1974 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service
BIOGRAPHY of M. S. Subbulakshmi
MADURAI SUBRAMANIJA IYER (styled simply as M. S. in keeping with Tamil usage) SUBBULAKSHMI was born on September 16, 1916 in the city of Madurai in South India. Madurai is located in the center of the Tamil-speaking state of Madras and has been for over 2,000 years the center of culture of the Dravidians, the earliest inhabitants of India who were pushed south by the Aryan invaders of the north. The Aryans brought with them a religious-cultural pattern which, combined with the existing religious-cultural modes of the Dravidians, became Hinduism, an all-encompassing religion and way of life.
Under the Aryans music was codified in the vedas, the four canonical collections of hymns, prayers and liturgical formulas that comprise the earliest Hindu sacred writings. The basis of this music has always been vocal, and ragas are its traditional melodic patterns or modes. Each raga is defined "by its scale, melody, emphasis given a particular note, subtle ornamentation and mood," and is so arranged to create an atmosphere appropriate to the different hours of a day or night. These songs are considered not only a means of arousing specific emotions, but of uniting the singer and listeners with God, for, as one writer has noted, "the seven notes of the scale and basic rhythms are supposed to have been revealed by the Lord himself."
In rendering a raga the singer must subordinate his individual creative tendencies to the "law of the raga" i.e. the form and the emotional content it is intended to arouse and sustainbut lacking set notes he is expected to exercise "all his ingenuity and skill in extemporizing within the prescribed framework." At the same time there are only 132 ragas which are normally performed. Thus the Indian singer must be more creative than the modern western performer: to strict laws and a limited repertoire he is expected to bring unlimited musical imagination.
Southern musicoften called Karnatic after a name applied to the areais today more purely Aryan in form and Hindu in content than the music of the north, which in the ensuing centuries was influenced by Arab, Persian, Mongol and other Islamicized cultures through the mediums of contact and conquest. The real divergence in classical music between the two regions appears to have taken place in the 14th century with the solidification of Mogul rule in the north. "They now differ considerably from each other in their idiom and their approach to ragas."
Besides being born into the center of southem Hindu culture, SUBBULAKSHMI was further blessed by being born into a home "where music was valued and where votaries of music gathered." Her parents were Subramanya Iyer and Veena Vidushi Shanmukavadivu, a renowned singer and player of the veenaa plucked instrument popular in the south. Her younger brother and sister also shared their mother's love of music; her brother played the mridangaman ancient barrel-shaped drum with goatskin ends used for keeping time and rhythmand her sister became a singer. By the age of 10, KUNJAMMA, as SUBBULAKSHMI was affectionately known, was accompanying her mother at concerts (as her two stepdaughters accompany her today). She still remembers when Dhanammal, a celebrated musician who heard her sing at this age, predicted for her "a bright future."
As a child, SUBBULAKSHMI reamed at her mother's knee. As a young girl she studied under Srinuvasa Iyengar of Madurai who taught her up to the varnam stage (the center piece of the sequence of dances in a Bharata Natyam court). "After that," she has said, "as I was unable to go to a music teacher for advanced tutoring, I continued to learn from my mother." In later years she "had the good fortune of learning from several great musicians and among them were Musiri Subrahmanya Iyer and Semmangudi Srinvasa Iyer."
By age 17, SUBBULAKSHMI was giving concerts on her own, including major performances at the Madras Music Academy, the prestigious center for the study and promotion of Karnatic music. At the age of 24, she married T. (Thyagarajan) Sadasivam who has devoted himself to advancing her career. People who know her well say that without her husband she would not have achieved the artistic stature she enjoys and that "it is a sight to see her unceasingly acknowledging the gratitude she owes to him for everything she has." Recently she said, "he is my mentor and preceptor and he gave artistic shape and definition to my ideas of music which were almost running wild." Sadasivam, now publisher and managing director of Kalki, the widely circulated and highly respected Tamil weekly, was a film director and thus particularly well situated to assist her career through that medium.
Two fortuitous events brought SUBBULAKSHMI early into national prominence. The first was her participation in the All-India Dance Conference in Bombay, organized under the Vikramaditya Celebrations, in 1944. Every Indian musician of importance was present and her performance created a sensation.
The second was her appearance in the title role of the Hindi-language film Meera, produced by her husband. Meera was a singersaint, an 18th century Rajput princess who gave up court life and wandered the countryside singing the praises of the Lord Krishna. The film was produced in 1946-47 in Rajputana and the villagers in the area saw SUBBULAKSHMI as a "new Meera. ' They sought occasions to hear her sing and embarrassed her by lining the road to pay her homage when she walked the streets.
In this film she sang the bhajans of north India. Bhajans are folk music of a devotional nature, simple and compelling enough to be known, understood and loved by all. Already recognized as a distinguished singer of Karnatic classical ragaswhich in general demand a musically sophisticated audienceSUBBULAKSHMI suddenly found herself the idol of the common people throughout the length and breadth of the land. Sarojini Naidu, a poet and leader of the nationalist movement in India, dubbed her the "Nightingale of India," and added: "Every child in India has heard about SUBBULAKSHMI for the beauty of her voice, the magic of her personality, and the gracious charity of her heart . . . . I want my living words to go to the utmost corners of the world so that people may realize how one great woman artist in India has been able to move the hearts of millions and millions of men and women by her songs. I believe the feelings roused in me will be roused in everyone who hears the enchanting voice of this enchanting singer who is abundantly gifted." SUBBULAKSHMI herself concluded that "if one sings with sincerity and devotion, such music has the capacity to move the audience to divine experience, irrespective of their religious beliefs, their language and the countries to which they may belong."
Although Meera was her first and only Hindi film, she has played in Tamil films both before and since, including a Tamil version of Meera.
In 1941 SUBBULAKSHMI and her husband visited Mahatma Gandhi at his religious retreat in Nagpur. Thereafter whenever she and he were in the same city she sang at his prayer meetings. Gandhi loved her rendition of north Indian bhajans and requested that she sing some for his 78th birthday, October 2, 1947. As she couldn't appear in person, All India Radio suggested she record some discs and have them sent to Delhi where he was in residence. Gandhi particularly wanted to hear "Hari Tuma Haro" whose haunting refrain translates, "Oh Lord, take away the pain from mankind." Not knowing this bhajan she suggested another singer, but he refused, saying he would rather hear her speak the words than another sing them.
SUBBULAKSHMI learned and recorded the song the night of September 30th, finishing at 2 a.m. The disc, sent off by plane, was played on what was to be Gandhi's last birthday. Three months later he was dead by an assassin's bullet. When the announcement of his death was reported over the radio, it was followed by the playing of SUBBULAKSHMIs recording of "Hari Tuma Haro." Hearing her own voice singing his favorite bhajan was unnerving and SUBBULAKSHMI finds to this day that "Hari Tuma Haro" brings a flood of memories of that tragic time.
Gandhi was not the only major Indian political figure who enjoyed SUBBULAKSHMIs singing. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru seldom missed a concert of hers in Delhi and referred to her as "the Queen of Song."
The other phase of the career that has endeared SUBBULAKSHMI to her countrymen is that of using her voice to raise money for good causes. SUBBULAKSHMI herself regards public service as a natural outgrowth of the devotion to God which, she feels, is the essence of music. "Once we regard the Divinity within us with devotional fervor [bhakti]," she says, "we are bound to develop the same affection towards everything outside . . . .When the devotee has attained this state, service to the world becomes his creed." The first occasion in which she sang in a cause was in 1944 in connection with the Memorial Fund for Kasturba, the wife of Gandhi. Rajagopalacharia, Chief Minister of Madras State, asked for her cooperation in this effort and, as the "result of strong convictions and much thought," she consented. Her five concerts throughout South India raised 80,000 rupees (US$24,500).
During the following three decades SUBBULAKSHMI has given more than 200 benefit performances and raised well over Rs. 10,000,000 for various Indian charities. Two causes close to her heart have been the Gandhi Memorial Fund and the fund in honor of the 100th anniversary of the death of Tyagaraja, one of the three great composers of Karnatic songs. Other beneficiaries have been various hospital, religious and educational institutions such as the Sevoor T. B. Sanatorium, the Kamala Nehru Hospital, the Ramkrishna Mission, the South Indian Education Society, the Indraprastha College for Women and the Madras Music Academy's Building Fund.
In recognition of her efforts SUBBULAKSHMI received the Padma Bhushan (lit. With Lotus Flowers or Jewels Bedecked) from the Government of India in 1955, the first musician to be so honored. In making the presentation the President of India commented, "her music is a gift of the gods which she has placed at the service of the nation." In 1956 she received the President's National Award for Classical Karnatic Music and the same year was nominated to membership in the Sangeet Natak Akademi (National Academy of Music, Dance and Drama), a high honor for a performing artist.
In 1963 SUBBULAKSHMI was invited to participate in the Edinburgh Festival and traveled to Europe for the first time. Unexpectedly since, contrary to popular cliché, music is not an international language but the deepest expression of a specific cultureshe found there an enthusiastic reception. The Times of London commented: "The vocal music of another culture is often felt to be harder to understand than its instrumental music, but this feeling is not always justified, and SUBBULAKSHMI is an excellent introducer of the beauties and intricacies of Karnatic song." The Scotsman added: "We listen to a superb artist singing in her native improvisatory style. The barriers become academic, and similarities become obvious." SUBBULAKSHMI herself concluded that "if one sings with sincerity and devotion, such music has the capacity to move the audience to divine experience, irrespective of their religious beliefs, their language and the countries to which they may belong."
Finishing in Edinburgh she went back to London where she gave a recital and made a number of recordings for the British Broadcasting Corporation. These performances were followed by informal recitals in several European cities and were climaxed by a concert in Cairo where she met the premier singer of the Middle East, Om Kalsum. This meeting was particularly meaningful because SUBBULAKSHMI's popularity in India is often likened to that of Om Kalsum's in the Arab world. The music of both women cuts across national boundaries and appeals to pundits and the masses alike.
In October 1966 SUBBULAKSHMI flew to the United States to sing as her country's representative at the United Nations in connection with United Nations Day observances. Her reputation had preceded her and she received an ovation even before she came on stage. During the next seven weeks she performed across the United States from Boston to San Francisco and back. One critic wrote: "A more educated and pedigreed singing art would be hard to imagine. The listener may well find himself under something close to a hypnotic spell." The San Francisco Chronicle greeted her singing as "a series of miracles." The reviewer exclaimed: "Her elaborate vocal filigree, sometimes sung in unison or octaves with her daughter Radha Viswanathan, were unbelievable in their poised ease and constancy of flow . . . . She sings with a reedy yet dark voice and the most extraordinary flexibility. Like sleight-of-hand she throws out embellishments almost too fast to hear." Her other stepdaughter Vijaya also accompanied her on the tour, playing the tambura, a four or five stringed instrument that provides essential background harmony.
The Madras Music Academy in 1968 elected SUBBULAKSHMI to preside over its Annual Conference, the first woman so honored. As Krishnaswamy noted, "the credit for elevating the status of lady artists to a place of equality with men goes to Srimati SUBBULAKSHMI." On the concluding day of the session, January 2, 1969, the Minister for Civil Education conferred on her the highly coveted title, Sangita Kalanidhi (Master of Musical Arts). The citation recognized that she was: "endowed with a voice of unique sweetness and richness and an ability to harmonize strict standards and popular appeal and to do justice to the music of the South as well as the North. She has been the most beloved idol of the public in the recent annals of Indian music."
SUBBULAKSHMI is often questioned concerning the training of singers today. Dealing with techniques, she advises students to train their voices to "traverse the three octaves with felicity, curbing the tendency to branch into falsetto," make the veena their teacher and adhere to tradition, at the same time mastering pronunciation, proper intonation and knowledge of the libretto. "Only hard work can qualify [one] for the task and there is no short cut," she emphasizes. She feels that the gurukala systemthe teacher-disciple relationshipis of great importance and bemoans the fact that it is seldom practical today for a student to live with a guru during his formative years. The guru's role, she notes, is not to teach by rote or foster his own style, but to acquaint the student with traditionally accepted norms of beauty, thus exposing him to the fullness of the past. Students who study in colleges of music, she says, should at least "apprentice themselves under an experienced musician for two or three years thereafter, and attempt to learn the finer points of the art which that musician only will be in a position to teach."
SUBBULAKSHMI always reminds students that technique is not all. Ragas and bhajans, she points out, have been composed for the "purpose of directing the minds of the listeners towards God and his manifestations," and that "one's singing comes through one's own experience and it is this depth of feeling that enables one to communicate with the audience." In fact, expression is more highly sought and judged than quality of voice.
SUBBULAKSHMI fervently believes that in an age when young people are chaffing at the "controls and restraints imposed by various religious and ancient scriptures," music can lend a helping hand in bringing about peace of mind, harmonious relations and good behavior "When we negotiate starry scintillations . . . and when the percussion instruments accompany with gusto, a divine exhilaration steals over the audience . . . . This joy helps toward good conduct. That was why our ancients wove music into the very fabric of our daily lives." To have this effect on an audience, the singer must be virtuous, for "in the mind of a good person, bhakti is an instinctive growth. God himself makes his home in such a mind."
By the same token, SUBBULAKSHMI advocates the compulsory teaching of music at all levels of education, from primary through university. "This does not mean that all [students] should be able to give concerts on the platform," she says. "Just as the study of science leads to the growth of knowledge, the study of music will bring serenity of mind."
Of her own training she says that she frequently sang one practice session, blending her voice with the tambura, the next without accompaniment. When she used the instrument again in the third session she found "there was invariably a perfect harmony between the two." This identity of voice and instrument is highly valued in Indian music. One votary of north Indian song once compared SUBBU LAKSHMI's voice to the shehnai, the double-reed wood wind of his area, noting that "it has the same richness of toneits smoothness, vibrancy and above all its hypnotic quality."
Although she is noted for her extraordinary vocal range, SUBBULAKSHMI "never exceeds the demand of the composition." She goes to the core of the song and shows restraint, rather than "gilding the lily" with virtuoso appurtenances. Restraint also extends to her private life. She is "simple, humble and almost childlike," those who know her report. She dresses quietly, her manner is demure, and although she is now matronly in appearance, her expression is often described as "innocent."
Not unexpectedly, "she talks, sings and lives music twenty-four hours a day," and is deeply religious. The puja (prayer) room in her house has three life-size portraits of Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi Sankaracharya, the saint whom she calls "divinity in flesh and blood," and who has "been instrumental in restoring the faith and religious temperament of the people of Madras and reclaiming many to the path of God" in recent years. As her guru, he selected the verses for the highly popular record she made in 1970 of the Bhajagovindam (some 30 verses composed by the poet-philosopher Sankara in praise of Lord Krishna, which are both musical and of much philosophical content) and Vishnu Sahasranamam (a musical chant of the 1,000 names of Vishnu, one of the three main gods of the Hindu pantheon).
Wherever Indian cultural communities existIndia, Pakistan, Ceylon, Nepal, Malaysia, Burma, South Africa, East Africa and Mauritius, Fiji and the West IndiesSUBBULAKSHMI's music touches a responsive chord. Her popularity and success are due, according to critic Narayana Menon, to her unusual combination of characteristics: "Good looks, intelligence, versatility, character, the humility to learn at all times and from all people. Finally, there is that elusive indefinable gift which few possess and which alone can transform a song into a thing of magic." The President of the National Academy of Music, Dance and Drama of India adds: "Her music is unique in that it has universal appeal; it appeals to the connoisseur, the vidwan who revels in intricate technique, and it appeals equally to the masses of people by its melody and sweetness . . . . In addition to its technical perfection, it is full of the fervour of devotion to God."
As the poet Dharam Bharati says, "If there is radiance in the heart, there will be radiance in the voice."
Hariharan, N. "Art Knows No Barriers," unidentified newspaper clipping, N.d.
"Indian Music," Encyclopedia Britannica. Chicago, Illinois: Encyclopedia Britannica Vol. 12, 1970.
Jagannathan, Maithily. "Queen of Song," Hindustan Times Weekly. Delhi. November 22, 1970.
Joshi Baburao. Understanding Indian Music. New York: Asia Publishing House. 1968.
Menon, V. K. Narayana. M. S. Subbulakshmi. Booklet. Madras, India: Kalki Press. N.d. 8 p.
______."M S. Subbulakshmi," Illustrated Weekly of India. Delhi. November 13, 1955.
______. "A Note on the Music of India," Edinburgh International Festival, Indian Music Events (Program). August 20-September 4, 1963.
"Miracle Indian Music," San Francisco Chronicle. November 7, 1966.
Narasimhan, C. V. Music Recital by Smt. M, S. Subbulakshmi at the United Nations on Sunday. 23 October 1966, in Connection with the Observance of United Nations Day 1966 (Program). 11 p.
______. "She Came, She Sang, She Conquered," from The Subbulakshmi Story, reprinted by The Hindu. Madras, India. Leaflet. N.d. 4 p.
Parthasarathy, T. S. "M. S. Subbulakshmi: Four Decades of Virtuosity," Indian & Foreign Review. Delhi June 15, 1972.
Rangarayan S. Indian Express. Bombay. October 18, 1967.
"Sangita Kalanidhi Title for M. S.," Times of India. Bombay. January 2, 1969.
Sastry, B.V.K. "M. S. Subbulakshmi" Illustrated Weekly of India. Delhi. July 7, 1963.
Subbulakshmi M. S. "Bhakti is the Essence of Music" (Presidential Address). Translated from Tamil by V. T. Sreenivasan and reproduced from Bhavan's Journal. Bombay. August 10 and November 2, 1969.
Letters from and interviews with persons knowledgeable about the work and contributions of M. S. Subbulakshmi.
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