do so for decades to come.

This itself is testimony to the profound impact this brilliant and beautiful singer's musical work has had on society in general and music aficionados in particular. The love and honour the public bestowed on her surpasses even awards like the Bharat Ratna, the Ramon Magsaysay award, Padma Vibhushan, Padma Bhushan, Sangeetha Kalanidhi and Sangeetha Kalasikhamani, all of which were bestowed on her in the course of her illustrious career.

Soft-spoken and a picture of poise and grace always, MS Subbulakshmi, who was born on 16 September 1916, will be remembered not just for her shruthi suddham (tonal clarity, or the ability to sing with the utmost clarity any shruthi, or note, that she chose to render), and her elegantly draped silk sarees, but also for the gentle yet majestic manner in which she, in her own inimitable way, brought down a male bastion.

For those who do not know, classical music, or Carnatic music to be precise, was largely a male preserve for a long time. Women were not allowed to sing in the courts of kings of yore nor in music sabhas. In fact, at some of the sabhas, women weren't even allowed in as listeners.

Old timers say it used to be so bad that legendary vocalist Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer's mother, herself a trained and brilliant singer, would sing only in her room, that too in whispers. The same was the case with vocalist DK Pattammal's mother, who was not allowed to sing at a wedding in her own house.

But Subbulakshmi created a revolution of sorts, thanks to her brilliant rendition of songs, her thorough understanding of music through long hours of practice, and her comprehensive knowledge of musical instruments.

Eminent writer and journalist TJS George, in his book on Subbulakshmi titled A Life in Music, says she took a liking for the tambura (or tanpura) at a very young age. It is said that the young MS, who was the second of three siblings — she had an older brother and a younger sister — would spend hours at practice, perfecting her rendition using the tambura. She would pluck a string and then try to sing the swar (or note) until it blended with the shruthi of the instrument. Hours of doing this is what is believed to have given her the rare ability to clearly sing any note.

Subbulakshmi’s mother, Shanmukhavadivu, a veena player herself, was a keen observer and is believed to have spotted the special gift her elder daughter possessed. So, she would take her to concerts at which she was performing and encourage her to observe. Eventually, Subbulakshmi was asked to sing at an event that had been organized by a cycle shop, according to George's book. Incidentally, that shop has grown to become what we now know as the TVS Group.

MS was all of nine years old then. Legend says she performed with such brilliance that a listener offered to release a gramophone record. The offer was taken up and that was how Subbulakshmi broke into serious music at the age of 10. She is believed to have begun giving serious concerts from the age of 13. In fact, she was invited by the Madras Music Academy when she was just 13 to be their keynote performer — something that had never happened till then. From there till the point she stopped singing (she stopped giving public performances after the death of her husband Kalki Sadasivam in 1997), MS achieved many milestones, silently shattering barriers.

Three other little known qualities of MS that served her well were her courage, determination, and ability to get her priorities in order. When it came to choosing between her mother, who at one point insisted on MS marrying a suitor Shanmukhavadivu had picked, and Sadasivam, whom she would later marry, MS showed not just great courage but clarity of thought.

MS left home and went to Madras, eventually landing up at Sadasivam's doorstep for help. Sadasivam responded and began actively scouting for opportunities to promote her as an artiste. It was around the time that director K Subramanyam had approached him to buy the film rights of a novel called Sevasadanam. Sadasivam, who sold the rights to Subramanyam, suggested to the director that he consider casting MS as the heroine of the film. That was how Subbulakshmi's tryst with films began.

MS was associated with cinema for almost a decade. During this period, she acted in five films, including the Hindi film Meera (1947) in which she played the role of the legendary saint Mirabai and which became a big hit across the country. While her first film was Seva Sadan (1938), her next was Shakuntalai (1940). The third was called Savithri (1941) and the fourth was the Tamil version of Meera (1945), which was also a hit. The fifth and final film she did was the Hindi remake of Meera. Interestingly, both versions of Meera were directed by the American filmmaker Ellis R Duncan, who was active in India, mostly Tamil cinema, from 1936 through 1950.

Many of the numbers that MS sang, including the eternal 'Bhaja Govindam', 'Vishnu Sahasranamam' and 'Hari Tuma Haro', are considered classics. Many after her who have attempted to sing as proficiently and mellifluously, but none has managed to equal, let alone surpass, her abilities as a singer and conquer as wholeheartedly the hearts of Carnatic music lovers.