Hindustani musician Bade Ghulam Ali Khan called her ‘Suswaralakshmi Subbulakshmi.’ Poet Sarojini Naidu called her the ‘Nightingale of India’. Playback singer Lata Mangeshkar called her a ‘Tapaswini’. With a divine voice and perfect pitch, complete with bhava (emotion) and bhakti (devotion), Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi (affectionately called MS) went on to be critically acclaimed in the Carnatic music industry.
Her musical gift is not the sole reason her legacy lives on. MS played a vital role in taking Carnatic music beyond geographical and cultural boundaries, making it accessible to people from all walks of life. Traditionally, Carnatic music was a luxury; kings and aristocrats were its sole patrons. Under the rule of the Maratha kings in the 17th century AD, this art form flourished in Tanjore. At the time, Carnatic music was rather caste-driven and male-dominant; Brahmin men were often the vocalists and the Isai Vellalars percussion instrumentalists. Female musicians came predominantly from the devadasi (courtesan) community. But alas, they were ‘wed to the temple deities’ and sang only in temples.
Eventually, in the 19th century AD, monarchs lost their status and power under the British rule. Professor of History and Culture Lakshmi Subramanian in her book New Mansions for Music: Performance, Pedagogy and Criticism writes: “With the decline in court patronage, Tanjore ceased to be the principal cultural center by the first half of the nineteenth century and was superseded by Madras as the city of opportunities (…).” Subramanian explains how this shift happened when the wealthy merchants, intellectuals, and businessmen who had settled in Madras became Carnatic music’s new patrons. They encouraged the formation of sabhas and performance of this music in kutcheri (concert halls). Even though Carnatic music was still male-dominated and caste-based, for the first time, it went beyond the walls of temples and courts.
A child prodigy, MS recorded her first release with HMV, a recording company, when she was just 13 years old. Bold and confident, the young MS even ventured on to give concerts.
It is said that music transcends all kinds of barriers. And MS helped Carnatic music do just that. She was a forerunner in opening the gates of Carnatic music to people from all walks of life.