Subbulakshmi: The Eighth Note of The Octave

Legendary Carnatic singer M.S. Subbulakshmi. Source: Feminism in India.

“कौसल्या सुप्रजा  राम पूर्वासंध्या प्रवर्तते | 
उत्तिष्ठ नरशार्दूल कर्तव्यं दैवमाह्निकम्…”

Everyday a divine voice echoes in many temples and homes of South India at dawn, showering holiness in the surroundings. That’s the Nightingale of India – Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi alias M.S. as popularly known amongst her fans! 

She was the first musician to be honoured by the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award proving that one is known not by one’s janma but by one’s karma.

A child prodigy born in a family of musicians from Madurai, M.S. gave a magnificent performance at the tender age of 13 and didn’t look back. She received extensive training in Carnatic music by Semmangudi Iyer.

In her early years, she acted in a few films amongst which Sevasadan was a pathbreaking film, depicting the ill custom of jarath–kumari vivah, (abnormal marriages between young girls and old men). In a way, she was instrumental in raising this issue for social reform. It reminds of a similar role played by Balgandharva in the Marathi musical play Sangeet Sharada, which served as a catalyst for passing the Child Marriage Restraint act. 

M.S. also acted in films to raise money for launching a nationalist Tamil weekly Kalki, established
by her freedom fighter husband Kalki Sadasinan, a well-known figure in the Madras Congress. Her
role of Saint Meerabai in the film Meera which was released in both, Hindi and Tamil, gave her
recognition at a national level. 

These roles left a deep impact on her and contributed a lot in building her monumental personality.
M. S was not fascinated by the glorious career in films and later she concentrated solely on music
and became one of the leading singers in Carnatic music.

A significant facet of her musical personality was her training in Carnatic as well as Hindustani
music; as she was also the disciple of Pt. Narayanrao Vyas of Gwalior Gharana. She recorded many
Meera bhajans including the famous Vaishnav Jana to tene kahiye with the Carnatic flavour. These
were highly appreciated all over India.

M.S. also became a role model of national integration through music as she sang devotional
compositions in many languages including Sanskrit, Hindi, Malayalam, Tamil, Bengali and Gujarati.
She illuminated the treasure of Sanskrit Stotras like Bhaj Govindam by Adi Shankaracharya,
Madhurashtakam by Mahaprabhu Vallabhacharya, Venkateshwar Suprabhatam by Anantacharya,
and the chants of Vishnu Sahasranam.

She also performed on prestigious international platforms like Edinburg International festival of
music, Royal Albert Hall London, Carnegie Hall New York and United Nations. M.S. was hailed
internationally and became an ambassador of Indian music.

It is no surprise that M.S. received numerous prestigious awards such as the Ramon Magsasay
award, the Kalidas Samman, the Padma Bhushan and Vibhushan, and ultimately, the Bharat Ratna. 
She donated the enormous wealth she gained from her concerts and these awards to many charity
organisations and Ved Pathashalas. The elite list of her fans included legendary personalities such as
Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Ustad Bade Gulam Ali Khan. Rightly described by
Ganasaraswati Kishori Amonkar as the Aathawa Soor – eighth note of the octave – and rightly so.
M.S. Subbulakshmi was indeed the symbol of pinnacle and fulfilment!

Dr Pournima Dhumale

Dr Pournima Dhumale is a renowned classical music singer of the Agra Gharana. She is also an A grade artist of the All India Radio for classical singing.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.

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