To many Telugu people, daybreak is incomplete without her Suprabhatam. Many people are inhibited in their listening because they fear language as a barrier. But absolute music transcends all these barriers and can appeal to just about anyone with an open mind and an ear for music.
To make a mark worldwide as a classical singer is a mammoth task. But M S Subbulakshmi - known popularly as MS - has ruled the music world for over five decades with her melody, talent and beauty.
She was born in a Devadasi family (traditional temple dancing & singing girls) in the temple town of Madurai on September 16th, 1916. Their tiny home was close to the Meenakshi temple. Her mother Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Ammal was a Veena player.
Her lawyer-father Subramania Iyer lived a few streets away. Endowed with a captivating, quicksilver voice, MS could reproduce any nuance with amazing clarity. She cut her first record for HMV at the age of 10!
Her first guru Madurai Srinivasa Iyengar passed away rather too soon. But she kept practicing on her own and having a musician mother helped a lot. Her first recording was at the age of ten, when she recorded a couple of songs for HMV in Madras as an accompanist to her mother. She started giving concerts at a tender age, first by accompanying her mother and then as a solo vocalist.
She was the child prodigy of Madurai. Her mother recognized MS's exceptional talent and shifted from Madurai to Chennai (then Madras) to launch MS on her own. When her mother performed at concerts, MS was the vocal accompanist - she was only 13.
She gave her first performance at the prestigious Madras Music Academy at the age of 17. She went up the dias at the festival to sing for the most elite gathering of music lovers in Madras. Till then stage classical music performing was a male dominated profession.
The few ladies from the dancing girls lineage who ventured onto the stage were more intent on bewitching potential lovers with come-hither smiles and body language. But in this case it is her absolute devotion to her concert, a rich and clear voice, a very dignified presence on the stage which enticed the listeners and held them spellbound as she took them through the intricacies of Carnatic music.
She essayed into serious elaborations of ragas without apparently being aware that she was breaking fresh ground as a female vocalist. And soon, the young and beautiful MS had a major cult following.
Films & Marriage
In those days most concert vocalists acted in films. It was not surprising that M.S., with her lovely voice and charming personality, joined films. 'Sevasadanam', her first movie was released in 1938 where she acted as a poor young girl who married a rich old man.
M S Subbulakshmi's marriage in 1940 to T Sadasivam, a veteran nationalist, was a major turning point in her life. The fact that MS belonged to the Devadasi (temple dancers) clan did not deter this young idealist from marrying her. He gave up his job as the advertising manager of 'Ananda Vikatan', a leading Tamil magazine, and concentrated on guiding MS's musical journey.
'Sevasadanam' was followed by 'Sakunthalai' where M.S. played the lead role, the most glamorous of all her roles teaming up with G.N.Balasubramanian, the most attractive vidwan of the time. The film contained some of the most haunting of all her movie melodies - 'Endan Idathu Tholum', 'Premayil', 'Engum Nirai Nadha Brahmam'. This was followed by 'Savithri' (directed by Y.V. Rao) which was released in 1942. M.S. played as Naradha with the North Indian star Santha Apte in Savithri. This film too did extremely well at the box office. The income from this movie was largely used to start the 'Kalki' magazine. This was the time when M.S.'s persona as a star was established, that of a quite type of a glamour queen. She dressed slightly more flamboyantly, sported some make-up and was naturally gossiped in the press. She was also imitated widely. This image remained intact until the release of 'Meera' in 1945. When 'Baktha Meera' was released in both Tamil and Hindi, it created a swelling wave of appreciation that gave M.S. an all India status as a musician.
It also marked the end of her film career. It is said that Rajaji himself advised the couple against any more involvement in the films. Perhaps Sadasivam saw a greater benefit in preserving the somewhat saintly image that M.S. had acquired after the film. Whatever, M.S. gave up films once and for all and turned wholly to concert music.
As a singer extraordinary
By the 1950s, MS was a household name and a rage. Aspiring vocalists would dress like her and attempt to emulate her singing. The colour - 'MS blue' - became famous in Kanjeevaram silk sarees.
When the title of Sangita Kalanidhi was conferred on her in 1968, she thanked Sadasivam in her speech at the Madras Music Academy and described him as her "friend, philosopher and guide". Sadasivam guided and moulded MS's music and concerts to perfection. Her concerts are always recalled as being thoroughly rehearsed and flawless. A perfectionist, MS always took great pains to ensure the right pronunciation of the words, the accent and specific emphasis for proper understanding of the lyrics. Her voice enticed listeners and held them spellbound as she took them through the intricacies of Carnatic music.
MS's rendition of the songs of Annamacharya (the 15th century Telugu composer who remained unknown till the early 20th century) is evidence of her commitment to values and her efforts to preserve our rich heritage.
< -- From left: Veena Sanmugavadivu (mother of MS), Radha (Vishwanathan), MS Subbulakshmi, Lakshmi srinivasan, Vadivambal (sister of MS) and Kamala.
MS always maintained a very low profile, content to let her husband do the talking for her. Hers has also been a life of sacrifice: she brought up Sadasivam's children as hers and did not have any of her own. But she has always come across as the committed mother and wife, happy and contented, and has seldom been involved in any controversies. She has carried fame very naturally on her dignified shoulders. A smiling figure dressed traditionally in silk Kanjeevarams, with diamond studs glittering in her ears and on her nose, she is the epitome of charm and feminine grace.
Honors and Awards
She was among the earliest to receive the Padma Bhushan in 1954, before many other stalwarts. She had the honor of singing at the United Nations Day celebrations in October 1966.
In 1968, she was the first woman to be honored with the title of Sangita Kalanidhi by the Madras Music Academy. She was elected a Fellow of the Sangeet Natak Academy in 1974. MS has also been awarded honorary Doctorates from the Rabindra Bharati University, Sri Venkateswara University and Delhi University.
The Ramon Magsaysay Award (1974), the Padma Vibhushan (1975) and the Bharat Ratna (2000) - India's highest national civilian honor - have been notable achievements in her lifetime.