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The Voice

What can the new book on Bharat Ratna M.S. Subbulakshmi (1916-2004) released by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Thursday tell us that we don’t already know?

books Updated: Dec 13, 2008 22:56 IST
Renuka Narayan

The Voice
MS & Radha: Saga of Steadfast Devotion
Gowri Ramnarayan
wordcraft Rs 708
pp 217

What can the new book on Bharat Ratna M.S. Subbulakshmi (1916-2004) released by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Thursday tell us that we don’t already know? From the Himalayas to the Coromandel, you rarely go a-templing without hearing her holy chants. If it’s her Shiva stuti they’re playing as official temple music up in Kedarnath, it’s her Annapurna Ashtakam at Kashi Visalakshi, her Venkatesa Suprabhatam at Tirupati Balaji and her Kamakshi Suprabhatam at Kanchipuram. These are just random examples.

So she was the first classical musician to sing everybody’s songs: in Punjabi, Marathi, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi and more.

So she brought the Bhakti tradition of the North to the South (Meera, Kabir, Surdas, Nanak, Narsi Mehta). So she was a singing star in the English/Hindi movie Meera with Sarojini Naidu introducing her as the real ‘Nightingale of India’.

So what about being the first Indian to perform (to wild applause) at Carnegie Hall? The only Indian to sing at the UN General Assembly, the first to sing ‘classical’ in the US and in Europe? What about Bapu saying he would rather hear Meera spoken by MS than sung by anyone else? The second after AIR announced his assassination, they broadcast MS’s voice singing a Meera bhajan dear to him, Hari tum haro. MS heard it too in Madras and fainted.

The Nehru-Gandhi family adored MS and frequently had her stay over at Teen Murti House. The Paramacharya of Kanchi, considered by very many as the 20th century India’s holiest man, had the highest regard for her and even composed a Sanskrit hymn, Maitreem bhajata akhila hridaytrim, for her to sing at the UN that became her signature song. Its words ring with terrible meaning now: ‘Seek friendship to conquer all hearts/Look upon others as yourself/Renounce war, forswear rivalry/Give up wrongful aggression on others/Mother Earth is ready to grant us all our desires/The Lord, our Father, is merciful to all/People of the world! Be restrained, generous and compassionate/May everyone be happy and prosperous.’

Then, there are the crores, yes, crores, that MS gave away in charity concerts because her ardent nationalist husband, T. Sadasivam, thought she should (The couple lost their beautiful house and garden in Madras in their old age and died in drastically reduced circumstances, refusing help with staunch dignity). There’s the love and awe she won from her peers, Pt Ravi Shankar et al. Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan called her ‘Suswaralakshmi’ (embodiment of pure music).