MS Subbulakshmi- The lost icon of Carnatic music

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MS Subbulakshmi

From being an inspiration for more than 10 books so far, the story of this tremendous woman is itself continues to capture the interest of several writers and musicians. Born into the custom of Devadasi, MS Subbulakshmi was one of the most renowned musicians and an Indian Carnatic singer from Madurai. The artistic richness of her work and extensive stories of her life, some heard, some unheard are enough to fill the canvas of India’s lost musical heritage.

Given that the strong women from the pre-independence pantheon received less recognition, her legacy remained long lost until the 21st century. Rare musical competence alongside the remarkable vocals made MS Subbulakshmi the star icon of the 20th century. This is her story.

The marvelous, deep, resonant notes, the distinctiveness of voice, and impeccable presentation all added to her legacy.

MS Subbulakshmi was born on 16 September 1916 in Madurai, South India. She was born into Devadasi custom, a lineage of temple courtesans, who were married to God in the name of religion and later used to entertain rich and upper-caste men. She started learning Carnatic music from an early age and later learned under the guidance of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and subsequently in Hindustani music under Pandit Narayanrao Vyas.

As her mother was also a music exponent and stage performer, she grew up in an environment of musical perplexities. It was these collective initials that Subbulakshmi inherited her famous musical qualities. In  1927, at the age of just 11, Subbulakshmi gave her first performance at 100 pillar hall inside the Rockfort Temple, Tiruchirappalli. In fact, her first recording was released at an age of just 10. Within the next decade, she moved to Madras, now Chennai with her mother, the heart of Carnatic music. She made her first film debut in Sevasadan in 1938. Here she met her future husband Kalki Sadasivam. The couple married in 1940.

MS Subbulakshmi

It is highly believed that it was Kalki that introduced Subbulakshmi to the glorious world of the big screen. In 1945, she starred in the Hindi film Meera from where she received widespread recognition. The movie was directed by American filmmaker Ellis R. Dungan and it went on to become a huge success. She sang several famous Meerabhajans in her melodious voice that especially encapsulated viewers. By the age of 17, she was giving concerts on her own and major performances at the Madras Music Academy. She traveled far-off lands showcasing her tremendous musical skills. Subbulakshmi sang in Europe, North America, and at the United Nations General Assembly.

A few significant milestones in her career include the Edinburgh International Festival of Music and Drama in 1963, Royal Albert Hall, London in 1982, and Festival of India in Moscow in 1987. In 1969, under Indian Railways, she sang several songs at the Rameswaram temple. The magic in her voice was so deep that it reinvented the perfect renditions of Sanskrit hymns in Indian households.

Along with musical concerts, Subbulakshmi also delivered powerful movies including Sevasadanam, Sakuntalai, Savithiri, Meerabai, and 1000 Thalai Vaangi Apoorva Chinthamani. Her famous musical masterpieces includes Suprabhatamm, Kurai OnrumIllai, Vishnu Sahasranamam, Vaishnava Jana to and Hanuman Chalisa. She became the first musician to ever receive Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honor, and Padma Bhushan in 1954. In 1974, she became the first Indian musician to receive the Ramon Magsaysay award, dubbed Asia’s Nobel Prize. In 1975, she was awarded Padma Vibhushan and later in 1998 with Bharat Ratna.

In her career of 70 years, she became the face of Carnatic music. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru once complimented her as the Queen of Music. MS Subbulakshmi stopped giving public performances after her husband’s death in 1997. Her last performance was recorded in the same year.

MS Subbulakshmi

M. S. Subbulakshmi died aged 88 on 11 December 2004, at her home in Kotturpuram, Chennai. Yet her public persona was and remains in an unforgiving, insular world of Carnatic music.

Why is this maestro of Carnatic musician forced to forget in the male-dominated chauvinistic world?

Despite marvelous musical skills and mesmerizing accolades, the tragedy of Subbulakshmi’s life remains unidentified. We do not celebrate or appreciate her strong enough to justify her glorious works. In the eyes of the world, she died as a demure housewife whose accomplishments were never recognized. Her history, intentionally destroyed, by the wealthy male patrons from the world of Carnatic music is unwavering in the heart of Tamil Nadu. Her story indeed raises some uncomfortable truths about Carnatic music tradition.

From Jawaharlal Nehru, Sarojini Naidu, Lata Mangeshkar, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan to Kishori Amonkar, the list of her fans is endless. The story of this exceptional, hardworking woman is denied its rightful role in the pages of history. 

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