On writing about M.S. Subbulakshmi by Keshav Desiraju

M.S. SUBBULAKSHMI’S life was one of extraordinary achievement. Although she was portrayed in many ways – as a musician who sought and achieved an all-India appeal; a philanthropist and supporter of noble causes; an icon of style; a woman of piety and devotion; and a friend and associate of the good and the great – she was first and foremost a classical vocalist of the highest rank, of unmatched gifts, who lives on in the musical history of India. 

Keshav Desiraju's Of Gifted Voice looks at M.S. SUBBULAKSHMI’S life and times, and the great musical tradition she belonged to and to which she brought so much, against the larger backdrop of developments in the world of Carnatic music. Though her story has often been told, we know little of the woman behind the image and the musician behind the public persona. Of Gifted Voice attempts, with warmth and keen-eyed perception, to understand the music, the history, the artiste and her incomparable presence. And here we have the writer, Keshav Desiraju, himself telling us about what moved him to write this book -

Why did I write about MS? Why did I want to write about her? Mainly because I wanted to recognize her identity as a diva, as one of the 20th century’s greatest performers. I say in my book, “M.S. Subbulakshmi was portrayed in various ways, as a musician who sought and achieved an all-India appeal, as a philanthropist and benefactor of noble causes, as an icon of high South Indian style, as a woman of piety and devotion, and as a friend and associate of the good and the great. But while she was all of these, she was first and foremost a classical musician of the highest rank..” This identity has consistently been denied to her. This is partly the consequence of her own manner, but it is mostly the result of the image that was sought, built around and projected for her. And as I wrote this book, this is what I hoped to redress.

For people my age with an interest in Carnatic music the 1960s were a great time to be discovering the form, attending concerts, listening to the radio or discovering the few long-playing records being issued. Listeners today who have every possible access to good music, available on every possible device and anywhere in the world will not understand the thrill of waiting for the National Programme of Music on AIR at 9.30 p.m. on Saturdays. It was also a time to be identifying favourites. There were many powerful and wonderful singers, of substantial lineage and training; between them they shaped the practice of a great tradition. And even if it is popular these days to decry tradition as a restrictive and non-inclusive force, there is no doubt, in my mind, that it was a great tradition. Hence, growing up in 1960s Bombay, any announcement of a sabha cutcheri by a star from Madras was greeted with excitement. ‘Yaaru-paadra?’, ‘Who is singing?’. One word said it all. ‘MS’!

For all that Subbulakshmi’s life was entirely music and its performance, it was not without its share of drama, all made the more intriguing by the paucity of verifiable information. But there was drama, of that there is no doubt. And then there is the constant misrepresentation of her ambitious manager-husband’s role in her success. Virtually every account of her life makes the case that while her talents were great, if she attained superstardom it was mainly due to his assiduous promotion. There is again no doubt that he was ambitious, but hers was not an ordinary talent. She was fired by a raging, all-encompassing genius, and one that will not be diminished by making her appear to be a puppet-like creature in his control.  

No one who heard Subbulakshmi in concert, or met her, howsoever briefly or casually, would have forgotten the event. I too have a bagful of memories, of sitting up late at night to listen to the live relay from New York of the UN concert in 1966, or of the striking Vaishnava jana to at the commencement of the Gandhi Centenary concert in 1969, of leaving home, in 1974, for the first time, full of curiosity and some apprehension, and clutching in one hand the newly released record of Sri Kamakshi Suprabhatam. Or of her last Delhi concert, at the Siri Fort auditorium, in January 1993. My last personal memory of MS is of visiting her on the last day of 2002 when she spontaneously asked me, a near-stranger, to join her for lunch. MS lives on in the collective memory of the world. It has been a joy to write about this most remarkable of Indians.

Keshav Desiraju's Of Gifted Voice, The Life and Art of M.S. Subbulakshmi is available to order here - https://www.amazon.in/GIFTED-VOICE-Life-M-S-Subbulakshmi/dp/9390327547

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