IN A PRIVATE CONVERSATION sometime in the late 1980s, a sharp-tongued young aspiring musician made an extraordinary statement about Carnatic music’s most iconic figure. “MS Subbulakshmi,” he said with disdain, “is the greatest hoax of the twentieth century.” Many readers will leap to accuse me of blasphemy for even citing this rather obnoxious remark. But it has stayed with me ever since, and I have a somewhat severe explanation for why.
This musician’s assertion was based on the argument that it was packaging and marketing that made Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi the global face and voice of Carnatic music; her music was otherwise intrinsically hollow, and lacked “stuff.” The Carnatic hinterland would not employ the word “hoax” to describe her, but would consider, with varying levels of empathy, the hypothesis that she was stage-managed. The marketing of MS—orchestrated, as is well-known—by her mentor, husband and business strategist, T Sadasivam, was undoubtedly astounding, and far ahead of its time. But to claim that what he sold to the world was intrinsically empty is unacceptable.
The world of Carnatic music, and its nerve centre, Chennai, is an intense, and intensely insular, world. Its norms of adherence, practice and evaluation are unforgiving. Through conversations, informal criticism, even hints, learned musicians and seniors, working in tandem with informed listeners, bestow various degrees of so-called classical value upon musicians. These value judgements become harsher as the popularity of a musician rises. Some of these musicians have publicly offered MS gestures of admiration, even adulation. Many use her performance techniques to enhance their own. But serious critical and technical appreciation has been rare. MS’s contemporaries, and even her juniors, have received weightier musical approval.
This was as true at the crest of her fame as it is now, over a decade after her death—and in this, her centenary year. Quintessential Carnatic connoisseurs and musicians differentiate between the real rasika, or aesthete, and the janata, who attend concerts to hear merely melodious music. The only praise that the hardcore section of this small universe bestows upon MS with honesty is that she had the most beautiful and pitch-perfect voice, and immaculate presentation skills. But let me make this clear: musicians don’t consider that combination a compliment. It usually means that there is nothing in the music to really write home about. I gather, from those close to her, that MS herself used to get quite upset when people only admired her voice—or worse, went on and on about the exquisite sari she was wearing.
There are also those who may want me to stop right here, because this is not the MS they venerate, a figure through whom every god spoke, and continues to speak. That MS is the voice through which Shakuntala and Meera sang. Through her renderings the works of the poet saints Tyagaraja, Kabir and Surdas came alive. Every swara, or note, she sang is a precious gem; every musical rendition a jewel of grace and dignity. This MS is a divine vehicle to the deities—so divine that she has become a deity herself. This is MS as seen by people whom the aesthetes are likely to call ignoramuses and outsiders.
The narratives around MS have usually followed one of two paths. The most popular and sociologically captivating is that of the personal history. The dramatic emergence of a Brahmin musical superstar with a Devadasi background is a storyteller’s dream. Comparisons with Bharatanatyam’s great diva, T Balasaraswati, are inevitable: Balasaraswati, born in Chennai in 1918, stuck to her Devadasi roots, and, in fact, flaunted her antecedents.
The second strain of writing about MS has focused on her music. This has been mostly hagiographical. Words have failed almost everyone who has tried to describe its effect, considered transporting and transcendental by many. But can we look at her life and her musical movements as a single thread, trying to understand one by the other?
Both the life and the work of MS Subbulakshmi bear investigation, to see whether it was her choices or compulsions—I use these words, which mean the opposite of each other, deliberately—that are responsible for the two differing views of her. There was a constant friction between MS’s choices as an artist of great resources, and her compulsions as a woman of equal vulnerability. The early MS sang in the idiom of her inheritance, to popular acclaim. The later MS sang in the syntax of a spiritual revisionism, to popular worship. It was an extraordinary transition from what was great to what became grand.
THE BASIC FACTS that can be retrieved from the mythology surrounding MS’s early life run thus: Subbulakshmi was born in Madurai in 1916 to a senior Devadasi, known and respected in the town as a veena player. In keeping with Devadasi practice, Subbulakshmi retained her mother’s name, Madurai Shanmukhavadivu, which formed her famous initials. Shanmukhavadivu was an unwed single mother, the father of her daughter having retreated into the mists of anonymity. According to MS, he was Subramania Iyer, a Madurai-based Brahmin lawyer.
MS was introduced to the world at the age of ten, on an HMV thattu (in Tamil, records used to be called thattu, meaning plate) rendering the Tamil song ‘Maragathavadivu’ in raga Jenjooti. It would be unfair to judge her music at that stage, but there are some remarkable aesthetic indicators. In that recording, made in 1926, she comes across as a young girl with a sharp, brave musical expression. Her voice is already fast-moving, with the ability to render speedy phrases with aplomb. Her musical accent is natural and free; there is nothing contrived in the way her voice negotiates the twists and turns of the composition. Today, when I replay that recording, I imagine in my mind’s eye a girl with oiled, plaited hair, dressed in a pavadai-sokka, singing with the calm nonchalance of a maestro in the making.
Her strength of character is evident in her delivery. It is the work of a tough, almost audacious aspirant, singing with abandon, knowing full well that she is exceptional. There is also the innocence of a child who probably knew of nothing but music. She sings without an iota of self-doubt.
These very qualities gave her the courage to exit her mother’s vulnerable home, on Madurai’s Hanumantharayar Koil Street, when she was just 20, in 1936. She left for Madras, and chose the settled rhythms of the household of T Sadasivam, a middle-class Tamil Brahmin. Sadasivam was an enterprising advertising manager for the celebrated Tamil magazine Ananda Vikatan, and a close friend of its famous editor, Krishnamurthy. Sadasivam was deeply involved in the Indian independence movement, and both he and Krishnamurthy were devoted adherents of C Rajagopalachari, the Tamil statesman whom Mohandas Gandhi referred to as his conscience-keeper.
MS had briefly met Sadasivam on an earlier visit to Madras, when she had performed at the city’s renowned Music Academy. Now, upon her return, she was undoubtedly seeking Sadasivam’s protection, taking a huge risk by placing herself in the hands of a man she hardly knew. That she did so with conviction is quite astonishing. Theirs became a partnership of two very independent and strong individuals. Each knew what he or she wanted, and knew, too, the potential of the other.
Shanmukhavadivu had done all that she could to advance her daughter’s career opportunities, but MS had outgrown her environment in Madurai. Madras was becoming the hub for all things Carnatic, and MS’s thirst for music was certainly as compelling a reason for her move as the obvious fantasy of making it big.
Sadasivam, for his part, was a married man when he started to provide shelter to the young Devadasi from Madurai. I am certain the conservative expression ellarum yenna sholluva?—“what will people say?” —flashed across his mind. Apart from his love and affection for her, and beyond his progressive zeal, Sadasivam probably saw musical greatness in MS, and knew he had to be by her side.
The musical voice is a complex phenomenon. Just as every person speaks at her own pace, every musician has a range of speed at which her voice is most comfortable. A vocalist’s musicality emerges from physiological as well as psychological traits; each voice is unique in its malleability. This does not remain constant even within an individual musician’s practice, however. Musical maturity, and the wear and tear on the vocal muscles, leads to unconscious adjustments to her thoughts and actions. Nevertheless, unless some serious damage occurs to her voice, any change in a singer’s musical direction is likely to be in the form of a progression.
MS’s music in the early years of her stardom is a continuance of what we hear in the voice of the ten-year-old. She had what we would call a briga voice, a voice that could render a musical phrase fast, irrespective of its complexity, with precision, elan and finesse. Her renditions moved with great accuracy without ever compromising on musical definition. There was no apparent conscious effort, no contrived intellectualisation—this aesthetic seemed second nature to her.
There was something in her singing then that was very avant-garde, stylish, modern and carefree. This should not be taken to mean it was free of care, but free of fear—that is, the fear of going wrong or falling short. Her style had a quality that was fleet but not hasty, quick of movement but not jerky. The modern and the avant-garde are, after all, born from unbound flight: musicians achieve the most elusive artistry when they reach out for the high skies without a second thought.
Her early recordings create the impression of a very contemporary young musician, liberal and feminist, who didn’t care a damn for what people thought. This attitude, as others have observed, is well in keeping with the Devadasi tradition of music. Artists of Devadasi origin had to be, if anything, supremely assertive and artistically self-confident, in a bid to protect their lives from exploitation as far as possible. They were not to be fooled around with, or taken for casual performers. In aesthetic terms, this meant their work was to be respected; they were to be given time and space to perform, to create that unmarked zone in which they were sovereign. There is a clear streak of a non-patriarchal, non-conservative musical democracy born out of the organic nature of Devadasi learning.
But MS’s music was strikingly different even from that of the dominant Devadasi musical tradition in Madras, from the school of the legendary Vina Dhanammal, who rose to prominence at the turn of the twentieth century. This music was slower, with a focus on softer curves and gentler phraseology, with intricate aural filigree. For the Carnatic community, the Dhanammal variety of music later propagated by her grandchildren—T Brinda, T Mukta and T Vishwanathan—has come to be accepted as the universal representation of the Devadasi tradition. We seem to have forgotten that Devadasi homes nurtured diverse ideas of musical aesthetics, but the early MS reminds us of this reality.
There are also musical reasons for the difference of texture. Some of MS’s biographers, including the journalist TJS George, have speculated that her father may have been the star musician Madurai Pushpavanam, a contemporary of Shanmukhavadivu’s, said to have had a very racy and dynamic interpretation of Carnatic music. It is at least possible that MS heard about his approach from her mother. Shanmukhavadivu herself seems to have taught MS music that packed a punch. And then there was GN Balasubramaniam, or GNB, as he came to be called—a dashing musician six years older than MS, whom we now know she not only admired, but was also infatuated with. The feeling was mutual, as evident from the fact that he kept all her love letters safe until the end of his life.
GNB’s love for MS has been underplayed, thanks to the latent patriarchy of Mylapore, the Brahmin neighbourhood at the heart of Chennai where music and temple rituals merge like the warp and weft of Kanjeevaram silk. By the late 1930s, GNB had revolutionised the tone, thought, and method of rendering Carnatic music. He brought into its practice a kind of Western analytics, which is often attributed to the fact that he was the first Carnatic musician of note who was also a college graduate—he took an honours degree in English literature.
GNB had a magical voice. Unprecedentedly, he sounded most Carnatic when he sang at stunning speeds. All of a sudden, this genius had given the music an exciting, youthful expression, and he became all the rage among Madras’s young upper classes. MS’s music from this period through to the 1950s sounds akin to GNB’s sound. This was probably the result of her conscious internalisation of his music, as well as his subconscious impact.
MS and GNB can be said to have collaborated, although not in the sense that they sang together regularly. In 1940, both starred in the film Sakuntalai, in which GNB played the king Dushyanta, and MS his love, Shakuntala. Their duets in this film bear testimony to my observations. If anyone could match him, phrase for phrase, it was MS. I am certain that anything he might have thrown at her, she would have given back with interest. In colloquial Carnatic parlance, we would use the Tamil phrase sangati ellaam palapalapalannu vizhum, meaning that her sangatis, or musical phrases, unfurl with clarity and lustre. There are no approximations or sly escapisms in MS’s execution. Her voice and her music are perfectly paired—and propelled by her tenacity.
There is a 78-rpm recording, released around this period, on which MS sings a brief alapana—a kind of improvisational form—of raga Harikamboji. Just before concluding it, she sings a sparkling, ascending musical phrase that is utterly GNB-esque. I bring it up to highlight just how razor-sharp and adventurous her music was, and not superficial by any standard. This is exactly what we would say about GNB, too.
BY MID 1940, MS had become a name to reckon with, both as a singer on the rigorous stage, and as an actor on the fluid screen. Both roles were complementary; on both, she became, quite simply, a star. In July that year, she and Sadasivam were married, after the passing away of Sadasivam’s wife. It marked the officialisation of their relationship, and the point after which everything began to change.
What happened next can be called the transformation, or the psychological realignment, even the taming, of Subbulakshmi. The free-spirited young woman was to become the embodiment of the ideal Brahmin housewife, seen among the elite as the epitome of purity and devotion.
The patriarchy that surrounded the Carnatic world governed every aspect of MS and Sadasivam’s social and cultural life. Sadasivam’s politics were emancipatory, but he was personally a conservative patriarch. He was instrumental in choreographing MS’s transformation. She may have wanted the legitimacy that came with it herself, of course. The security of social respect and acceptance among the cultural elite was probably important to her.
MS’s own baggage was her life and past in Madurai, and the contrast between it and being with Sadasivam. On the practical side of things, she was aware that Sadasivam knew exactly what to do professionally. She was on the verge of something really big, and he was, after all, a master of marketing. Ananda Vikatan had reaped the benefits of his savvy; so would Kalki, a popular Tamil magazine he had promoted with his friend “Kalki” Krishnamurthy.
For MS’s transformation to occur, the social memory of her had to be redrafted, and then filled in with new details, which meant MS had to be redesigned, both in image and in music. We can see clearly how MS’s style changed just from her attire. Gone were the puffed sleeves and casual saris. Even more dramatically, gone was the MS of that early, fun photograph in which she is pictured with a young Balasaraswati, in Western-style sleeping suit, sporting an unlit cigarette in her mouth. We can now only visualise her in conservative smarta-brahminkattu, the style in which she draped her sari.
Between 1938 and 1947, MS acted in five movies: Sevasadanam,Sakuntalai, Savitri,Meera in Tamil, and Meera in Hindi. In those early years, it was the norm for south Indian films to star Carnatic musicians, as they depended heavily on their music for success. Her movie career was also a business endeavour for MS. She played Narada in Savitri to raise money for the launch of Kalki. Then came Meera, a point of inflection in the lives of Sadasivam and MS.
There are two sides to the Meera story, one personal and the other professional. Close associates of MS have said that her experience of playing the title role was deeply emotional, even spiritual. In her mind, she had become the “dasi Meera,” the poet saint known and revered across India, and that connection would never leave her. Professionally, of course, Meera was a national success, launching a small-town south Indian singer into the headlines. For the first time, a Carnatic musician was recognised in the corridors of power up north. Political and corporate leaders bowed before MS now, and she became known by the titles conferred on her by Jawaharlal Nehru—“the Queen of Song”—and by the nationalist and poet Sarojini Naidu, who, it is claimed, said she surrendered her own title to MS—“the Nightingale of India.” They and the general public must have seen echoes of MS’s experience of transcendence in the role—the feeling of actualising Meera in herself.
But this was only the beginning. In what turned out to be a brilliant marketing move, Sadasivam ensured that MS never acted again, thus etching the image of Meera forever on the frame of MS. After 1947, I don’t believe MS ever presented a concert that did not feature Meera’s bhajans. The decision to drop out of cinema also erased a potential conflict: a woman becoming the perfect Brahmin housewife could not, after all, also remain in the film industry without creating contradictory images. Ending that chapter of her life only further established MS’s Mylaporean conformism.
THERE WAS, HOWEVER, more to this transformation. Just a decade after Meera, MS’s aesthetic transition was clearly visible. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, her concert tours across India had become processional, like Dasara in Mysore. They were great events, replete with social celebration and musical rejoicing. Here, the striking changes in her music are first discerned in the texture of her voice. It starts sounding heavier, even a little suppressed, as though forced into containment. Musically, the carefree abandon disappears. She still does sing those beautiful “runs,” but they sound more structured. All of a sudden, the kite is tied down by a heavy boulder.
Some may argue that this was the result of Subbulakshmi’s maturing, but I beg to differ. In the maturing of a musician, the spirit behind her music is not manipulated. With MS, there seems to have been a kind of reverse engineering: the core was dislocated in order to accommodate the realignment of mind and voice. After Meera, and her becoming a quasi-saint across India, her music had to reflect her new status.
We cannot pass judgement on matters of personal faith. But the change unquestionably affected MS’s music. She did not stop at Meera bhajans; encouraged by her husband, she acquired and recorded a wider repertoire of religious music, including the work of Tulsidas, Kabir, Nanak, Surdas and Tukaram. She also learned Rabindrasangeet. She acquired many identities in her music. When in Kolkata, she was Tagore. In Pune, she brought Tukaram to life. In Delhi, Tulsidas was reincarnated. On her home turf, in Madras, Tyagaraja sang through her.
Being all these characters was not just about surrendering personally to a godhead or philosophy. It also meant that she was reorienting the aesthetics of her art. It is one thing to learn an assortment of compositions, completely another to have to perpetually juggle musical approaches. MS was intensely involved in every work she rendered, which meant giving up something of herself to its composer, form and intent.
She was also simultaneously updating her Carnatic repertoire and expression. She learned from many greats, including KS Narayanaswamy, and, before him, Musiri and Semmangudi." It is said that a leading musician from Madurai, a member of the Isai Vellalar community, once remarked that MS used to sing beautifully until she came under the tutelage of two Iyers. The story is unsubstantiated, but even concocted tales can reveal something of the inner workings of the environment that produced them. It points to the underlying friction between communities in the Carnatic world. As a musician, I can only interpret it to mean that the musician felt sparkle and spirit had given way to predictability.
MS loved to sing, and to learn more and more music, whether it was Carnatic, Hindustani or even—unfortunately—English. In 1966, she was given ‘Here Under This Uniting Roof’ to sing at the United Nations on the occasion of UN Day. The song was written by C Rajagopalachari and tuned by the respected Chennai-based Western classical musician Handel Manuel. But whatever the value in their contributions, the song was musically hollow, and aesthetically limp. Did these frequent shifts cause any internal conflict? Did MS view all these roles as one and the same, or was she painting and peeling identities constantly? We cannot know how she reconciled the contradictions within herself.
Still, her expanded repertoire demands recognition for one astounding quality. Even as MS was singing songs of great diversity, she had the capacity to prevent each from being marred by the aesthetic dimensions of the other. Never was her rendition of a Muthuswami Dikshitar composition, muddled by the musicality of Rabindrasangeet; nor her offering of a Meera bhajan by lapses into the heaviness of the Carnatic accent.
This was a tremendous achievement, but one that has gone entirely unnoticed. Her hopscotch between genres gave her music a stronger emotive layering. People may have complained about MS’s accented Hindi, but they adored her music, its mellifluousness and its sanctity. In the eyes of the public, she became the spiritual heir to the rishis of this land, or even something more, perhaps: the goddess Saraswati incarnate.
FAME HAD ITS REPURCUSSIONS in the inner world of Carnatic music, where MS’s national positioning began to skew people’s perceptions. She was soon thought of as a bhajan singer, which led to a certain amount of trivialisation. For a serious musician of any form, respect from her own contemporaries, seniors and connoisseurs is essential. By the time MS received the coveted title of Sangita Kalanidhi from the Madras Music Academy in 1968, that respect, paradoxically, had begun to dwindle.
Even after Meera, MS’s concerts contained all the elements that would pass muster with the Carnatic world. She presented many rare compositions, such as Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer’s magnum opus, the Melaragamalika. She rendered numerous ragam-tanam-pallavis—three-part improvisational presentations, considered the greatest test of a Carnatic musician’s abilities—set to challenging tala structures, in chaste Carnatic ragas such as Begada, Todi and Bhairavi. Very rarely was she applauded for them. It was most unjust, but the ragam-tanam-pallavis were simply drowned out by bhajans such as ‘Morey to Giridhara Gopala.’
I will say that it was MS who increased the importance of what we call the tukkada, or ostensibly lighter section of a Carnatic recital, which follows the virtuoso performance. In the minds of rasikas, the focus of MS’s concerts moved away from the first two hours of art music to the last half-hour of tukkadas, during which she sang devotional music. She rendered every piece with great beauty, but listeners became obsessed with the religiosity of the shorter pieces, and forgot her musical acumen. Even her rendering of serious Carnatic compositions began to be received by many listeners as some form of divine deliverance.
MS’s contemporary DK Pattammal was the first Brahmin woman to become a celebrated concert performer. In particular, Pattammal was considered a master of the ragam-tanam-pallavi. This conferred on her the status of being, somehow, equal to men in the eyes of Carnatic musicians and connoisseurs. She also uncovered many unknown compositions by Muthuswami Dikshitar, but, unlike MS, she was constantly lauded for these and other efforts by the critical core of the musical world. This must have really hurt MS.
The release in 1963 of MS’s recording of the Venkateshwara Suprabhatham was a popular coup. But it was musical free-fall as far as the serious listener was concerned. This, however, did not prevent MS from continuing to release many recordings in the religious and devotional genres. I am certain Sadasivam knew of the rasikas’ perceptions of these. He may not have cared, since by now MS had escaped the clutches of Mylapore. But we may not be able to say the same of MS’s feelings.
Sadasivam’s control over MS and her music was not only that of a producer; he was also her director and screenplay writer. It was he who decided which ragas and compositions to present at any concert, and even stipulated the duration of each rendition. She also received instructions from him during concerts. The worst of these interruptions would occur when someone of importance was part of the audience. MS would be deep in the Carnatic idiom, preparing to elaborate a raga, when Sadasivam would suddenly ask her to render, say, a Surdas bhajan. The reason: some Hindi-speaking dignitary was leaving early, and would not be present to hear her sing the bhajan towards the end of the concert. Those who knew the workings of MS’s mind during her concerts have told me that this irked her no end.
These manipulations affected both her own flow, and the image of Carnatic music itself, since she was its best-known symbol. Stipulating the duration of an interpretation is not prudent planning. In fact, it dismantles the essence of what drives not just music, but every creative art. A concert’s balance is calibrated by an invisible inner gauge that an artist develops over time. Each concert is an experience in itself; every composition or improvisation is born from the creative impulse of the day. To destroy this was simply another way of belittling MS’s musicianship. It is quite unfathomable that an artist of MS’s calibre was tied down by rules set by a non-musician, even if it was her own husband.
To top it all, there was the Shankarabharanam quagmire. If ever a person can be said to have epitomised a raga, MS epitomised raga Shankarabharanam. It is said that Sadasivam invariably wanted her to present it as the main feature of her concerts, believing that this would lead to the success of the performance. MS would gently protest now and again, expressing a desire to sing perhaps the Bhairavi or Saveri ragas instead, only to be vetoed.
Ragas such as Shankarabharanam and Kamboji possess the swara, known as anthara gandhara, a sharper variety of the swara we sing as “ga.” Anthara gandhara can be used as an anchor in the higher octave, especially while rendering the alapana. Using it as a sustained note, an artist can weave multiple phrases, particularly in faster speeds, leading to a theatrical climax. In MS’s music, almost every time, as she ended her dramatic explorations at the anthara gandhara, she sang a final flourish that took her to the panchama (the swara “pa”) in the higher octave. This always won applause.
Perhaps Sadasivam’s fascination with Shakarabharanam came from its capacity to generate applause, rather than any real musical feeling for it. It led to the perception that MS was incapable of rendering other ragas with the same ease as she did Shankarabharanam. She changed the kirtana that she presented in the raga every time, but some listeners began to grow bored. Everyone forgot that her interpretations of Anandabhairavi or Kharaharapriya were just as gorgeous.
A fundamentally more serious charge was levelled against her creativity. Many Carnatic musicians and rasikas will say that MS’s improvisations were rehearsed and pre-planned; that she was a mere reciter. At face value, this rings true. There is no doubt that her alapanas, neraval and kalpanaswaras—all types of improvisational techniques—operated within a frame, and with a kind of route map already drawn within the outlines. She was certainly not a creative genius of the order of, say, the nagaswara maestro TN Rajaratnam Pillai.
But the truth is more nuanced. This did not mean that every alapana MS sang was a photocopy of a previous rendition. It is worth noting, too, that others of great repute have followed the same custom no less assiduously. The improvisations of Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, the godfather of twentieth-century Carnatic music, also adhered to a plan and structure. There was most certainly ideational repetitiveness in his performances. But I have rarely heard anyone bravely proclaim that he lacked the creative spirit. Instead, Ariyakudi is revered as the “Margadarshi,” or path-finder. No musician would dare question his abilities. Musicians such as DK Jayaraman and KV Narayanaswamy also followed templates, but their music is seen as spontaneous, in-depth and thoughtful.
MS was, and is, an easy target. She was often considered more of a parakeet than a nightingale, though her alapanas, neraval and tanam renditions were free-flowing and intuitive. There was never any indication of artificiality in her vocalisation, or in its creative development. I would argue that the same cannot be said of DK Pattammal, the critics’ favourite, whose alapanas were creatively limited, and whose articulation was laboured. Rasikas do not complain about this.
A third front of criticism had to do with the fact that MS practiced regularly with her accompanists. Customarily, Carnatic musicians do not sit together and practice; they meet on stage. In fact, such rehearsals are scorned: the assumption is that musicians who require them are incapable of creativity on the fly. But MS and her team practiced extensively, and the overall effect in performance was impeccable.
This was especially evident in the 1960s, when her accompanying musicians were VV Subramaniam on the violin, TK Murthy on the mridangam, V Nagarajan on the kanjira and Vikku Vinayakaram on the ghatam. Listening to this team can sometimes give the impression that there are three human voices: that of MS, of her step-daughter Radha, who provided vocal support, and of VV Subramaniam’s violin. The percussionists always seem to know exactly how to respond to every movement in the melody.
While devotees of MS will argue that the rehearsals only enhanced the listening experience, I must accept that there is some weight to this criticism, since, to my mind, there is a flaw in this conception of what is perfect. MS sought a unified, error-free concert presentation, and accomplished that. Whether that made her concerts great art is another question. The experience of life, after all, is not one of correctness. Perfection is the search for the pure, experiential quality born from surrendering oneself to art. The artist gives her all, and stumbles upon perfection by accident. It is quite possible that there will be moments of technical imperfection in that process. Yet, when such perfection is attained, it takes us beyond the personal to the abstract.
But what was behind this obsession with practice? Over time, MS had come to represent a flawless human being, and become, in the public eye, a haloed personality, complete in every sense. Her graceful saris, her measured words, her hairdo, even the way flowers adorned it—everything was perfect. South Indian Brahmin women began to emulate the MS demeanour. The music of such a blemish-less person had, of course, to be mistake-free. A false note from MS was unimaginable. There could not be a stumble, let alone a fall. Her concerts had to be as impeccable as her personality. Repeated practice was the best way to achieve this.
MS never tired of it: she was willing to sing a song a hundred times if needed, and she did. Her moments of ethereality came in spite of this, not because of it. Throughout her musical life, there were unmonitored moments in which the MS of Madurai made a guest appearance, stunning us with a phrase that illuminated the horizon, like a flash of lightning over the open seas. If the initial freedom heard in her music is anything to go by, we may well have witnessed spectacular creativity from her if she had been allowed to just be.
by 1970, MS had been singing for nearly four decades. She was also constantly doing what someone or the other expected of her, rather than what her genius expected of her. The songs she sang on stage were always meant to please some constituency. Her singing itself was about satisfying what her husband saw as music. She had become mother, woman-saint, deliverer and model, as well as singer.
Sadasivam was a man of great integrity and self-respect, but he submitted himself to the political and corporate hierarchies of the time. His long and close association with Rajagopalachari, and his involvement in the latter’s Swatantra Party, drew him into many circles of power. MS was constantly singing, both informally and formally, at gatherings organised by her husband, either in their own large residence, Kalki Gardens, or at those of others in their circle. Ever so often, it was to please or felicitate visiting bigwigs from elsewhere in India or abroad.
No count exists of the number of such performances; they must run to several hundred. I wonder what the musician in her felt about these indulgences. I don’t have an answer, but I can speak as a musician myself: such concerts most certainly belittle the seriousness of music. I am referring not to spontaneous renditions of a song, but to situations in which MS’s art was taken for granted.
By the 1980s, she had toured and been honoured across the globe. She had sung at the United Nations. She received the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1974. In 1998, she was awarded India’s highest civilian decoration, the Bharat Ratna, becoming the first musician to receive that recognition. It would have pleased Sadasivam immensely, but he was no more by the time she received it. The Carnatic community may have criticised her art, but it had to accept her stardom and offer her recognition, even if murmurs about her musical ability continued. Since unabashed adulation had come from the outside, she received grudging acceptance from within.
But in all this, where was MS? Did she even know where to find herself? These are difficult questions, and I do not raise them as an insider who was privy to her personal life. A musician’s personality is revealed from the music she offers us. In MS’s case, the signals were all too confusing. Her sincerity was unquestionable, yet there seemed to be so many acts and facades. These were not put on to cheat her listeners; she internalised her roles to such an extent that she was subsumed within them.
It is unanimously agreed that MS was a kind, humble human being, who bore no one any malice. She was soft-spoken, and never rude. Her laughter occasionally lit up a room. But she was also a mystery. Access to her was restricted. The outside world knew nothing of her musical process. We may never know how deeply she thought about her music.
MS was certainly not a tortured soul, but there was a sadness in her, and I think it may have emanated mainly from the restrictions on her musical life. I am not saying that she did not love all that she sang, but she knew that it was not on her terms. She knew, moreover, that she would die without getting her real due from the Carnatic world. It was in singing bhajans and thumris that she received approbation, but it was in the kirtanas, padams, thillanas, varnams, viruthams and javalis—all types of Carnatic composition—that she sought validation.
SET EVERYTHING ELSE aside for a moment, and try and inhabit the “MS space”— where an intangible, intense, deeply moving moment arises, and takes your breath away. There is something there that comes from the depth of a partnership between the singer and the sung, the two in a union that is both private and open for all to hear and witness. When MS sang with all her being, which was invariably the case, she sang with her eyes closed, lost to us.
What was she? What did she find? I have dissected her music, even said that she performed to please others, and gave herself up to do what her husband said. I am now saying something that contradicts all that—or am I? Once engulfed by the music, an artist finds a freedom and openness within, even if everything constructed on the exterior is limiting. So is there more to the “divine MS” experience?
I have struggled with this question for a very long time, because the power of MS’s music is irreplaceable, and incomparable. I have one probable answer. I do believe she was unable to be fully herself. The scaffolding around her was Sadasivam’s construction, and she had to remain within it, grateful for the security that it provided. Musically, too, she was locked in a vault. But when she sang, forgetting everything around her, all her suppressed sadness, regrets and experience burst into music.
It is this honest and pure outpouring that still shakes us. Her art was MS’s only outlet. Every time she sang, she allowed every moment of her life experience to imbue the melody, letting go of all her inhibitions, abstracting herself into the raga. Once in a great while, we experience an unadulterated sense of what is real, so tender and vulnerable that our fences break down when it touches us, and we see ourselves like never before. MS, more than any other musician, can gift us these moments of self-realisation.
She is an unsolved mystery to me. Every time I engage with the idea of her, a new strand appears. Her life and history is open to many interpretations. Since she herself said so little about it, we can only grapple with third-person narratives, and use her music as a window into who she was. Her emotions were bundled up so tightly that even her closest friends and family saw only glimpses of her inner struggles, each one taking away his or her own personal impression like a private trophy.
She was determined, strong, focussed, committed, and brave. She was also introspective, innocent, and fragile. The Carnatic world, for its part, has simplified her music and boxed it into either of two categories: the celestial, or the ordinary. But her music was both, and everything that lies in between. She, and her music, will never cease to bewitch us. They will only ever continue to raise the unanswered question about where the real MS resides.
An earlier version of this essay incorrectly suggested that the magazine Kalki was active in 1940. The magazine was founded in 1941. The Caravan regrets the error.