Subbulakshmi, M. S.

views updated


SUBBULAKSHMI, M. S. (1916–2004), Indian vocalist Madurai Shanmugavadivu Subbulakshmi, a charismatic singer from South India, was venerated as an outstanding exponent of Karnātak vocal music. "M. S.," as she was popularly known to her millions of fans around the world, was considered the "embodiment of music." Her music appealed to both the uninitiated and the learned with its sophistication and profundity.

Born into a family of professional musicians on 16 September 1916, Subbulakshmi was a child prodigy. Her mother, Shanmugavadivu, was a competent vina player, and Subbulakshmi took her initial lessons on the vina from her mother. Shrinivas Iyengar and M. Subraminiya Iyer taught her vocal music, as did Dakshinamurthy Pillai and veteran Karnātak singer Semangudi Srinivas Iyer.

Total concentration on the alignment of microtones, caressing diction, and purity of swarasthanams, or note positions, are some of the hallmarks of Subbulakshmi's music. Her dignified stage presence, enchanting voice, versatility, and humility enhanced her career, as did her linguistic ability. She did not indulge in showmanship. Devotion was her main driving force, and her vocal communication tended to transcend words. She could simultaneously cater to the most exacting demands of an orthodox Mylapur Madras audience and also touch the heartstrings of a mammoth gathering at the Harvallbh Mela (a musical soiree held annually in the precincts of a temple in Julunder).

Subbulakshmi also acted in films in the 1940s; her portrayal of the poet-saint Mīrabai catapulted her to fame throughout India, and even Mahatma Gandhi became her fan. Thanks to her husband Sadashivam, who was a close associate of Chakravarty Rajagopalachari, Subbulakshmi was exposed to the ideals of the national movement. She enjoyed a rapport with leaders like Sarojini Naidu, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Indira Gandhi. Nehru called her "Queen of Song" and Naidu surrendered her poetic title, "The Nightingale," to her. Since Karnātak music has its origins in the ancient temples, in whose precincts the ecstatic Hindu saints sang their songs to the gods, a devout singer like Subbulakshmi built her musical interpretation on devotion to God.

The peak of her long career was her performance before the United Nations General Assembly in 1966, at the invitation of Secretary General U Thant. On this occasion she urged all nations to give up aggression and cultivate friendship. The government of India decorated her with Bharat Ratna, its highest civilian honor. Subbulakshmi died on 11 December 2004.

Amarendra Dhaneshwar

See alsoMusic: Karnātak


Gangadhar, V. M. S. Subbulakshmi: The Voice Divine. Kolkata: Rupa and Co., 2002.

George, T. J. S. M. S. Subbulakshmi: A Biography. New Delhi: HarperCollins India, 2004.

Raghuvanshi, Alka. A Moment in Time with Legends of IndianArts. New Delhi: Government of India, 1996.

Ramnarayan, Gowri. Past Forward: Six Artists in Search ofTheir Childhood. Delhi and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.