A Tribute to M.S. Subbulakshmi

There are very few instances when someone appears who becomes synonymous with her voice and through creative innovations stretches the boundaries and sings in a way beyond imagination. When anyone talks about Carnatic music, one automatically thinks of legendary singer M.S. Subbulakshmi--such is her contribution to Carnatic music. M.S. Subbulakshmi passed away in 2004, eight years ago and time has not been able to wither her popularity as a singer par excellence.

The passing away of M.S. Subbulakshmi in 2004 left a huge void in the lives of thousands of aspiring Carnatic music singers as well as devotees of her music and her near divine aura. It never ceased to amaze me that one person could make a difference to the perception of people in terms of relating to music, womanhood, beauty, devotion and so on. In my opinion, she totally disapproved the myth that in a man's world, one has to adopt aggressive means to achieve success. The values she brought to the table were her music, her natural humility, a sense of devotion and her well-known golden heart. 

I grew up in a family which did not place really a need for music but because I was amidst a community which valued music and dance, I ended up as a passive musician pursuing it through listening. My grandmother would hold the bhakti (devotion) and bhava (feeling) of M.S. Subbulakshmi as the lofty standards for every musician to emulate. She was a lifelong student, learning from musical giants belonging to different generations who contributed rare facets and refinement to her art. The building blocks of her personality are well-known: purity, an uncompromising feature to stay intact with Carnatic music combined with a creative willingness to adapt and change to keep up with the times to reaching out to the world level, unsurpassed bhava in the great bhakti mode which resulted her in a singular capacity to completely immerse herself in music. 

Her rendition of anything always gives this feeling of flawless perfection, be it a varnam in two speeds or a composition like the Sri Venkateswara Suprabhatam. Every aspect of her music--shruti (tone), laya, melody, bhava, pronunciation, enunciation would stand out as the golden standard even under the strictest scrutiny. The way she protected her good musical values by ensuring a lifelong habit of meticulous practice and hard work, sincerity and humility is humbling. There are several people who have written about her as one of the most well-documented Carnatic musicians ever. A mere mention of her name makes every Carnatic musician or music lover burst with immense pride since she has touched so many hearts and also elevated Carnatic music to such a high pedestal on a national and global level. 

An attribute of her artistic greatness which merits celebration is its accessibility. Her appeal cut across social classes as well as generational and geographical divides. Her musical offerings in many languages and her respect for diversity have been a force for national integration and civilisational goodness. She presented her music such that everyone in the audience from a connoisseur to a layman would be able to take home something from the heady mix she offered. Today, several musicians emulate her consciously or otherwise and she always remains a guiding force to ensure we don't subject our voice to musical abuse or overuse. 

It was indeed a sad day when we lost this unique gem who brought beauty, grace, devotion and humanity to everything she touched, a musical genius of the kind encountered only once in an epoch. Though I personally never got an opportunity to meet her, listening to her recordings and reading about her humility are like memories which strengthens my belief that the more knowledge one gains, the humbler a person tends to become. For me, M.S. Subbulakshmi will always remain the first and last word of Carnatic music and I'm lucky to have been born during her time.


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