Saturday, February 17, 2007

MS -The Carnatic Queen

Perhaps on the very mention of the word MS, the thing that crop up in our mind is that of a degree abroad. Being a college student we are accustomed to this more popular perception of MS. In music afficanado circles, it refers to M Subbulaksmi, the perhaps one of the greatest of Carnatic maestros.
There used to exist a club called the None Such Reader's Club at SASTRA (under the aegis of the redoubtable Prof. K. G. Seshadri ). Sadly now it has ceased to exist. ( the reasons are obvious, poor patronage of course. Hardly a dozen turn up at the club meets). In honour of the memory of the club, I had prepared a draft book review based on the popular biography of MS by T.P.J. George( of the Indian Express). I reproduce the text below.

Dedicated in memory of the None Such Club

MS-A Life in Music

There is a popular adage that music transcends all barriers. MS Subbulakshmi’s music is the finest illustration of this statement. The persona of MS has more to it than just her music. Her mellifluous voice, mastery over Carnatic music, command over the intricate diction of Sanskrit and Tamil music, unflinching devotion to bhakti and above all a sense of unparallel humanism, has conquered the hearts and minds of millions, not only in India, but across the world.

Her biography by T.J.S.George, a freelance journalist and author, based in Bangalore, captures the essence of her music and life. His book entitled ‘MS-A life in Music’ not only throws light on the life and times of MS Subbulakshmi, but traces the origin of Classical art form in South India, starting from the era of ‘devadasi’ with emphasis on both music and dance. He concentrates more on the evolution of the modern Carnatic music and the influence of technological innovations like cinema and gramophone in shaping the art forms. The book incorporates subtle references to the dominating influence of MS Subbulakshmi’s husband Sadasivam. The author adopts a true scholarly outlook by delegating the judgment of Sadasivam’s character to the readers themselves, instead of taking a one sided stance. He presents to us a microcosm of the incipient Tamil film industry of the pre-independence era and finally concludes with essays on the unique blend of bhakti music drawing inspirations from the North and the South of our country.

For most of the younger generation today perceive that Carnatic music to be centuries old with a strict static nature that renders it impervious to any adaptations. But in reality Carnatic music is just about two hundred years old and the fact is, it mutates time and again to suit the needs and taste of the people. It took its roots only during the British colonization of most parts of South India. In fact even the term the ‘Carnatic’ is a corrupt connotation popularized by the colonial powers in India. In general it initially refers to people of Karnatak (or Canara), but later on it assumed a pan-south conglomeration after the events of Carnatic Wars and the dynasty of the Nawabs of Carnatic(actually based in Arcot in northern Tamil Nadu).

It was Purandara Dasa, belonging to the period of Vijaynagar Empire of the fifteenth century, who laid the foundation to the modern science of Carnatic music comprising of raga, taal and sruti. The emphasis was more on the rhythm and its technicalities. The music that was evolved was rich but too complicated to appeal the masses. This was the primary drawback for Carnatic music failure to appeal artists transcending caste hierarchies. The invasion of the Muslim kingdoms of the Mughal era pushed this developing music to temporary oblivion. However even in these bleak times the traditional music belong to bhakti cult of Saivism, Vaishnavaism etc, flourished in Tamil kingdoms primarily due religious patronage and mass appeal. Also language played a pivotal role in popularizing the appeal of music, as people of the South preferred their native Dravidian tongue to alien Sanskrit. The lessons learnt during this period of temporary oblivion was vital to resuscitate the Carnatic music later, as it offered a valuable lesson that to sustain, the music must adapt constantly to changing milieu.

The much needed fillip to the Carnatic music occurred in later half of the eighteenth century due to the untiring efforts of the Divine Trinity of Thiagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshitar and Shyama Sastri. By strange coincidence all three founding Fathers of Carnatic music belonged to the same village of Thiruvaiyaru near Thajavur.
Thiruvaiyaru is aptly referred to as the birth place of Carnatic music and even today an annual festival is organized in the month of January every year to commemorate the birth anniversary of Saint Thiagaraja. The Carnatic music they proposed had Sanskrit and Telugu compositions as its inspirational core. This was partly due to the fact that the ruling Nayaks were Telugu and the court language was also the same. But the influence of Tamil isai (or music) to Carnatic music was brought about only later. This kind resurgent regionalism demanding incorporation of native language was partly aimed to defy the Brahmin hegemony and also to give it a mass appeal by cashing on the nationalist fervor of that time. Ultimately the Tamil isai enthusiasts had there say and gradually even Malayalam started making inroads into the Carnatic music. After acquiring a pan-south identity time was ripe for Carnatic music to grow leaps and bounds.

Befitting the pan-south reach of Carnatic music, Madras, the capital of British administered Presidency, became the capital city of Carnatic music. The establishment of the Madras Music Academy catapulted the Brahmin ghetto of Mylapore to the status of a kind of ‘Vatican Council’ of Carnatic music. Overnight Brahmins became the custodian of the music. An approval of the Brahmin ‘popes’ of Mylapore shabahs became quintessential for any musician even to pursue Carnatic music, let alone shine in that field. How did the guardianship of Carnatic music fell into the sole discretion of the Brahmins? Was is it entrusted to them or was it hijacked by the community to fortify its hegemonic social order? The history behind social patronage to arts is certainly an interesting one worth mentioning here.

Kanchi Achariya once remarked that the sole purpose of existence of Brahmin community was to preserve, protect and interpret Vedas for benefit of mankind. Indeed the social order that prevailed for centuries, as dictated the tenets of Varna Dharma, confined Brahmins to sole purpose of addressing the spiritual needs of the society. In the medieval times the art form, especially music and dance, was patronized by women community collectively represented as devadasis (meaning-women in the service of God). The Royal houses of the South India sustained these devadasi communities by extending grants to the temples to which these women were ordained. But the social system was to fragile to last in that way. In course of time expansionist and colonial powers made in roads into the south. In course of time the very sanctity of devadasis was debauched. The winds of change forced the devadasi community to adopt art as a means of survival. The sense of vacuum caused by the now defiled devadasi community was conveniently filled up by the Brahmin community.




The entry of Brahmins in art and music breathed a fresh lease of life to it. No longer was music considered a pastime of the defiled class. Every Brahmin family now perused music with vigour and in course of time a generation of new talents (read Brahmin talents) emerged into picture. Oddly even in modern times (pre-independence British rule) devadasis enjoyed a considerable degree of respect. An interesting anecdote which is quoted in the book is how once a prominent devadasi musician once declared in the august assembly at Thiruvaiyaru music festival that she was a Thevar-adiyal (meaning servant of God). Since this word cognates with the word Thevadiyal (meaning a prostitute), it caused a sense of bewilderment and amusement among the audience.

But the prospect of double discrimination, both gender-based and caste-based, was always looming large on the community. It is rather surprising to note that Subbulaksmi’s mother Shanmughavadivu herself belonged to the devadasi community. Usually devadasis trace their lineage through maternal lines alone. The father figure usually remains anonymous or known only in close circles. Another social machination of the hegemonic Brahminism culture was that a Brahmin was ennobled to wed a devadasi, in addition to his legal wife, under the pretext of benevolence and social support. This arrangement was also a blatant reflection of male dominated society’s selfish arrangement of convenience. The system provided relief to devadasis as it offered dignity and partial social acceptance. In course of time many legislative acts were passed in abolition of the devadasi system and even the very name of the caste devadasi was re-christened as Isai Vellalar (those who practice music) in Tamil Nadu during the Dravidian party rule. In course of time, the Devadasis became the footnote inn the history of art and culture.

The nuances of Carnatic music, developed over the years, are certainly interesting to read. In earlier times the a typical musical session would go on for hours together at night, with each singer and instrument artist taking turns to render their skills. It was the scholarly Muthuswamy Dikshitar who encouraged innovations in Carnatic music. He and his brother learnt to play violin under the tutelage of a British instructor at Madras (then a settlement known as Fort St George). Soon the violin became a staple of Carnatic music as miridangam. Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyer, aptly crowned the Rajah of Carnatic Music, pioneered the modern kutcheri format. He developed a new three tier format of kutcheri that includes a varnam, pallavi and mangalam. The varnam set the tempo for the evening kutcheri, followed by the Ragam-thanam-pallavi (RTP in popular parlance) wherein the artist manodharma is put to the test. The rendition of the final segment provides a soothing and benedictory valediction.

Technological innovations have also contributed to the spectacular reach of Carnatic music. The first Gramophone company, His Master’s Voice (HMV), was established way back in 1910 in Calcutta. The necessity of recording companies to supply to the emerging markets forced them to scout for new talents across the region. Radio arrived a decade after the Gramophones, although they were managed by amateur clubs. The British administered monopoly station All India Radio was established in 1936 at Madras and Trichy in the south. But one important aspect that was incorporated to Carnatic music as the result of radio and gramophone was brevity.

The three minutes recording time of typical 10 inch shellac disc gramophone and the AIR decree restricting a kutcheri to a two hour format became the norm. Carnatic music grudgingly had to come to terms with brevity. The tinsel town Talkies also left their indelible mark on the music form. Since the song had to be sung while the camera rolled, Carnatic artists and musicians made a bee line to the incipient movie industry. Even MS followed the same path to attain stardom. Artists like G. N. Balasubramanaim, S.G.Kittappa, F.G. Natesa Iyer and many others came up only through cinema. Perhaps the greatest star among all them is undoubtedly M. K. Thiagaraja Bhagavadhar, who still venerated as the first super star of Tamil cinema.

MS Subbulaksmi was born out of two mothers, Madurai city and Shanmughavadivu, both symbolizing the fundamental ethos of Tamil culture. Madurai city was then, like centuries preceding it, dominated by the temple of Meenakshi Sundaraeser. The family of Shanmughavadivu, like thousands of others, identified themselves with the sound, smell and heartbeat of the crowded and bustling Temple town streets. Life at their two room house at West Tower street alleyway was dictated by the mother. In the absence of a father figure she attended the needs of the children alone. People speculate that MS father could be Madurai Pushpavanam Iyer, the eccentric yet proficient Carnatic maestro, or it could be the eminent lawyer Subramania Iyer. Either of men mattered little for the family, as the absence of a ‘man of a house’ was never an issue. MS had two other siblings, one being an elder brother Shaktivel and a younger sister Vadivambal. They led a simple life devoid of any creature comforts. MS school education was discontinued after class five, for she feared teacher’s cruelty. Only the son Shaktivel persisted and obtained a college degree later on. Curiously among the three siblings only MS had a nickname of Kunjamma which was to persist through out her life.

MS proclivity towards music was noticed at a very young age. Her mother encouraged her to accompany her veena concerts. She was tutored by mother initially followed by professional instructions by eminent musicians of the city. For MS, Carnatic music was an intuitive gift rather than an acquired skill. She went on to orchestrate her first stage performance at the age of ten for the opening of a cycle shop, which later emerged as the auto conglomerate giant TVS. Her performance was recorded by a gramophone company under the title ‘Song by Miss Madurai Shanmughavadivu Subbulakshmi Age 10’. The tag MSS was an instant hit among the audience. In course of time the extra S was dispensed with, labeling her with the popular acronym MS.
The success of her debut album firmly positioned here on the trajectory of success. At the age of 15, she went on to stage at the prestigious festival of Mahamaham in Kumbakonam. It was here that her destiny had a strange twist from that of a Carnatic artist to that of a tinsel world actor. The Mahamaham was organized under the illustrious lawyer and cine-producer K. Subramaniam. It was his wife S.D. Subbulakshmi, also a friend of Shanmughavadivu, who recommended a performance slot for MS. Reluctantly he agreed to it. But to his surprise the audience were so enthralled by the MS’ music, that a second slot was given to her, to satiate the musical appetite of the music. Later on Subramaniam even offered MS a role in his latest movie Sevasadanam. Her destiny in the following decade of her life was strangely nurtured in the world of cinema.
Having won the approval of music aficionados of Thanjavur-Kumbakonam, time was ripe for the family to move on to Madras. The hero of the book, Sadasivam, enters the picture, at this stage of MS’s life. The author also throws light on the biography of Sadasivam, especially his turbulent early years. He was born in the family of Thiagaraja Iyer of Triplicane, as the second among the sixteen siblings. His restless pursuits and wild temper rendered his school education incomplete. He was at one time associated with the extremist elements of freedom struggle, thereby inviting arrests and payment of fines. During his formative years in Trichy, he often sneak into the Hostel of the National College (which exist even today) to evade police authorities. Having become disillusioned with the cowardly and meek behaviour of the extremists, he switched his loyalty to Gandhian principles of non-violence and ahimsa. It was under the backdrop of the Civil Disobedience Movement of 1920, that Sadasivam came under the influence of C. Rajagopalachari, the prominent Congress leader at that time. Soon enough Rajagopalachari became a kind of mentor, counsellor and more importantly a father figure to Sadasivam. But Sadasivam found his true ‘vocation’ in the field of the journalism. His job was not that of a journalist at Anada Vikaten rather it was a managerial one. It was here that his association with popular novelist and writer Kalki Krishnamurthy began and lasted through their life span. The fact that one of Sadasivam’s daughters was married to Kalki’s son is a solemn testimony to the bond between these men.

It was Sadasivam’s journalistic credentials that made him acquainted with the movers and shakers of the Madras society. He took personal interest in review of cinema and music. It was with regards to his editorial assignments that he first came acquainted with MS. The undeniable fact is that he fell for her on the first sight. This happened in spite of the fact that he was already married with a young daughter at that time. Even MS fell instinctively dependent on older and experienced Sadasivam, for she was in a helpless uncharted world of cinema. The pressure from her mother to get married to a wealthy Chettiar, reinforced her conviction to escape from the clutches of her mother.

What followed was a drama of epic proportions. No accurate version of events could be obtained, as Sadasivam made sure all facts were obfuscated to his advantage. The author renders the version of S.D. Subbulakshmi who recounted the events to him, when she was in her mid- eighties. The Madurai group headed by brother Shaktivel and MS’s mother, in sheer desperation tried to kidnap MS from Madras. Sadasivam, getting wind of the plot, rescued MS from them in true cinematic style, with the help of police. Sadasivam even went to the extent of sheltering her in his own house, with little regards to accommodate the sentiments of his wife. Having lost MS forever, her mother and family reconciled to city of Madurai. Shanmughavadivu lived alone and died alone, of cancer, in utter remorse and regret. The shooting of Sevasadanam began, and Sadasivam rendered himself as the full time assistant of MS. His overt relationship with MS, about half his own age, drew ire from the circle of family and friends. But Sadasivam brushed aside these arguments with utter disregard. Patiently his wife, Apitha, endured the changes around her, turning a deaf ear to rumours of an affair between her husband and MS. Two years on, with persistent bouts of depression, she died in her native town, in which the coup de grace was rumoured to be self-inflicted.
MS started working on her first film in the year 1936. Throughout the next decade she was undoubtedly the leading star in the Tamil, on par with the established leading film actors like S.D. Subbulaksmi and K.P. Sunderambal. Strangely she acted in a total of five films spanning the entire decade. With every film being a super hit, that was enough to propel her to the status of a national celebrity. Her film career was meticulously script written by Sadasivam. It was after her second film Shakuntalai, that they married, making the rendering MS under the full authority of Sadasivam. The roles she portrayed on the movies were multifarious, ranging from a young widow to divine characters like Meera and Savitri. Although on camera her acting was deadpan, emphasis on those days was on the ability to sing and captivate the audience. MS enthralled the audience by her mellifluous songs, which includes collections like Brukee Mukunde, Kaatriniyalae, that are mistakenly assumed today to be a part of Carnatic kritis.

Her foray into the movie world was also not free from rumours and controversies. Oddly three of her films were directed by an American director Ellis R. Dungan. It is hard to imagine today that an American, who hardly knew the language, could direct a movie in Tamil. Her on and off screen romance with G.N. Balasubramaniam, was rumoured to incite the jealousy of Sadasivam towards MS. Even their marriage was a secretive and a hurried affair in 1940, with a few of Sadasivam’s friends attending it. The letters written by MS to GNB, as revealed by the author in the book, during that time, showed that there is some element of truth in the rumours that were agog at that time. Sadasivam in his life time made sure only that his version of history is perpetuated. Sadly the truth would never emerge about the circumstances of MS’s marriage to Sadasivam.

MS’s last film Meera was a phenomenal success in both its Tamil and Hindi version. Critics often consider this film to be MS’s magnum opus. The film transformed the lives of the couple in many ways. Sadasivam decided unilaterally that it was time for MS to quit movie once and for all. He felt that the enduring image of Meera was apt to start the next leg of her career as a bhakti proponent. With the status of a national celebrity, Sadasivam’s political mentor Rajagopalachari utilized her musical genius for national cause. MS was prominent in all Congress party funding concerts. Even MS became more involved in bhakti music, transcending regional and linguistic denominations. Encomiums poured in from mighty leaders of that time including Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. It said that the Mountbattens even had a special premiere of the movie Meera, just before their departure. The patronage by the powerful lobby of Mylapore Brahmin network, with the list including T.T.Krishnamachari, Venkatraman, the Kasturi’s of The Hindu, C.V. Narasimhan, Dr. Radhakrishnan and many others, MS status as the grand ambassador of Carnatic music was firmly enshrined in the era of independent India. She even represented India in the United Nations concert in 1966, which was her greatest international musical coup. Her international music accomplishment includes performances at the Carnegie Hall, Edinburgh Music Festival, the Indo-Soviet Festival and many others. But such fame and power made no difference to Kunjamma who devoted her entire life to two things, one being her husband and the other is her music.



Did power bring the necessary social acceptance? It certainly did, but it took time to be bestowed upon the couple. The features in sordid gossip columns and tabloid journalism, about the couple gradually faded away, with the emergence of new genre of cinema with underlying Dravidianism theme. Even when they met Kanchi Archariya for the first time, he refused to bless the couple, for MS had taken up the attire of a typical Brahmin lady in a madisar, a nine-yard saree with ‘pallu’ pulled across the waist in the front. But Sadasivam employed all means like that of cinema, music, religion, charity and political connections to ensure complete ‘Iyerisation’ of MS. In course of time people often judge mistakenly MS to be a default Brahmin, mislead by her way of clothing and mannerism.

One can categorize MS life into three distinct segments, first one under the guidance of her mother, second being the movie world and third of that of a nationally renowned Carnatic genius. In these three segments one can perceive a picture of her progression towards spiritual and artistic enlightenment. She was widely popular for her fund raiser concerts, for organizations ranging from the Adyar Cancer Institute to VHP. But what distinguishes MS from other Carnatic artistes of independent India, was the infusion of a sense of Bhakti into the music. While contemporary Carnatic artiste like M.L. Vasantha Kumari and D.K. Pattamaal were equally talented, they lacked the appeal and reach that MS enjoyed with audience through out the country. The Suprabhatam and Vishnu Sarasnams of MS were the manifestations of the resurgent Bhakti music that the audiences were longing for. When MS sang Rajaji’s hymn ‘Kurai onrum illai’ it sent out a powerful message of the self realization that she had achieved. In short MS became the very embodiment of bhakti.

Sadasivam was also equally responsible for the phenomenal success of MS. Their civil partnership was rumoured to be platonic for they had no kids on their own. MS considered Sadasivam’s daughters, Radha and Vijaya, as her own. She wouldn’t tolerate labeling them as her step-daughter. The elder daughter Radha became the supporting voice in later part of MS’s career. In all Sadasivam was the man behind MS, dictating every moves of her, ranging from concert finances to handling interview sessions. He accompanied her in all the concerts through out the span of five decades. The wealth accumulated by the success of MS career, helped Sadasivam to pursue his other passion, politics. Rajaji, his mentor, depended heavily on Sadasivam to run his Swantantra party. Sadasivam even went to the extent of providing his palatial mansion, Kalki Gardens, to the political cause of Rajaji. His journalistic endeavours included the magazine Kalki in association with his friend Krishnamurthy. However by late seventies the magazine, faced by dwindling circulation and stereotyped journalism, was forced to shut down. Sadasivam was accused on the personal front for failing to maintain the company. His capricious response was reminiscent of his youthful impulsive behaviour. He went to the extent of selling his Kalki Gardens to pay the employees twice their dues. It was only later that the magazine was revived under the auspices of his son-in-law and Kalki’s son Rajendran.

All great stories must come to an end. For MS, this end came with the demise of her husband Sadasivam, at the grand age of ninety five. MS, who was then around eighty two, was absolutely shattered by the loss. She refused perform in the public from then on. In fact by the time the author T.J.S George, started working on her biographical project, her senses faded completely for she was not in a position to recollect any events. Awards heaped on her, yet she was rarely attached to them. The concluding glory came in 2002, when she was presented with the Bharat Ratna along with Abdul Kaalam, the current President of our country. Surprisingly her death was not mentioned in the book, although she passed away in 2005, when the book was still under editing stage. Symbolically the author suggests that aura of MS will continue to live forever. In the end, MS the Carnatic maestro would have to be measured in terms of M. Subbulaksmi, the person.

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