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MS Subbulakshmi

The “Ammu Paati” of Carnatic Music

GRK Murty
Man is endowed with divinity. It is natural for him to transcend gross
materialism. Ideas take shape by an unknown alchemy from within.
This force indeed pervades the whole of universe. Its natural destiny is
true expression. Thus, emerge the arts—literature, music, dance,
sculpture, etc. To enjoy literature—its architectonic quality, harmony
between action and expression, the author’s intense feeling for the
characters that he dramatizes, his allusiveness, the happy coalescence
of matter and style, the marriage between the thought and the form
that confirms to every mood of grace and dignity—one has to read,
reread, think, and meditate upon to understand it; and the more one
meditates, the more the rasa that one enjoys. Unlike literature, to
enjoy music, one need not labor—the very act of listening makes one
swing in beatitude. Which is why it is said: sisurvetti, pasurvetti, vetti
ganarasam phanihi—infants, cattle and snakes too rejoice in the sound
of music.

Music, is known to be sadyaha paranirvrutini—an art that makes one

instantly forget the external world, delivering an indefinable anand—
joy, bliss. At least that’s what happens to the audience when MS
Subbulakshmi, draped in emerald-colored Kanjeevaram silk sari,
adorned with a diamond-studded nose ring that competes with her
pious face radiating virtue which engulfs the audience in serenity, walks
on to the dais and sitting poignantly, sets her tone to the pitch of the
shruti—that ceaseless drone; silence given sound so that never is there
emptiness in the execution of raga; musical composition is never ‘void’,
always ‘full’ filled with the silence of sound—and as the mellifluous
words of the krithi, Teratiyagarada forming natural notes of music pour
out … the listeners, be the lay or connoisseurs of music, simply get
mesmerized by her golden voice, get transported to a new world. Every
lover of music reveres her as an angel of music and as she renders krithi
after krithi in her flawless style, even tone-deaf swing in trance.

Ninety four years to this month Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbu-

lakshmi, considered as the very incarnation of bhakti, was born on 16th
September of 1916 in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. She was introduced to Carnatic
music at a very early age. She received training in classical Carnatic music under
Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and Hindustani classical music under Pundit Narayan
Rao Vyas. She released her first album at the mere age of 10! She gave a
stunning performance at the Madras Music Academy at a young age of 17.

Pundits of Carnatic music said of her: “Child you carry the veena in
your throat”. Bade Gulam Alikhan, a thespian of Hindustani music said
of her: Suswaralakshmi Subbulakshmi—goddess of perfect tone and
auspiciousness. It is not the technique of execution of a raga, rather it
is the communication of a mood, an ecstasy of emotion— rasadhwani,
the experience of the ultimate unison with the supreme—that enabled
her to earn plaudits from fellow musicians belonging to different
cultures and systems of music.

Though she hailed from Tamil Nadu, she could sing Guru Nanak’s
Nam japan kyon chod diya that is in a language other than her mother
tongue, with ‘pleas’ pouring out from deep within. Her bhajans in Hindi
in right intonation made her popular all over India. Listening to her
singing the moving composition, Vaishnava Janato, one can’t but shed
tears. Even lay men with no understanding of Sanskrit could sway with
‘bhakti’ that they could sense in MS’s rendition of Venkateswara
Suprabhatam or Annapoornashtakam in chaste Sanskrit. The way she
sings Vishnu Sahasranamam, her devotion, her tone, her pitch, her
perfect pronunciation which is inimitable and flawless makes even
pundits of Sanskrit wonder: “How does she have that flawless
enunciation we scholars are unable to achieve through several birth

As she sings Annamacharya Samkeertanas, every Telugu speaking

music lover listening to her rendition cannot but wonder if even Telugu
people can pronounce Annamayya’s lyrics that are loaded with
aspirated consonants such as Nidhi… vidhanamu…; Idiye sadhanamu
ihaparamulakunu… sulabhamu soukhayamu sobhana tilakamu, as MS
could with perfection. It is essential to remember here that Tamil, the
mother tongue of MS does not have such aspirated consonants and yet
her diction is as perfect as that of a native speaker.

This leaves one in wonder: How could she enchant the commoner as
well as pundits of all languages of India by singing kritis written in so
many different languages with equal felicity? The answer is simple: It is
her phenomenal devotion to music which enabled her to go under the
skin of each word in the kriti of whatever language, internalize its
meaning and emote its soul through her golden voice in perfect sruti
alignment and fidelity to raga. She remained a lifelong learner. She
acquired compositions in several languages from a host of
practitioners, all with a longing for perfection. She humbly practiced
thinking more deeply and ripely about the bhava of every word and it is
with respect and humility that she brought out the soul of the words in
a kriti—be it in any language. It is simply her grasp of technique and
immense devotion to tradition that made her a pan-Indian favorite.

Here, we need to appreciate two facts of life: though our genetic

inheritance proves that as individuals we derive from many other
individuals, we are nevertheless innately ‘tribal’ in our approach to the
world, closely affiliated to small well-definable entities. Yet MS could
overcome these barriers by practicing her music ‘counter-intuitively’
and transform herself into a multicultural and multilingual musician
that too, with perfection. The central message of her musical
accomplishments is that when a kriti is sung by acquiring a right
proportion of the raga, bhava, and laya it becomes Sudharasam,
nectar, leading listeners to tranquility and instant supreme

This great soul—Tapaswini of Carnatic music—passed away on 11th

December 2004 in Chennai at the age of 88. Her sonorous music will, of
course, live forever.


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