First published in The Bengal Post
Thursday was MS Subbulakshmi’s 94th birth anniversary. She has been gone for nearly six years now, leaving a huge void in the lives of thousands of worshippers of her grand music and her near divine aura. Yet, she is ever present in those lives, to go by the number of families for whom the day starts with her Sri Venkatesa Suprabhatam broadcast every morning by All India Radio.
The sheer magic of her voice followed me as I walked through the streets of one of the humbler settlements of Chennai the other day, with home after home waking to the reverberant cadences of her chants. It was but a logical epilogue to a life whose funeral was attended by a remarkable number of mourners from the poorest sections of society, as quietly dignified in their grief as the elite and the cognoscenti among the varied assemblage at her earthly abode.
My earliest memories of MS Subbulaksmi are of concerts at Mylapore, Chennai, back in the late 1950s, when I, Carnatic music ignoramus though I was, could not help being mesmerised by her glorious voice, especially her tremendous reach in the higher registers. She was relatively young, and her voice was still evolving into the majestic form it achieved in her mature years.
The first time I saw her at close quarters was some ten years later at Vasant Vihar, the Greenways Road home of the Krishnamurti Foundation. It was at a mellow, meditative concert for the benefit of Jiddu Krishnamurti, and the fortunate few who had gathered there were able to catch a glimpse of greatness up close.
My next memory of MS is from a cutcheri at the Madras University Centenary auditorium in 1969. I was seated next to her grandniece who was to become my wife soon afterwards—though neither of us knew it then.
By sheer fluke, I guessed the name of a raga right—it was a close shave, because I debated between two choices, and mentally tossed a coin before stumbling on the right answer—and that must have impressed my companion.
Marriage brought me into the privileged circle of those fortunate enough to know MS on a personal level. Amazingly, during home visits or at weddings, she would happily sing alone or lead a chorus with no concern for the level of accomplishment of her accompanists.
One unforgettable experience was listening to MS at a simple family ceremony in 1993, when she sang sitting on the rough floor of a house still under construction. She was in magnificent voice and the whole room was surcharged with emotion as her sonorous tones filled the place with an aura of sheer devotion.
My thoughts were full of my father who had passed away months earlier, and it was a rare moment of sublimation such as I had never experienced before.
Like everyone who has come into contact with MS, I was struck by her simplicity. Her essential goodness is foremost in the memories of most who knew her—as much as the sublimity of her music.
Thousands of ambitious parents must have paraded their offspring’s musical talent before her. Not only did she patiently listen to everyone of these amateur outpourings, she never hurt the feelings of the most cacophonic of their authors.
The harshest criticism was a smiling, “You must work very hard.”
She was a simple human being all right, self effacing, shy, anxious to make a good impression, even nervous about her English. But she always rose to the occasion. After practising her lines with Eliza Dolittle-like diligence (“How kind of you to come!” and so on), when Sonia Gandhi came to condole her husband’s death, she melted everyone’s heart by holding the visitor’s hands and spontaneously saying, “What is my grief before yours?”
It was the kind of grace that made her the magnificent icon she was..