When Crowds Flocked at M.S. Subbulakshmi's Concerts Despite Fears of Japanese Attack During World War II
'Of Gifted Voice, The Life and Art of Subbulakshmi.
Titled 'Of Gifted Voice, The Life and Art of Subbulakshmi', the book delves into the private aspects of the M.S. Subbulakshmi's life and her public persona and shows how she and the Carnatic music influenced and shaped one another.
- Last Updated: January 06, 2021, 10:57 IST
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M.S. Subbulakshmi was the first performing artist to receive the Bharat Ratna. A doyen of Carnatic music, she was also the recipient of Ramon Magsaysay award. Her decades-spanning career and significant contributions to the style and presentation of Carnatic music also makes her one of the most loved cultural and classical music icons of India, yet little is known about her personal life, the choices she made off stage, her ideologies and approach towards music.
A new biography by Keshav Desiraju attempts to remedy that. Titled Of Gifted Voice, The Life and Art of Subbulakshmi, the book delves into the private aspects of the singer's life and her public persona and shows how she and the Carnatic music influenced and shaped one another.
The biography is also fascinating because it parallelly explores the history of Indian music - describes how music came to be performed at concerts, and how traditional classical singers lost patronage with the advent of the gramophone, the radio, and the talkie.
Subbulakshmi became famous at a very early age. In 1941, when she was only twenty-five, she was felicitated in Bangalore by Sir C.V. Raman and presented a silver tea set by Lady Lokasundari Raman. Earlier that year, she had appeared in a sabha concert in Calcutta and shortly after that had her portrait unveiled in Vellore by the president of the Madras Music Academy, who noted that she was 'an outstanding personality among vocal musicians (with) a voice of exquisite sweetness and power' and one with 'a fine and accurate sense of rhythm'.
In the book, the author recalls how the singer continued to draw large crowds to her concerts despite the fear of Japanese attacks, during the second world war. He writes,
"Madras was affected by Second World War, and the early months of 1942 saw an out-migration of over 200,000 persons. Several government offices were moved inland, and fear of Japanese attack led to panic, but things settled down by May 1942. It is not immediately clear if and how this impacted the cultural scene. Several prominent musicians, Musiri Subramania Iyer, Madurai Mani Iyer, the Alathur brothers, Saraswathi Bai and others, left Madras for safer places upcountry.
Subbulakshmi continued to draw record crowds through this period. A contemporary account jokingly calls for police presence at her next recital after what appears to have been chaotic scenes at an earlier one where a thousand people turned up at a venue which could only accommodate 500."
Subbalakshmi had many famous admirers during her time, but she particularly liked Jawaharlal Nehru, who considered her his older daughter, since she was a year older to Indira Gandhi and always addressed her as 'The Queen of Song' during her concerts. In the book, the author writes,
"Her closeness to Jawaharlal Nehru, and over the years to his family, meant a great deal to Subbulakshmi. Her first meeting with him was possibly in December 1947 at the Delhi release of Meera. She would frequently speak of how he regarded her, born in 1916 to Indira's 1917, as his elder child, mootta kuzhandai, and the Sadasivam family may even on occasion have stayed at Teen Murti House, the prime minister's official residence. We have also noted the March 1949 concert where the prime minister was present.
A better-known meeting between Subbulakshmi and Jawaharlal was at the 29 November 1953 recital in aid of the Ramakrishna Mission. This was the second occasion when he described her as the queen of song. Recalling the event decades later, a veteran journalist wrote of what he saw as '...a deep friendly relationship between a man and a woman without a trace of sensuousness' with the prime minister going on to the stage as the audience was dispersing to hold the artiste's hand in tribute.
Yet another meeting was at the ceremony on 5 October 1955 when the foundation stone for the present auditorium of the Music Academy was laid. Here again, the prime minister repeated before a packed audience, for the third time, the by-now clichéd line about Subbulakshmi being the queen of song. This closeness did not go unnoticed and the humorous journal, Shankar's Weekly, in its put down of the prime minister's favourites, awarded M. Subbulakshmi [sic] the award of Ram Bandhu, Second Class and the Rani-ki-Jhansi, Second Class."
The 1950s saw a meteoric rise of the Carnatic vocalist. She trained intensively and performed at a record number of sabhas, benefit concerts, and weddings. A partial list accessed by the author shows that she performed in at least thirty-six benefit recitals over the decade. The 50s also ushered new styles and fashion, with many Indian women participating in social and cultural scenes. While most chose modern ways, Subbulakshmi didn't change her quintessential traditional style. Desiraju states,
"Intimates have written of her impeccable grooming, her fastidiousness in all things related to her appearance, her delicate table manners, her love of flowers, and of perfumes. For a woman from a background as humble as hers, she had extraordinary style and, in time, came to represent high south Indian style.
An endearing detail of Subbulakshmi's glorious concert years 'was in being one of the few people to have had a colour named after her. MS blue was the name given to a distinctive shade of blue, inky, yet iridescent and shot through with black and green highlights, that was used in saris woven specially for her.'"
Following excerpts have been published with permission from HarperCollins.