Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi – M.s. Subbulakshmi, who is known widely as M.S. is undoubtedly the greatest voice of Indian music in the last hundred years. A doyen of Carnatic music, the classical discipline of South India, she went beyond her early domain as a singer to become the only pan-Indian musician by mastering the Hindustani or North Indian System in her singing of Bhajans by the legends of India, like the saint poet Meera, Tulsidas, Kabir and others. Christened as “the nightingale” of India by Sarojini Naidu in the nineteen forties, M.S. has held her position of eminence in the world of music all her life with a career spanning over sixty five years, during which she scaled tremendous heights as an icon of music and beauty.
The Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian honour of the country was bestowed on her in 1998. Not surprisingly she was the first artiste and musician to get this prestigious award, making the world of music proud.
M.S. was born in the temple town of Madurai on September sixteenth 1916. Her mother was Veena Shanmukhavadivu, who belonged to a family of hereditary musicians. Her father was Subrahmanya Iyer, a patron of music. Shanmukhavadivu was M.S’s first Guru. As a child of eight M.S. sang at concerts along with her mother’s Veena–playing and showed immense promise. With a voice clear as crystal and an innate musical talent, the Little girl “Kunjamma,” soon received format training under Srinivasa Iyengar of Madurai, and started her musical career by singing at a wedding at the tender age of ten. Simultaneously she also began recording discs and impressed the followers of classical music with her amazing grasp of the nuances of the great Ragas, as well as with her unmatched voice which had a superb range. Old 78 rpm records known in those days as “plates,” which were played on gramophones, featuring “Kokilagana M.S. Subbulakshmi” sold Like hot cakes, and the young singer’s fame began to rise. M.S. ‘s talent attracted the great ‘vidvans’ of those days. Stalwarts Like Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Musiri Subrahmanya Iyer, and later Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and G.N. Balasubrahmanyam, offered to teach her the compositions of the great Carnatic composers. A Landmark event in the teenager Kunjamma’s Life happened on January 1, 1932. The prestigious Music Academy in Madras invited her to sing at its annual conference, as a substitute to Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar who happened to cancel his concert. The sixteen year old girl from Madurai, with the voice of a nightingale and the looks of an angel stormed the male bastion of Carnatic music, with her excellence in singing. She never Looked back after this auspicious start and went on to eventually be the first women to be honoured with the “Nobel prize” of Carnatic music, the Sangita Kalanidhi title, by the Music Academy on January 1, 1969.
The pioneer film director K. Subrahmanyam, discovered M.S. for the cinema world and cast her in his “Sevasadanam,” a movie based on a novel by Munshi Premchand. With her new popularity as a singing star, M.S. went on to do three more films, “Shakuntala” based on Kalidasa’s poem, “Savithri”, the mythological tale in which she played the celestial sage Narada and eventually “Meera”, which was made both in Tamil and Hindi.
It was “Meera” which made M.S. ‘s name and fame reach North India as well, making India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru too, an ardent admirer of her Music. Speaking as a chief guest at a concert by her, he is said to have quipped : “Who am I, a mere Prime Minister, before the Queen of Song…?”
M.S. developed a unique style of singing, early in her career, highlighting the Bhakti (devotional) element imbedded in Indian music. She was also a pioneer in recording purely religious verses like the Venkateswara-Balaji “Suprabatham”, the “Vishnu Sahasranamam”, and the Bhajagovindam of Adi Shankaracharya, among other hymns. Not a day goes by without her singing being heard in temples, on radio and TV, and in the households of South India. Albums of M.S.’s music were consistently best-sellers, as each season she recorded something new.
During her career, M.S. sang for innumerable charitable causes. Right from the time when Mahatma Gandhi invited her, on the suggestion of Rajaji the senior statesman, to sing for the Kasturbha Gandhi memorial fund in the early forties, M.S., guided by her husband Sadasivam, sang for charitable causes and donated generously to institutions like hospitals, schools and orphanages from her earnings.
M.S. was the first Carnatic musician to be featured abroad in prestigious events. In the sixties she participated in the Edinburgh international music festival, and later sang at the United Nations head-quarters in New York to an invited audience, followed by a tour of the USA and Europe.
For her exemplary service to music and mankind she was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay award in the Philippines in 1974. In India she had already received the Padma Bhushan and the Sangeet Natak Akademi awards in the fifties. To M.S. belongs the unique distinction of being the first artiste, that too a musician, to be honoured with the highest award of the nation-the Bharat Ratna, which she received in 1998.
For M.S. “Sadhana” in music became a lifetime mission. With unswerving dedication she put her heart and soul into every raga and every song she sang. Whether it was the Raga Sankarabharanam, one of her favourites, or any other Ghana Raga of Carnatic music, she explored every nuance, facilitated no doubt by her superb voice which could cover the full gamut of the three octaves. Besides Bhajans in Hindi, she sang in all South Indian languages, selecting a wide range of composers. Structuring her concerts to please a wide spectrum of listeners, M.S. mesmerized her audiences with her majestic stage persona, her “sruthi shuddham”, her perfect pronunciation, and her deep involvement in the emotional content of the songs.
The adulation of her fans, the awards, and the recognition from national leaders, did not dilute the innate humility and grace of M.S. Her personality has always commanded reverence, while she herself showed great respect for savants and seers like the late Kanchi Paramacharya, and Satya Sai Baba. Fans can never forget her concerts, for they were rare and grand occasions. From the opening prayer to Shiva as the enlightened Guru, to the concluding hymn for world peace- “Maithrim Bhajata”, M.S. cast her spell, taking her listeners on a path of spiritual fulfillment with her music.
Shri Ram Chandra Kripalu Bhaja Mana (Tulsi Das)
Thakur Tum Sharanahi Aayo (Guru Nanak)
Nada Bindu Kaladi Namo Namah (Arungiri Nath)
Shreeman Narayana (Annamacharya)
Hari Tum Haro Jan Ki Peer (Meera)
Bhaja Govindam (Adi Shankar)
Nam Japan Kyon Chhod Diya(Khalas)
Pyaare Darsan Deejo Aaj (Meera)
Ankhiyan Hari Darsan Ki Pyasi (Surdas)
Nagendra Haraya (Adi Shankar)
Mere To Giridhar Gopal (Meera)
Shiva Shiva Shiva (Mysore Maharaja)
Maitreem Bhajata (Chandrashekhara Saraswati)