Happy 95th: The sublime comfort of MS Subbulakshmi

by Vishnu Vasudev

Today MS Subbulakshmi is 95. Or rather she would have been 95. But it's hard to use the past tense for MS.

Almost seven years after her passing, she remains Carnatic musics biggest name and greatest ambassador. She is the one who represented us to the world singing at the UN General Assembly way back in 1966.

Her voice singing "Hari tum haro " told thousands and thousands of Indians that the Mahatma was gone.

She is the voice of Meera to millions.

And she remains the sweetest alarm clock known to mankind, readying mortals for the daily grind with the same care with which she awakes Lord Venkateshwara through her Suprabhatam.

Image from IBNLive.com

Image from IBNLive.com

She has, unfairly to those that have followed, set the benchmark for what we expect of our musicians — to be meticulous, cheerful, humble, traditional, eminently presentable, innocent, accessible and still crowd pleasing. It is because she sang with such apparent bhakti that those who are technically brilliant but seem to be without outward signs of bhakti are regarded as incomplete.

Her perfect packaging was in many ways the result of a project choreographed by her husband, mentor and manager T Sadashivam.  He is known to have planned her appearances, managed her careers (both film and music), arranged access to the likes of Nehru and Gandhi who duly heaped praise on her, chaperoned her from one concert platform to another recording, and even planned out the song lists.

But on the stage, the music was hers.  And after all these years, despite her saintly persona and many avatars, it is the music by which we remember her. It is the music that will affect us. And after all these years, it is still difficult to pinpoint what exactly it was about her music that makes it so wonderful even to many who don't understand the intricacies of Carnatic music. Is it even possible to appreciate the music without appreciating the person (or persona)?

Technically, she was not a brilliant virtuoso like MLV (ML Vasanthakumari, who along with MS and DK Pattammal constitute the great female vocal trinity in Carnatic music). She was not adventurous in her selection of krithis or ragas — she did not play the great guessing game that audiences look forward to. Her concerts were in many ways more or less predictable — the types of ragas, the structure of her improvisations (alapana, neraval and swara-kalpana) and the tukkadas at the end — there was no excitement in that.

Her music seems more suited to the visceral and heartfelt compositions of Thyagaraja rather than the more academic and structured compositions of Muthuswami Dikshitar.  Yet my favourite rendition of Dikshitar's Shri Kanthimathim in the raga Hemavati remains the one MS did. She did not have a distinctive style of her own — her musical mentor was the great Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer — and as a result, does not leave a legion of disciples.

Watch video of Hari tum Haro

What she did have, of course was a clear, resounding voice. Chembai Vaidhyanatha Bhagvathar's voice was likened to the ringing of a temple bell, and perhaps the voice of MS is the only other that fits the same description. It was perfectly pitch aligned (imperfect pitch alignment plagues Carnatic musicians even today). And it was pleasing to all.

Beyond that voice, we have to fall back on bhakti. As a not so religious person, I prefer bhava or feeling. Her music was filled with feeling. She was immersed in her music, and it showed. Even if predictable, it was freshly felt music each time because she felt it freshly each time. And therefore real, meaningful and tangible. Even if I do not care much for Rama, or fully understand the Telugu lyrics, the hope and anticipation I feel when listening to her rendition of Thyagara's Rama Nannu Brovara are real. Her neraval (a type of improvisation at "Meppulakai" might be well worn but is still exciting.

I suppose what I am saying is that her music to me is the equivalent of comfort food. But comfort food can be winner. There was news recently of a chef winning Top Chef Masters by cooking upma. MS may have sung at the UN, but she was singing, really, for me. When in doubt, MS.  When down, definitely MS. Her predictability, is amazingly, her strength.

She may be an ambassador, but to me, she is a friend.  Who sings.

Vishnu Vasudev is a stategy and risk management consultant to the Financial Services industry. He has been a thankful rasika of Carnatic Music for a while now, in large part due to his parents.

Watch video of Vathapi ganapathim

Watch video of Bhaja Govindam

Updated Date: Sep 16, 2011 16:36 PM