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court patronage, Tanjore ceased to be the principal cultural center by the first half of the nineteenth century and was superseded by Madras as the city of opportunities (…).”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.
The early 20th century saw the advent of the gramophone era. The recording technology revolutionised the music industry and opened the gates of Carnatic music for women. Says Indian Classical musician and social activist Vidya Shah, in INKtalk How Women Shaped Indian Classical Music: “Women were at the forefront of this phenomenon. They were the ones who recorded more than anybody else.” And therefore, despite the prevailing skepticism pertaining to the new technology, women took a risk and created for themselves an avenue to pursue a respectable career in music.
It was during this time that M S Subbulakshmi was born. 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. And very soon, she was even performing at the prestigious Madras Music Academy. Writes anthropologist turned author Amanda J Weidman in her book Singing the Classical, Voicing the Modern: The Post-colonial Politics of Music in South India: “Her concerts attracted the elite of Madras at the time, a group of Brahmin or other high caste men who considered themselves aestheticians, journalists and freedom fighters.” It is awe-inspiring that despite being a woman, MS managed to earn her place in the Carnatic music industry. What MS probably didn’t know then was that she would soon be a cultural torchbearer of Carnatic music.
Throughout her career, MS often included various genres of music in her concerts. And in doing so, she helped Carnatic music transcend cultural boundaries. Her flawless rendition of keerthana with its technicalities–niraval (extempore improvisation), swara (pitch) and pallavi (thematic line of a song)–brought her fame in South India. Later, when she began including Bhakti poems by Kabir, Guru Nanak, Surdas, and the like, with Carnatic songs in her broadcasts and concerts, Carnatic music reached people from across the country, bringing both the genre and MS national recognition. When in Calcutta, she could sing Rabindra Sangeet flawlessly; in Pune, she confidently sang the verses of Tukaram; in Delhi, she brought Tulsidas to life; and in Madras, she sang keerthanas of Tyagaraja. This way, she not only took Carnatic music far and wide, but also managed to revive the poetry of poet-saints.
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.
By the 1960s, MS was already a reputed Carnatic musician in India, and she went on to become an international icon. Carnatic musician though she was, she included songs from various languages and styles in her concerts for a western audience. For instance, at her landmark concert at the Carnegie Hall in 1966 (UN General Assembly), she presented 30 songs in over half a dozen languages, a performance that earned her a standing ovation. At the Afro-Asian Congress of Ophthalmology held in Madras, MS sang a multilingual (Arabic, Japanese, English, Sanskrit and Tamil) invocation song for international dignitaries, interlacing some of its lyrics with her Carnatic style of singing. With this, MS not only successfully crossed the barriers of language but also became the first woman to take Carnatic music to the world.
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. With her inclusive approach, the genre took flight and soared beyond cultural and geographical boundaries. Indeed, M S Subbulakshmi wasn’t just a music doyen of South India, but a cultural proponent of Carnatic music.