Birth Centenary

Celebrating a legend: A century of MS Subbulakshmi through 10 songs

This list tracks her journey from a child prodigy to a singing movie star to the Carnatic icon she became in her lifetime.

September the beginning of the birth centenary year of Carnatic music’s most popular icon, MS Subbulakshmi. Born on September 16, 1916, in Madurai in a traditional family of performing artistes, MSS grew to become the face of Carnatic vocal music in the 20th century.  In a lifespan that consisted of thousands of her musical concerts, recordings, private Kutcheris and international tours, it is virtually impossible to pick any number of songs as being representative enough.

This list tracks her journey from a child prodigy to a singing movie star to the Carnatic icon she became in her lifetime.

MSS debuted at the age of 10 at the Mahamakham tank in Kumbhakonam. After that the Twin Recording Company got her to record her first song ever. She became a recording star. Her first song Marakatha Vadivum also had her mother, Madurai Shanmukhavadivu, playing the Veena.

The family migrated from Madurai to Madras. She had already gained some fame as a recording star. In 1933, in the December season, when the great stalwart Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar fell ill, she was invited to sing at the prestigious Madras Music Academy. She was only seventeen and singing in the prime slot was unheard of by a teenage girl who hailed from a traditional family. Many decades later she was the first woman vocalist to receive the Academy’s most celebrated award, the title of "Sangita Kalanidhi".

Her entry into movies was yet another successful peak in her career.  Her first film Sevasadanam was released in 1938. Based on Munshi Premchand’s story, the film was a social drama bringing into light the evils of the dowry system.  She was 22 years old and became a singing screen star overnight.  In 1940, the famous director Ellis Dungan cast her with another singing star GN Balasubramaniam in his film Shakuntalai. This was the time she was rumoured to have an off-screen romance with her hero GNB. This continues to be a topic of gossip among Carnatic music circles till date.

Her marriage to nationalist writer T Sadasivam in 1940, was yet another landmark in her life.  He was a staunch Gandhian and through his journalistic writings and association with C Rajagopalachari, took up the cause of India’s freedom struggle. To raise funds for his Tamil weekly magazine Kalki, she acted the character of Narada in the film Savithri in 1941. The role of Savithri was played by Hindi actress Shanta Apte. In this rare clip, one can see MSS as Narada.

The last movie she acted in Meera (1945) , once again directed by Ellis Dungan, became a major hit. The script was written by Kalki Krishnamurthy. MSS sang all the songs in the move. The Hindi version was released two years later in Delhi in 1947. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and the Mountbattens watched it while Sarojini Naidu went on record calling MSS "The Nightingale of India". The film toured international film festivals in Prague and Venice.

After India’s independence in 1947, MSS gave up her acting career in films and concentrated fully on her Carnatic music.

In 1947, roughly a week before Gandhi’s 78th birthday, Indian National Congress leader Sucheta Kriplani telephoned the Madras offices of Sadasivam’s Kalki magazine. On October 2, there were to be a few musical performances for the Mahatma in Delhi. Would Subbulakshmi be able to come to the Capital on that day, to sing one of his favourite Meera bhajans Hari Tum Haro? While Sadasivam was excited, he had to decline this request politely telling Mrs Kriplani that MSS did not know that song and, more over, MSS could not travel to Delhi that particular week. Sadasivam suggested Kriplani find someone else to do this job. Just a day or two before Gandhi’s birthday, Kriplani called Sadasivam again saying “Gandhiji would rather hear Subbulakshmi recite the verse on a tape than hear anybody else sing it.” Now there was no way they could avoid this. Overnight, they recorded the song at the All India Radio studios in Madras and sent the tape to Delhi so that the Mahatma could listen to his favourite Bhajan on the eve of his birthday.  When Gandhi was assassinated on January 30, 1948, the AIR promptly played this Bhajan once again as a tribute to him, making MSS a household name.

For the next two decades, she was to rise as the greatest super-star vocalist in this genre.  In 1954, she was one of the youngest recipients of the prestigious Padma Bhushan award. In 1956, when she was barely 40 years old, the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi honoured her. Her major international exposure began with her programme at the Edinburgh International Festival of Arts in 1963. In 1966, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, U Thant, invited her to give a special concert at the United Nations. This programme was given in the General Assembly hall and compered by CV Narasimhan, the under secretary-General. This was the first time that any Indian classical musician was performing at the UN. In this landmark concert, she made a selection of a wide variety of compositions spanning half a dozen languages and presented around 30 songs.

Her flair for languages could be seen in the way she effortlessly tuned lyrics from other languages and sang them with much ease. MSS was invited to render the invocation on the eve of the inauguration of the 6th Afro-Asian Congress of Ophthalmology held in Madras. She sang an invocation song comprising of five languages. Sanskrit, Arabic, Japanese, English and Tamil. The Arabic verses are from the first Surat Al Fatiha of the Holy Quran. This was the first time they were ever being sung in Carnatic music.

Her project to revive the compositions of the famous Telugu saint poet Annamacharya made her a household name.  She set to tune and recorded scores of compositions that were lost over the centuries. Till date most devout Hindus wake up to her rendering of the famous Venkateshwara Suprabhatam. Several musicians have attempted recording this but MSS’s version remains a modern masterpiece, which is irreplaceable.

She revived many lost compositions in Carnatic music. She also set to tune the works of philosopher Adi Shankara, Marathi poet saints like Tukaram, hymns from the Guru Granth Sahib and so forth. She sang Urdu Ghazals of Mirza Ghalib in her own inimitable style. Check out this rendering of her singing  Ishrat-e-qatra hain samandar mein fanaa ho jaana/ Dard ka hadd se guzarnaa hain dawaa ho jaana’ .

Her last public concert was in 1997. Receiving the "Swaralaya Puraskar" , she sang a wide varieity of classical and semi-classical songs. One that became everyone’s favourite was her rendering of the famous nationalist poet Dwijendralal Roy’s song Dhano Dhanya Pushpo Bhara in Bengali.

MSS had decided she would stop all public performances after the demise of her husband Sadasivam.  In November 1997, Sadasivam breathed his last at the age of 95. Keeping to her word, MSS stopped performing in public.

In her colourfully public life, rich with music, MSS was the recipient of several national and international awards. She was the first musician to receive the Ramon Magsaysay award for public service through music in 1974.  The President of India KR Narayanan awarded her India’s highest civilian honour "The Bharat Ratna Award", which she received in her residence in Chennai in 1998.  She passed away on December 11, 2004 in Chennai. As her birth centenary is celebrated this month, there wouldn’t be a better way to remember her than through her music.

Veejay Sai is a writer , editor and a culture critic.

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