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Remembering MS Subbulakshmi on her 100th birthday

Subbulaksmi's performance was more of a deep personal practice of worship, and in which the audience could take equal part. Photograph: (Others)

WION Kolkata, West Bengal, India Sep 23, 2016, 05.35 AM (IST) Lakshmi Subramanian

M S Subbulakshmi, or MS as she was affectionately known, would have turned 100 this year. She was a national icon in whose voice and persona the nation found a deep resonant chord. MS lived an extraordinary life which was marked by more milestones than even the awards and accolades she received. Not surprisingly, her life and music became the stuff that legends are made of. What followed, in both her lifetime as well as after, was an outpouring of appreciation and devotion. This, however, helped to create a persona, rather than reveal a person and the context that Subbulakshmi lived in. 

As we celebrate her life and her music today, it is interesting - even if predictable - that we remember her through her early acting stint in films, such as Sevasadan and Mirabai; her concert performances in the Royal Albert Hall as an absorbed singer whose act of performance seemed to be more of a deep personal practice of worship (puja), and in which the audience could take equal part. 

It is, therefore, worth asking why we choose to remember the MS phenomenon; in freezing her within a particular frame of music as personal devotion. Indeed, how such a frame was produced both in relation to MS as well as in the larger espousal of music as spiritual practice, mediated through a sublime voice and a devotional repertoire? 

The answers to both these questions are not entirely dissimilar. In fact, they stem largely from the making of Indian classical music in the 20th century and from the particular combination of circumstances that catapulted the talented and gifted singer into the national stage.

Born into a family of hereditary practitioners in Madurai on September 16, 1916, Subbulakshmi received her early training from her mother, Shanmukavadivu. She was by all accounts an ambitious and discerning mother who was conscious of the new opportunities that were opened up by a growing middle-class interest in music and performance. Realising that her youngest daughter was blessed with a naturally gifted voice, she promoted her quite unabashedly in concerts and talent-spotting contests. 

The result was that by the tender age of 10, the child had already cut two discs. By 13 years of age, MS was touring and singing at concerts outside Madurai and as far as Ramnad and Travancore. By 15, she made her appearance in Madras city, accompanying her mother in the Madras Music Academy, which in 1932 was rapidly emerging as the single most important patron of the arts in a new setting. 

By this time, the city’s elite had embarked on a project of reviving, recasting and representing Carnatic music by developing an appropriate public concert format, by giving it a textual history and an established repertoire that embodied aesthetic standards. They also developed a discourse on improvisation, vocalisation and concert etiquette or kaccheri dharma. In this, the emphasis on a perfect singing voice was especially important as it worked in tandem with the narratives on gender roles and womanly virtues. The singing voice became the embodiment of all that was innocent, sweet and the actual conduit to a musical experience; it united the singer and the listener in their simultaneous enjoyment of pure affect. 

MS in many ways embodied this discourse. Her mother’s decision to move into Madras (1936) had immediate and momentous consequences. There was the encounter with a circle of Indian National Congress activists, the entry into Tamil cinema as a singing star and her subsequent marriage to Sadasivam (1940). All of these set the stage for an altogether new role that MS was given to play. Encouraged to fit into the Brahmanical establishment in terms of not just lifestyle but also of a very particular aesthetic, she became the role model for middle-class south Indians in the fifties and sixties. Very quickly she came to be regarded as the ultimate cultural ambassador for India. 

The craze for all things MS – the MS blue (a colour that a weaver Rasika Muthu Chettiar of Kanjipuram made for her), the MS hair style and, above all, the devotional hymns that she popularised testified to an iconic status which M.S herself seemed to be indifferent to. 

A runaway success with numerous recordings to her credit, with a perfect concert image and ability to pitch her music at a level that expressed emotionalism or bhava - the dominant aesthetic value of the times - her voice seemed to give physical expression to all the ideas that middle-class upper caste nationalist enthusiasts entertained as cultural and aesthetic practice.

The apparent ease with which MS fitted into the role prescribed by her husband Sadasivam is often seen as an exercise in Brahmanical hegemony which had successfully domesticated the devadasi woman, appropriated and deployed her voice to express the sanitised aesthetic of the newly reinvented classical music idiom. Such a reading, however, would be grotesquely unfair to MS as a creative artist, an issue that scholars have not really bothered to ask or pursue. 

Here was an extraordinarily gifted musician whose voice had the potential of carrying the collective listening aspirations of a huge section of the population, whose music seemed to speak individually to the listener and thereby feed into his/her imagination. Her singing was framed within the idea of the nation and its celebration of devotion, romantic love and attachment. It seems only legitimate to assume that her interaction with senior musicians all her life with whom she learned a number of compositions and her early collaboration with musicologists, such as Dilip Kumar Roy were an integral part of an artistic enterprise that was informed by complex imperatives. National sentiment was definitely one of the principal impulses; the identification with the cultural project that nationalism put forward with its limits and limitations, but it was by no means the only one. 

MS like so many of her generation responded to the art form and to the market. This was especially evident when she supported the Tamil music movement, which challenged for a while the dominant mainstream Karnatik music tradition that tended to foreground the repertoire of the Trinity (Tyagaraja, Diksitar and Syama Sastri) who wrote mostly in Sanskrit and Telugu. These choices, therefore, were artistic as well as indicative of the way musicians thought of their work and of the initiative they showed in tracking new paths of interpretation and imagination.  

Beneath the persona of the singer-devotee, lay an artist whose extraordinary life was ultimately matched by her impeccable absorption in the art form. If we do remember her now as the voice that moved our mothers and aunts, as the symbol that encapsulated the qualities that were imagined about the nation and its benevolence, we pay homage to an artist whose fidelity to her profession was far ahead of the ephemera of the nation’s fantasy.



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