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MS: Full of life

It would be inappropriate if a book on MS Subbulakshmi was not as full of life as the great singer herself.

art and culture Updated: Feb 27, 2004 12:42 IST

A Life in Music

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

MS Subbulakshmi
Lakshmi Vishwanathan
Music, Biography
Pages: 127
Price: Rs 495
ISBN: 81-7436-273-0

It would be inappropriate if a book on M.S. Subbulakshmi was not as full of life as the great singer herself. MS: A Life In Music attempts to do just that, as it records stories related to her marriage, her relationships, her music and films. She was in the end, though, only suswaralakshmi. Jawaharlal Nehru would call her the ‘queen of music’.

George has written an evidently sympathetic biography but has thankfully not left out the juicier parts of her life. Subbulakshmi’s skills were honed by her mother Shanmugavadivu, who visualized a great future for her prodigiously talented daughter. But the future was also about financial and social security and she hoped to get a rich husband for her Kunjamma.

Enter Tyagaraja Sadasivam, a man 14 years older, who she met during an interview in Madras. But he was already married, with children. Her mother’s instinct was that he was no good and she immediately took the young ‘MS’ back to Madurai. George records how she quickly arranged for an alliance with a rich Chettiar. ‘MS” — and it is hard to imagine — did not agree and fled home one night, reaching Madras where she eventually met and stayed with Sadasivam.

Shanmugavadivu was right. Sadasivam was not good for her family. This was a time when Sadasivam had introduced her to films, to make her financially independent. A battle ensued between Sadasivam and MS’s family for possession of her; he emerged victor. But the experience left him with only contempt for Shanmugavadivu. Though MS in later years paid tribute to her mother, they invariably came after Shanmugavadivu’s death. She was lonely and disconsolate and thought her daughter, to whom she gave everything, did not stand up for her.

Yet Sadasivam was overwhelmingly good for MS. Here was a woman who had virtually no schooling, was comfortable only in her mother tongue, had to overcome social barriers, and was a woman in a world of male singers. With Sadasivam’s help she overcame all that. In stages, she took the world of Carnatic music by storm, gained national recognition and finally won international fame. She raised money for the national movement and sang for Gandhiji.

George has written an evidently sympathetic biography but has thankfully not left out the juicier parts of her life.

As fame and money grew, so did their lifestyle. They bought a large place in Chennai, which had its own place in history. Sadasivam was close to C. Rajagopalachari but he also had wide connections. In fact, he always put these connections to good use and this was more than evident at the screening of Meera, starring MS, at Delhi’s Plaza cinema in November 1947. It was attended by virtually the entire political establishment, among them Louis and Edwina Mountbatten and Dr Rajendra Prasad. Nehru himself was at the entrance, ushering in the guests as if he were the host.

The book, however, records, MS’s innate simplicity. When Sadasivam’s publication Kalki ran into financial difficulties, he closed it down, sold his rambling mansion in Madras and took up a small place. MS continued singing as if nothing had changed. An offer for a government house was turned down. Yet, Sadasivam wanted a price for all that he did — her complete subjugation. She never question him.

Did she love him? She must have. But she was at one time also besotted with G.N. Balasubramaniam, the well known singer. She is said to have written several letters to him, expressing her longing for him. Yet, once married to Sadasivam she was completely loyal to him.

Vishwanathan’s biography in comparison seems pitifully short of spice. There is no mention of Balasubramaniam, the fight with Shanmugavadivu, and the way Sadasivam ruled her. Perhaps that has to do with the fact MS treats Vishwanathan as her daughter. However, it has its share of anecdotes and has some rare pictures.

First Published: Feb 26, 2004 11:46 IST