In general, classical music has only a niche following. Indian classical music requires a highly evolved sense of listening for one to appreciate it; and Carnatic music is doubly rich in terms of melody and lyrics. The ideals expressed are deeply philosophical, religious and emotional. It requires rigorous training on the part of the artiste to learn, practice and present this with its multifarious hues. The melody and rhythm combine in a heady manner to transport you to the greatest heights imaginable.
Many people are inhibited in their listening because they fear language as a barrier. But absolute music transcends all these barriers and can appeal to just about anyone with an open mind and an ear for music.
To make a mark worldwide as a classical singer is a mammoth task. But M S Subbulakshmi - known popularly as MS - has ruled the music world for over five decades with her melody, talent and beauty. She inspired many to learn to sing better and seek lessons. She has been a trailblazer: Undaunted by the male-dominated music society of her times, she took the music world by storm - and the rest is history.
Born on September 16, 1916, to Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Ammal and Subramania Iyer, MS showed promise of her talent from a very young age. Her mother was already a well-known musician and her maternal grandmother was a talented violinist. Endowed with a captivating, quicksilver voice, MS could reproduce any nuance with amazing clarity. She cut her first record for HMV at the age of 10!
Her mother recognized MS's exceptional talent and shifted from Madurai to Chennai (then Madras) to launch MS on her own. When her mother performed at concerts, MS was the vocal accompanist - she was only 13. She gave her first performance at the prestigious Madras Music Academy at the age of 17. And soon, the young and beautiful MS had a major cult following.
With a charming face framed by curly hair, she soon became a 'star'. In fact, MS also starred in four movies - 'Seva Sadan', 'Shakuntalatai', 'Savitri' and Meera'. It was in and as 'Meera' that the masses totally identified with her. Her absolute devotion in her concerts, her stress on 'bhakti' (worship) -soaked compositions and her very presence on stage made people think of her as a real-life Meera. Later in life, MS lent reality to this image with her rendition of bhajans, slokas and devotional hymns.
In fact, she later acted in the Hindi film version of Meera and her songs captured the hearts of the entire nation.
M S Subbulakshmi's marriage in 1940 to T Sadasivam, a veteran nationalist, was a major turning point in her life. The fact that MS belonged to the Devadasi (temple dancers) clan did not deter this young idealist from marrying her. He gave up his job as the advertising manager of 'Ananda Vikatan', a leading Tamil magazine, and concentrated on guiding MS's musical journey. When the title of Sangita Kalanidhi was conferred on her in 1968, she thanked Sadasivam in her speech at the Madras Music Academy and described him as her "friend, philosopher and guide". Sadasivam guided and moulded MS's music and concerts to perfection. Her concerts are always recalled as being thoroughly rehearsed and flawless. A perfectionist, MS always took great pains to ensure the right pronunciation of the words, the accent and specific emphasis for proper understanding of the lyrics. Her voice enticed listeners and held them spellbound as she took them through the intricacies of Carnatic music.
C Rajagopalachari (Rajaji), the great nationalist leader, was a friend of Sadasivam and through him, MS became known to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi. Her rendition of 'Vaishnava Janato' was a favorite of Mahatma Gandhi. Jawaharlal Nehru was so taken with her singing that he reportedly said, "Who am I, a mere prime minister, before you - the queen of song?"
By the 1950s, MS was a household name and a rage. Aspiring vocalists would dress like her and attempt to emulate her singing. The colour - 'MS blue' - became famous in Kanjeevaram silk sarees.
Charitable causes were close to both husband and wife's hearts. They gave unflinchingly to charity and MS sang innumerable concerts for such causes. The influence of the late Paramacharya of the Kanchi Muth, Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati, one of the most venerated figures in the Hindu religious hierarchy, strengthened this attitude; all the earnings from her concerts and even commercial recordings went towards notable causes.
MS's rendition of the songs of Annamacharya (the 15th century Telugu composer who remained unknown till the early 20th century) is evidence of her commitment to values and her efforts to preserve our rich heritage.
MS always maintained a very low profile, content to let her husband do the talking for her. Hers has also been a life of sacrifice: she brought up Sadasivam's children as hers and did not have any of her own. But she has always come across as the committed mother and wife, happy and contented,
and has seldom been involved in any controversies. She has carried fame very naturally on her dignified shoulders. A smiling figure dressed traditionally in silk Kanjeevarams, with diamond studs glittering in her ears and on her nose, she is the epitome of charm and feminine grace.
MS slowly withdrew from public concerts from the 1980s onwards, performing only for exceptional causes. She has stopped singing totally after the demise of her husband last year. She spends most of her time indoors, at home in Kotturpuram in Chennai, and meets the occasional visitor with her
customary graciousness. She is surrounded by people who love her and care for her. Now 86, her health is fragile and requires frequent care.
It is inspiring to see the great heights that talent and determination can achieve. To MS, music is life. Can such dedication and single-mindedness fail to bring harmony in life? There are many aspiring musicians to whom MS is a 'manasika' guru, a role model. Her humility in the midst of such enormous talent and recognition is salutary.
Laurels and honors came looking for MS. She was among the earliest to receive the Padma Bhushan in 1954, before many other stalwarts. She had the honor of singing at the United Nations Day celebrations in October 1966.
In 1968, she was the first woman to be honored with the title of Sangita Kalanidhi by the Madras Music Academy. She was elected a Fellow of the Sangeet Natak Academy in 1974. MS has also been awarded honorary Doctorates from the Rabindra Bharati University, Sri Venkateswara University and Delhi University.
The Ramon Magsaysay Award (1974), the Padma Vibhushan (1975) and the Bharat Ratna (2000) - India's highest national civilian honor - have been notable achievements in her lifetime.
But the highest position MS occupies is in the hearts of music lovers. For them, M S Subbulakshmi is a legend who transcends time and whose golden voice brings joy and serenity whenever it is heard lifted in song.