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.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.