Tribute to M.S. Subbulakshmi
Published in Kannada Prabha for Centenary of MS Subbulakshmi, Sep 2015
MS Subbulakshmi was not the most creative or innovative musician of her generation- that credit goes to ML Vasanthakumari, whose flights of imagination added new dimensions to ragas. Nor was her music as scholarly and ‘heavy ‘ as that of DK Pattammal – who was a doyen of traditional compositions and complex pallavis. MS Amma’s music was simple and melodious. Yet a century after she was born, it is still the aim of every aspiring musician to be compared to her, and she is a role model for musicians everywhere. What was it about her music and persona that has made her perhaps the most influential Karnatik musician ever?
First and foremost, it was her brilliant use of voice. She had trained and cultured her voice till it was a finely tuned instrument, which rarely produced an off note. Her open throated singing, perfect sruti alignment and uniform timbre in every octave makes her one of the most technically refined singers in Karnatik music. Those who consider the voice culture of Karnatik vocalists to be inferior to that of Hindustani vocalists have to only hear her to realize that this is not true. Her perfect pronunciation of the words in every language (she worked with experts in every language to correct her diction) is again an ideal that very few musicians today can emulate. She made ‘no compromises’ in her singing. While people wax eloquent about the bhaava and emotion in her singing, I believe this was largely due to the subtle variations in volume and tone that she would produce in her voice, with elegant ‘jaaru gamakas’ between one note and the next, and that is what gave her music that continuity and flow.
Yes, her personality also added to her aura. Her story of coming from a Devadasi family and going on to be a doyen of Brahminical culture after her marriage to Sadashivam was fascinating. Her brief stint in films made her popularity grow beyond the restricted borders of Karnatik music sabhas. Her charity concerts and international awards made her a national figure, celebrated by politicians and leaders. She sang countless devotional compositions like Vishnu Sahasranama and Bhaja Govindam that made her voice resonate in temples everywhere. She became the first (and perhaps only) Karnatik musician who transcended the genre – who was not just a Karnatik musician, but was a legendary artist.
So, how am I as a musician influenced by her great legacy? First, I believe deeply that technical perfection, while important, is not enough to be a great musician. Hence, I work in detail on every aspect of a composition – the lyric, its meaning, the pronunciation, the moments of loudness and softness, in order to deliver a complete experience. Like her, I believe that Karnatik music needs to grow beyond the borders of South India (and South Indian communities across the world) to become a truly national or global art form. This we can only do if we adopt more languages (MSS famously recorded an album with songs in 13 languages including Urdu and also sang a hymn in English at her famous UN concert) to appeal to a larger cross section of people. I also believe like her that music should be used as a way to spread a message of love, unity and harmony and hence we need to be socially aware and connected to our community. And ultimately, we need to learn that we do not sing for applause or admiration. We should sing because our music can move souls and touch hearts. I would much rather my music produce a tear in the eye of one audience member than receive a standing ovation from the entire hall. That was the power of her music.