MS Subbulakshmi’s musicianship and personality were closely intertwined. Any discussion of her music eventually becomes a study of her manner, her beliefs and her image. This is a great pity for she was, first and foremost, a consummate artiste. And it is for that reason that we must separate her music from what there is that is known of her as a person.

Subbulakshmi’s style was based on an appreciation of what was most beautiful in the vina, nagasvaram and vocal performances she heard around her. It is known that she played the pieces she sang on the vina to enable a deeper understanding of the pace and meaning. Her song rendering was always superb and marked by purity and considered restraint.

Every Carnatic performer has to build a recital around composed pieces, and in her concerts familiar and unknown pieces alike were cleanly presented, the most difficult sung with deceptive simplicity. A character in a short story has this to say on Bach. ‘I think there has to be an authority of expression; a sense of control that is combined with effortlessness – what the Italians call sprezzatura. It never shows how hard it is. It seems easy, right, natural, even if it is hard to play.’

That was Subbulakshmi. Her song renditions had the glow and polish of ceaseless repetition. ‘With constant practice and more practice her rendition of sangatis would shimmer like burnished gold.’ But if she was a master of technique, she had the gift to transcend it. Technique is what ensured her the platform but after that it was what she brought to the words she sang, the way she used her voice, her understanding of the emotional basis of the song and her acute sense of what was appropriate.

‘A dab of attar on the wrist’

She had a gift for languages, and sang Telugu, Sanskrit and Kannada as naturally as in her native Tamil. While singing Telugu, she committed none of the barbarisms that Tamil speakers are wont to make, but equally she did not make a caricature of it, as is notorious among Telugu-speaking musicians. Her Sanskrit enunciation was a joy to hear, and she sang both songs and hymns, without making one sound like the other.

There is, of course, a caveat to this. For all the richness of her repertoire, possibly well over 2,500 songs, Subbulakshmi showed very little of it at a time. Certain pieces, tried and tested, were presented time and time again. Songs such as “Sri Kamakoti”/Saveri, “Ksheerasagarasayana”/ Mayamalavagaula, or “O Rangasayee”/Kambhoji, beautiful as they are in themselves, were done to death. Very many songs were learnt for an occasion, presented in concert and never sung again.

All performers will tend to fall back on a basic stock, but in Subbulakshmi’s case, the stock, even if it kept changing after every so many years, was always provokingly small. Sadasivam’s insistence on deciding the concert list for every performance, and his strong views on what was concert-worthy and what was likely to appeal was, of course, responsible for this. She acquiesced, but at the cost of her musician’s sense of control.

Madurai Mani Iyer also endlessly repeated his favourite songs, and as in her case, seemed to have the approbation of his public. ‘It is the pursuit of the perfect song that lays him open to the charge of choosing the all-too-familiar fare. His audience appears to appreciate his point. The familiar does not stale.

More positively, we can say of Subbulakshmi what was said of ‘Vina’ Dhanammal, that her music was of the essence. From her vast treasure she selected and presented little gems; a dab of attar on the wrist as compared to a garden of fragrant flowers.

Raga alapana was a highlight of Subbulakshmi’s concerts, and in her prime she would present at least four ragas in addition to the one chosen for tanam and pallavi. The major concert ragas, Bhairavi, Kalyani, Todi, Kambhoji, Kharaharapriya, and the ubiquitous Sankarabharanam were second nature to her. Other favourites included Pantuvarali, Purvikalyani, Abhogi, Ritigaula, Punnagavarali, Dhanyasi, Yadukulakambhoji, Kiravani and Saveri. Even her short alapanas were complete in themselves.

Vocal perfection + lyrical elegance

Subbulakshmi’s style was obviously built around her voice, but all artistes seek to build on their strengths. Further, voice alone is inadequate. There are very many artistes today whose voices are sweet enough but whose music has nothing else to commend it. “Good music need not be a triumph of the vocal cords, though where such a triumph is reinforced by a personal statement of artistic faith as in MS Subbulakshmi, there is music of a kind that is spoken of only in superlatives.” Or, as an admirer put it more bluntly in a centenary tribute, “It is one thing to have a great voice, but it all depends on what you do with it; or really, what you do not [do] with it.”

Subbulakshmi combined the impact of her voice with the meaning of the sahitya she was singing. It has been said very often that she was a perfectionist when it came to understanding and memorising the words she was singing, in whichever language. “She made vocal perfection and lyrical elegance the cornerstones of her style.” Another perceptive critic wrote, “MS’s music is characterised by an element of ecstasy at all times…She loads every rift with ore, and does it with such obvious relish that one would have to be a clod of earth not to feel moved by the revelation of such. Yet in one less gifted than MS such display of wealth would appear wanton.”

Almost alone amongst her peers, she cultivated and trained her voice, and believed in the importance of voice culture, speaking appreciatively of Hindustani vocalists in this connection. She understood voice modulation and her music had powerful impact in the lower octave. She sang full-throatedly and when she sang her voice filled the space in which she was singing. Her control over sruti, or pitch, was absolute and over a very long performing career it fell only slightly towards the end of her performing career.

A “votary of Hindustani music” is credited with the view that her voice reminded him of the shehnai; “it has the same richness of tone, its smoothness, vibrancy and above all its hypnotic quality”. All said and done, as anyone who heard Subbulakshmi in her prime will attest, it was a voice beyond compare.

Of Gifted Voice: The Life and Times of MS Subbulakshmi

Excerpted with permission from Of Gifted Voice: The Life and Times of MS Subbulakshmi, Keshav Desiraju, HarperCollins India.