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MS: A life for music

From singing in the temples to becoming one of the greatest Indian classical singers, MS's journey is a remarkable one.

art and culture Updated: Feb 18, 2004 11:19 IST
Soni Mishra (Press Trust of India)
Soni Mishra (Press Trust of India)

A Life in Music
TJS George

Harper Collins
Biography, Music
Price: Rs 495
ISBN: 81-7223-527-5

From singing in the temples of Madurai to going on to become one of the greatest Indian classical singer, M S Subbulakshmi won the hearts of people all over the world, but remained a simple, modest person unchanged by success, who was devoted to music, family and friends.

Providing an insight into the life of the legend, a new biography called Kunjamma - Ode to a Nightingale , by noted Bharatanatyam dancer Lakshmi Vishwanathan, traces the singer s journey to the heights of artistic excellence and lets us into the loving and giving nature of the doyen.

Born on September 1916, according to the Tamil astrological calendar under the star Bharani , Vishwanathan writes that the famous vocalist was in a way destined to become the `Empress of the World of Music , as according to an old Tamil adage, those born under the star rule world.

Making her stage debut in Madurai as a little girl, Subbulakshmi, whose first guru was her mother Shanmukhavadivu, herself an established veena player, went on to perform in Chennai, capturing what was till then a male bastion.

Going on to perform in several countries and giving a new definition to the term `singing star with her lead roles in several films, including the classic `Meera , Subbulakshmi has led a life devoted completely to music. "Her life has been her music, and her music her life," writes Vishwanathan, who is the daughter of a friend of the legendary carnatic singer, and whom Subbulakshmi has described as a daughter.

She immortalised many songs, including 'Nagendra Haraya,' 'Siva Panchakshara,' and innumerable songs by the poet Annamacharya, and in her career teeming with accolades was awarded the country's highest honour Bharat Ratna, in 1998.

The book, a treasure trove of photographs from various sources, including Subbulakshmi and family, gives both pictorially and verbally an account of the singer's life, her early years in Madurai where the foundation of her singing career was laid, her meeting with freedom fighter T Sadasivam, whom she went on to marry, to her many achievements in the field of music. Beginning with the author's first memories of the singer, the book is based on Vishwanathan's conversations with Subbulakshmi over the many decades that they have known each other, and thus is a rare presentation of the perspective of the renowned vocalist as she has seldom given interviews.

From her formative years, Subbulakshmi worked hard to perfect her diction, understood the inner meaning of compositions and spent months memorising Sanskrit texts, and even in her seventies, she learnt new songs and recorded them, ceasing to sing after her husband passed away as a mark of mourning. Subbulakshmi's uniqueness lay in making the audience remember only the way in which she sang these songs. "Her name continues to haunt the songs she rendered famous," notes the author.

Tutored by eminent musicians, including the revered Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, the biggest inspiration in the singer's career, writes Vishwanathan, was her husband Sadasivam, whom she first met when her fledgling career was set to take off and she was invited to perform in Mumbai. But her troupe lacked a violinist, and Sadasivam, a musician himself, volunteered.

Meticulously planning his wife's career, from organising her stage shows to making 'Meera' for her, Sadasivam took pride and immense satisfaction in Subbulakshmi's success as a singer, says the book.

It quotes the statesman Rajaji, who was like a guru and father figure to the couple, as having told Sadasivam, "The affection and involvement, as well as selfless devotion you show towards your wife overwhelms me."

Subbulakshmi, in turn, became a mother to Sadasivam's two daughters, Vijaya and Radha, the latter becoming her "sole "shishya", accompanying her on all her concerts. She never had her own children.

Noting that the vocalist reached her peak as early as at 30 years of age, Vishwanathan says that in her golden years, it was a status symbol in wealthy South Indian families to invite Subbulakshmi to sing. "While Sadasivam was very choosy and demanding, he would often redeem himself by donating the honorarium to a charitable cause." Infact, most of her concerts were for charitable causes.

Continuing to sing into her seventies, Subbulakshmi, in her own words, was a student all her life. For a vocalist, voice practice is important. It has been my habit to learn the meaning of the songs I have to sing, and the correct pronunciation of each word in them," she writes in the epilogue to the book.

She ends the epilogue by saying, "The quest for perfection is unending and I will never cease to be a shishya."

First Published: Feb 13, 2004 10:19 IST