M.S.Subbulakshmi known to her rasikas as MS was an artiste who transcended the barriers of language, caste and creed, and elevated music to sublime and divine heights.
In the hearts of music lovers, her music remains immortal. The combination of music, beauty and bhakti elevated MS to great heights. M S Subbulakshmi is a legend who transcends time and whose golden voice brings joy and serenity whenever it is heard.
Madurai is synonymous with Meenakshi Temple.Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi was born in the temple town of Madurai on September 16, 1916, in the month of purataasi under bharani nakshathram..
Pandit Nehru once famously said, "Who am I, a mere prime minister, before the Queen of Song?"
Gandhiji, once said, "I would rather hear "Hari Tuma Haro" spoken by Subbulakshmi than sung by another."
Nightingale of India, the poet and freedom fighter Sarojini Naidu herself said ."Whosoever comes under the enchantment of this singer's great gifts, will agree with me that she is not an interpreter of Meera, but Meera herself. Take her into your hearts and cherish her. You will be proud that India in this generation has produced such a supreme artist."
Dakshinamurti Pillai, a musician of those times who played the mrudangam and the ghatam. said, " Didn't she sing straight from the heart and give us excellent, wholesome music? That is the kind of music which will always stay fresh, and last through a lifetime."
M.S. dressed traditionally in Kanjeevaram silk saree, with diamond earrings and vaira mookkuththi,jasmine adored kondai and kungumam on the forehead is the epitome of charm and feminine grace -.the symbol of traditional Indian womanhood.
Her mother Shanmukhavadivu was an accomplished Veena player.Her father Subramania Iyer was a lawyer lived in the adjacent street with his first wife and family.
Shanmukavadivu found it difficult to run the family of three children and extended relatives.The family just managed to survive. Music was in Subbulakshmi's blood. Her grandmother Akkammal was a violin expert and mother Shanmukavadivu a Veena exponent.
About her early years in her own words by M.S.
Excerpts from Past Forward, Oxford University Press, 1997:
"I spent my childhood in a tiny house wedged between a row of tightly packed houses. This was in Hanumantharayan street, very close to the Meenakshi temple. Oh yes, it is still there! The street is just as narrow, dusty and crowded now as it was in those days.
The little lane was often occupied by cows which refused to budge. Certainly no cars could get by. But it was a special place for musicians because of my mother, Shanmukhavadivu. She played the veena.
The initials before my name, stand for the two influences on my life -- M for my hometown, Madurai, and S for my mother, Shanmukhavadivu. She was my first guru. It was she who made me the singer I am today.
We were poor, but rich in music. I was brought up with music all around me. Singing came more naturally to me than talking. I was a timid child. Mother's strict discipline made me even more silent.
Mother wouldn't let me or my sister Vadivambal step out of the house unnecessarily. In fact she didn't like it if we stood too long near the front door, or looked out of the window. My brother Saktivel had a little more freedom because he was a boy. We girls had to be satisfied with indoor games.
Our home was very small -- two rooms, a kitchen and a courtyard. A staircase went up to the terrace on top. Our house was always packed with elderly aunts and uncles who were often sick. We had to be quieter then. Our life was simple and frugal. We had coriander coffee in the morning .We had rice and buttermilk at night. I was very fond of jasmines. But we couldn't afford to buy flowers everyday. And candy? Vadiva and I would pound tamarind, chillies and salt together, roll it into little balls and put a stick through each one.
There was our lollipop! I never felt we lacked things. Learning music was fun because we three children learnt and practised together. I would sing, Vadiva would play the veena and brother Saktivel would make the room echo with his mridangam.
His drumming was so good that I actually learnt to play the mridangam from him. We would laugh and talk as we practised. But mother's footsteps were enough to make us fall silent.
My mother chose a music teacher for me. This was Srinivasa Iyengar who gave concerts with his brother. On an auspicious day and hour, a small puja was done at home, a coconut was cracked and offered in worship.
I prostrated myself before my guru and my mother. Then I sat down on the mat for my first lesson. My guru checked the tambura strings. They were correctly tuned. He began to pluck them. He sang out loud and clear: 'Sa ri ga ma pa dha ni sa I repeated the notes after him in three speeds.
I must have done well because he taught me with great interest. He laid a proper foundation by going through the beginner's exercises --sarali varisai, alankaram and gitam. Sadly, he did not live to guide me for long. He went out of town on some work. Soon after, we heard that he had passed way.
This was unfortunate. But it did not end my fascination for music. I practised for long hours and with great involvement. I made up a sort of game for myself. I would tune the tambura carefully. As I plucked the strings, the resonance would cast a spell over me. Eyes closed, I would be lost in another world.
Then I would stop, sing without it, and pluck the strings again to check if I had stayed in tune. Throughout the day, in between household jobs, I would return to the tambura several times to see if I could recall that pitch steadily and accurately.
Singing on stage happened so naturally that it seemed to be the only thing for me. You will laugh when you hear how I 'appeared before the public' for the first time.
My mother gave a concert at the Sethupati school near our home. I was building mud palaces in the backyard when my uncle, picked me up, dusted my skirt, washed my hands, and carried me straight to the stage.
There were some fifty listeners in the hall. In those days, it was quite a large gathering! I was put down next to her. My mother asked me to sing. At once, without the least hesitation, I sang one or two songs. I was too young for the smiles and applause to mean much. In fact, I was wondering how soon I could get back to making mud pies!
My love of music was fanned by the atmosphere in our house. My mother didn't take me to too many concerts by other musicians. But they often came to our house. Great musicians like Karaikudi Sambasiva Iyer, Mazhavarayanendal Subbarama Bhagavatar and Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar would drop in.
Some were legendary figures like Tirukkodikaval Krishna Iyer, Veena Seshanna of Mysore, Ponnuswami Pillai, Naina Pillai, Chittoor Subramaniam Pillai, Venkataramana Dass of Vizianagaram. Their names may sound difficult to you, but their music was like mountain honey. Pure and sweet.
These artists would sit down, drink coffee, roll paan and tuck it into their cheek, or take a pinch of snuff, and talk endlessly about great music and musicians. The musicians who visited us would often sing or play their instruments. A nod from my mother was like loud applause to them.
Sometimes she would pluck the strings and play, and they would listen eagerly. Sometimes these maestros would ask me to sing. They would teach me a song or two. In those days, praise was not scattered easily. A nod meant tremendous approval. "You must do well" meant we had reached a high standard.
Local musicians too would come home to pay their respects to mother. Whenever the temple deity was taken out in procession through the main streets, the nadaswaram players at the head of the line would stop where our little street branched off.
Then they would play their best for mother. I would run out and watch. I would be entranced by the sights and sounds. The Gods were gorgeously bedecked in silks and jewels and flowers. There was chanting. And the majestic melody of the Nadaswaram pipes rose with the big tavil drums. That kind of music is perhaps gone forever.
I also listened to a lot of music on the radio. We didn't own one, but if I sat by the window halfway up the staircase, I could hear our neighbour's radio clearly. That is how I got introduced to Hindustani music. How enchanting it was to hear Abdul Karim Khan, Amir Khan or Paluskar, their voices sweetened by the silence of the night.
Hindustani music was not unknown to us in the south. The Maratha kings who had ruled over Tanjavur had made it popular among music lovers. I learnt Hindustani music for a while from Pandit Narayan Rao Vyas.
This was to help me a lot when I grew up and acted in the film Meera. Then I had the privilege of singing Meerabai's songs. "Shyama Sundara Madana Mohana" was one of the songs that Pandit Vyas taught me. It was to become a hit when I sang it in Seva Sadanam.
Living a sheltered life as I did, what could I know of fashions? The only 'cosmetics' I had were turmeric powder and gram flour. There was kajal for the eyes and chaandu -- red and black paste stored in coconut shells, with which we made dots on the forehead. And, of course, coconut oil.
From the staircase window, I would watch the world outside. That is how I saw the girls in the opposite house getting ready to go out. They were dabbing something on their faces which made them white.
Of course I didn't know it was face powder. I rubbed my hands along the white-washed wall and tried the effect on my face. You can imagine how irritated my mother was when she caught me at it. "Don't be stupid!" came with a slap.
I was also fascinated by records -- gramophone plates, we called them. Inspired by the gramophone company's logo of the dog listening to his master's voice, I would pick up a sheet of paper, roll it into a long cone, and sing into it for hours.
This dream came true sooner than I expected, when my mother took me to Madras to cut my first disc. I was 10 years old and sang in an impossibly high pitch! "
The songs were "Marakatha vadivu" and "Oothukuzhiyinile" in an impossibly high pitch.
"I lost my father at about the same time. He was a lawyer. His heart was not in the court, but in his puja room with Sri Rama. Every year he would celebrate the Rama Navami festival with great love and care.
The picture of Rama, decorated beautifully with flowers, would be taken through the streets in a grand procession. This was on the saarattu, an open, horse-drawn buggy. How proud I felt when father picked me up and made me sit with him on that saarattu!
After the rounds, the picture would be carefully taken into the house, and after the puja, father would lead the group singing of bhajans (hymns). Then came what all the children waited for: the distribution of prasad (food that was sanctified by offering it to God)!