Back of the Book
M.S. Subbulakshmi (1916-2004), who was popularly known as MS, was one of India’s greatest classical musicians, Born into a humble devadasi home, her talent and dedication to her art made her one of India’s most critically acclaimed classical singers. She was the first Indian musician to receive the Bharat Ratna, the country’s highest civilian honour, in addition to numerous other awards. Jawaharlal Nehru called her ‘a Queen of Music’ and Sarojini Naidu dubbed her ‘the Nightingale of India’. Her fellow musician were no less generous in their praise. Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan said she was Suswaralakshmi (the Goddess of the Perfect Note) while Kishori Amonkar said she was Aathuvansur or Music’s ‘Eight Note’ (there are only seven notes that are basic to all musical forms). MS’s genius had principally to do with her exquisite voice, her extraordinary range and her unequalled command of all the material she worked with, whether it was Carnatic music, Hindustani music or devotional music such as bhajans.
In this, the definitive biography of the musician (previously published as MS: A Life in Music), award-winning biographer T.J.S. George traces her journey from her beginnings as a singer in Madurai, through her breakthrough performance at the prestigious Madras Music Academy in 1932, to her carving out a place of herself as a cultural icon. Besides exploring MS’s genius, the author describes the musical and social milieu that she was part of, and the various barriers she was instrumental in breaking in the course of her journey to superstardom. He covers her stint as an actress and looks at how her career was helped by various mentors and sponsors, including C. Rajagopalachari, India’s last governor general. He pays particular attention to the role of her husband, T. Sadavisam, in the creation and burnishing of MS’s reputation. He examines the various controversies that surrounded her origins, and also underlines her essential humility and generosity. Told with a music connoisseur’s passion and understanding, M.S. Subbulakshmi: The Definitive Biography is an enthralling portrait of a musical legend.
T.J.S. George is a journalist who began his career at the Free Press Journals in 1950, and was the founding editor of Asiaweek. He established himself as a serious political author and biographer with a series of major books, including Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore, The Life and Times of Nargis and Krishna Menon
Rise of the New – Gen
There was unease in the citadel when a study of M. S. Subbulakshrni was published in 2004 by an 'outsider' who bore a name given to him by his Christian parents. That I was not brought up on Tamil soil was further ground for suspicion. Forgiveness arrived soon enough, and a measure of appreciation, but the initial reservations were a pointer to the sectarian sentiments that ruled the world of Carnatic music not so long ago. Religion and language posed no problems for M. S. Subbulakshrni but her social background made her a victim of prejudice when she broke into the musical firmament as a child prodigy in the early twentieth century. Given the pulls of tradition in India's conservative milieu, it is no surprise that the prejudices and controversies that prevailed a hundred years ago are still alive. A new generation of artistes has come up demanding democratization, in music as in political life. So have new trends in listener aptitudes and expectations. The culture of Carnatic music is beset by challenges that make the present exciting-and the future variable.
The music itself etched a narrative of unbroken glory from the sixteenth century when Purandara Dasa laid the foundations of the world's most rigorously mathematical musical structure. Two centuries later the Classical Age dawned when three geniuses, the Carnatic Trinity, were born in the same village contemporaneously. The standards set by Thiagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshitar and Shyama Shastri led to the celebratory years of Carnatic music, the Golden Age of the twentieth century. Such was the proliferation of talent during this period that it saw two different sets of Trinities among women performers alone-the courageous ladies to whom this book is dedicated and the beloved M. S. Subbulakshmi, D. K. Pattammal and M. L. Vasanthakumari. The Modern Age followed, like an extension of the Golden Age, with exquisite performers who became household names. Straddling the twentieth and twenty-first century came the New-Gen, a talented group of educated men and women doing justice to the Carnatic heritage but on their terms. They are all around us, inspiring and intimidating at once, comfortable with their ways and unafraid of being different. Sanjay Subrahmanyan, P Unnikrishnan and Abhishek Raghuram are just a few of them. If one name has to be singled out of this fraternity, it will have to be T. M. Krishna, singer, scholar, and iconoclast rolled into one. Among the issues he forced into the public domain were those that haunted M. S. Subbulakshmi when she cut her first record at age ten.
The vexatious problems then were upper-caste disapproval of lower-caste artistes and male objection to female singers. MS overcame both thanks to her superior musicality and her husband's adroit management of her Sanskritization. But the problems did not go away. T. M. Krishna was not born when M. S. Subbulakshmi's Meera was released (1945) or when the first New-Gen revolution brought on Flower Children and the Summer of Love (1967). Nearly a decade passed and Indira Gandhi was six months into her Emergency rule when he arrived. But there he was describing Carnatic music as 'a Brahmin-dominated male chauvinistic world' that needed 'social re-engineering'. Some things never change.
Krishna could not be lightly dismissed. Not only was he part of the 2.75 per cent Brahmin community in Tamil Nadu; his actions backed his words. He withdrew from the almost century-old margazhi 'season' of music in Madras to protest against discrimination in the arts. When the kutcheris were going on in the prestigious sabha halls in the city, he held a concert on the beach for the benefit of fisher folk.
Some of Krishna's arguments may indeed be overstated. Perhaps the Tamil Brahmin dominance is only at the establishment level while at the level of the art non-Tamils and non-Brahmins have soared high on merit. His opposition to the very term classical, which he decries as 'too elitist', is specious; it is a privilege of all art and all literature that there is a categorization called classical that holds up the ideals to aspire to. But he does have a case when he attacks 'the creation of socio-religious requirements for the appreciation or learning of music' and argues that Carnatic music should not be 'a quasi-religious Hindu experience'.
No quasi-religious lines are drawn in Hindustani music (because of, or in spite of, Muslim influence, depending on the angle of vision). The popularity of North Indian music has been on the rise in the south according to some aficionados. Such a trend is certainly visible in Karnataka; where Purandara Dasa once laboured on the Carnatic grammar, Bhimsen Joshi and Gangubai Hangal spread the magic of Hindustani music. If the magic continues, one reason is that the northern tradition is relatively easy to access. The southern system is so rigorous that the best leave no disciples. Veena Dhanammal, the quintessence of Carnatic purity, has no one trying to continue her bani, her style. Nor has Balasaraswathi or Bangalore Nagarathnamma. Modern masters from Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar to G. N. Balasubramanyam are best enjoyed by experienced and knowledgeable listeners whose numbers, not inexplicably, are dwindling. M. S. Subbulakshmi is the only Carnatic singer whose mass appeal has not seen any dip; it has in fact been rising if sales of her Suprabhatham are any indication.
Suprabhatham is bhakti in intent, content and delivery. Granting that the bhakti music of MS was beautiful, uplifting and unforgettable, T. M. Krishna said in his well-received book A Southern Music: 'The fact that there was another "MS music" that was capable of being, and did indeed become, serious with all the rigour of art music has been lost to the legend of the" divine MS".'
This seeming lamentation is in fact a celebration because the legend of divinity does not subvert the rigour of art music. MS's music, distinguished by an all-inclusiveness unseen in the music of her contemporaries, has retained its lustre undiminished in the ninety years that have passed since she began singing. The centenary of her birth became a historical marker in 2016. When the Government of India chose seven 'icons' of the nation to be immortalized with commemorative cultural infrastructure, M. S. Subbulakshmi was on the list along with Us tad Bismillah Khan. Perhaps, more significantly, a special musical homage was paid on MS's one-hundredth birthday at her birthplace in Madurai by her great-granddaughter S. Aishwarya (granddaughter of Radha Viswanathan who was T. Sadasivam's daughter and MS's accompanist singer for half a century). There could not be a more fitting demonstration of the continuity of MS bani with its emphasis, as Radha explained, on 'not only singing but bhakti and humility in life and music'. Just as classical arts move with time without losing their classicism, MS's music stays relevant with the universalism of the virtues it symbolizes. Quietly but effectively MS projected values that were timeless, herself achieving in the process a certain timelessness. MS lives.
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