Read

The alchemy of her music

Malini Nair | Updated on January 26, 2021

Top form: In her 40 years on stage, MS Subbulakshmi was ‘always on test and always in control’   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Keshav Desiraju’s book on MS Subbulakshmi comes at a time when the Carnatic world is torn by bitterly fought debates on a wide array of issues

* What is it that catapulted MS Subbulakshmi into the star league, the toast of the political and social elite, feted by critics and masses alike across the country?

* There have been at least four books on her so far, a Harikatha and a musical written on her life and art

* This book places for us her life and music in the context of other women artistes of her time who straddled the world of classical music, films and dance

***

My mother wasn’t a big fan of Indian classical music. A superb mimic, one of her most hysterical acts was an exaggerated impersonation of Kumar Gandharva in the middle of a frenzied taan. But there was one voice and face for which she would drop whatever she was doing, plonking herself right in front of the TV to watch in silent awe. MS Subbulakshmi.

It wasn’t just the voice — full-throated, honeyed and passionate with what is called pukar (call) in the Hindustani system; it was the whole irresistible package deal — the glorious silks, the look of pious absorption, the jasmine, the air of unassuming genius, the flash of the diamonds, the content smile. For once, words would fail my mother.

It has been nearly two decades since her death but our fascination for MSS remains strong. There have been at least four books on her so far, an Amar Chitra Katha comic and a children’s graphic novel, a Harikatha and a musical written on her life and art, endless expositions on her creativity and of late, somewhat less adulatory and more objective analyses of her creative and life choices.

Of Gifted Voice: The Life and Art of MS Subbulakshmi / Keshav Desiraju / HarperCollins / Non-fiction /₹699

 

Keshav Desiraju’s Of Gifted Voice: The Life and Art of MS Subbulakshmi comes at a time when the Carnatic world is torn by bitterly fought debates on an array of issues — especially cultural appropriation, caste and gender. Desiraju is an unusual chronicler of this world: He is a retired civil servant, best known for his stint as the Union health secretary in a career marked by integrity. In 2018, he co-edited a remarkable compendium on medical corruption in India, Healers Or Predators?

Desiraju’s approach is measured and painstakingly researched. He is in no hurry to be pushed into taking sides in the trenchant debates that now surround MSS’s life and art. Given how the demands of social media make any kind of mature conversation on the subject nearly impossible, this is admirable. You may not agree with his stance on all issues — and I did not on some — but you have to respect the quiet thinking that went into this work in the midst of all the digital cacophony.

Most facts about MSS’s life [1916 -2004] have been laid bare over the years. The saga of a brilliantly talented young woman from a devadasi clan in Madurai, an ambitious mother, the move to Chennai, a controversial affair with a much-married Brahmin man, the heartbreaking romance with another charismatic musician, her complete assumption of the role of a stylish upper-caste, upper-class diva, a controlling marriage, the many national and international platforms and unflagging celebrity — all these stories have now passed into legend.

Where Of Gifted Voice scores is in how it places for us her life and music in the context of other women artistes of her time who straddled the world of classical music, films and dance: DK Pattammal, NC Vasanthakokilam, Rajam Pushpavanam, Balasaraswathi, KB Sundarambal, ML Vasanthakumari, among others — some of these names are known to us, some unknown, some came from privileged upper caste homes, others from marginalised communities, some battled alone, others had the support of powerful men, a few talents flared briefly and others shone on for decades. (Among the most fascinating parallels are those between the trajectories followed by MSS and the dancer Balasaraswathi, the former fleeing her devadasi roots, the other fiercely protective of it.) All these stories give us an insight into a world where women had to battle several elements to ease the path for coming generations.

In this line up of exceptionally talented women, MSS wasn’t necessarily the most gifted, the author points out: Others came with great voices, expansive repertoires and mentors. What is it that catapulted MSS into the star league, the toast of the political and social elite, feted by critics and masses alike across the country? It is this question that runs as a thread through the book. Part of the answer lies of course in her husband’s indefatigable campaign to turn her into a national and global figure, strategising what and where she sang, crafting that celebrated pious persona. How much of it was her? Did she ever resent the path laid out for her? How would she have shaped up if she could take risks with her own creative choices? We will never really know. Today while scholars debate what MSS may have lost by deciding to unquestioningly take the creative path her husband planned for her with a sharp eye on the gallery, diehard fans fume at how these cultural forensics ‘disrespect’ her.

None of this, Desiraju argues, can take away from MSS’s essential musical genius, her showmanship, the depth of her dedication to her art and spiritual mooring — all factors that took her music outside the kutcheri circles of the South, out into the rest of India and the world. As he puts it, in her 40 years on stage, she was ‘always on test and always in control’. Her repertoire may have become increasingly limited over the years, he points out, but it was shone to gem-like quality and presented with utter honesty to her listeners. “With all the limitations she imposed on herself, Subbulakshmi was without doubt amongst the greatest performing aritstes of her century,” he reiterates. For the world at large, she was the face of Carnatic music for half a century.

Desiraju positions MSS among five phenomenal women singers from across the world — Edith Piaf, Ella Fitzgerald, Umm Kulthum, Joan Sutherland and Maria Callas. They dealt with tremendous odds and made hard choices but left their stamp on an entire era.

Malini Nair is a journalist based in Delhi

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

Published on January 26, 2021
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor