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M.S.SUBBULAKSHMI (1916 - 2004)

Born on September 16, 1916, Madurai, Tamilnadu as Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbalakshmi to noted Veena player Shanmukhavadivu and lawyer Subramania Iyer M.S subbalakshmi is a living legend and hailed as the nightingale of Carnatic.

"My earliest interest in music was focused on the raga. My mother played and rehearsed constantly. No formal lessons, but I absorbed a whole wealth by listening and humming with the veena."

Young Kunchamma as she was called and her siblings were brought up in a musical environment at her home close to the Madurai Meenakshi Temple. Her grand mother Akkammal was a violinist. Her mother used to play and rehearse constantly and Kunchamma used to listen and hum ragas along with the Veena. Though her family was rich only in music her mother Shanmukavadivu wanted formal training for M.S. in vocal music. Her first Guru was Madurai Srinivasa Iyengar but her lessons could not last long as her guru passed away soon after she finished her foundations. Her formal schooling was stopped in the 5th grade when a teacher's beating brought on her an attack of whooping cough. But she practiced music for long hours, lost in the vibrations of the Thambura, which she would tune reverently. As a child, when she practiced she would stop playing the Tambura in between to check whether she is maintaining the pitch with and without it. This gave way to the M.S. hallmark of 'sruthi sudham'. She also learned Hindustani music from Pandit Narayan Rao Vyas for a short while. In the 1930's she learned 'khayals' and 'thumris' from Dwijenderlal Roy in Calcutta and later from Siddheshwari Devi of Benares and bhajans and Rabindra Sangeet from Dilipkumar Roy, she incorporates bhajans in almost all her concerts.

"My first stage appearance? When it happened, I felt rather annoyed because I was yanked away from my favorite game - making mud pies. At mother's request, I sang a couple of songs. I was too young, the smiles and claps from the audience did not mean anything to me. I was thinking more of returning back to the mud."

She was the child prodigy of Madurai. Her first recording was at the age of ten, when she recorded a couple of songs 'Marakat vadivu' and 'Oothukuzhiyinile' in an impossibly high pitch for HMV in Madras. Gathering fame in Madurai was fine, but it was not the same in Madras. T. Sankaran, grandson of Veenai Dhanammal remembers ..." Women musicians were not taken seriously in those days. The music platform was entirely male dominated. Women did not perform frequently as for the performers; they were usually from the devadasi caste, which already had a tradition of entertaining the public with dance and music. Male accompanists of any repute considered it infra dig to accompany female musicians ...." It was into this scene that M.S. made a debut as a serious musician. Her advantage, apart from the undeniable beautiful voice and charming looks was her obvious earnestness about music. Madras audience began to sit up and take notice of M.S. Subbulakshmi. A few months after her seventeenth birthday M.S. was invited to give a concert at the Music Academy. She had indeed broken the male oriented music barrier at that point. Also she was the principal source of income for the family at that point.

In 1936 she met Thiagaraja Sadasivam, a tall personable man with a can-do attitude and also a well known figure in the Madras Congress circle. With his wide connections in the journalistic and political world, he became instrumental in the continued success of her already flourishing career. The couple married in Thiruneermalai, in 1940. In the meantime, M.S.'s career took a new direction. She entered films. With her lovely voice and charming personality it was not a surprising move. 'Sevasadanam', her first movie was released in 1938, followed by 'Sakunthalai', 'Savithri' and her biggest hit 'Meera'. This film, released in both Tamil and Hindi languages made her a national star. Ironically after this movie she quit movies and concentrated solely on music as her career. she used the money from these films to start a magazine- Kalki.

Once M.S. left films, her public image shifted slightly once again. In 1944, M.S. started conducting benefit performances to collect funds for a variety of social and religious causes. M.S. thus had arrived at the national scene, as a personage, not just a musician. In 1947, Mahathma Gandhi had sent words to M.S. to sing 'Bhajans' for him. M.S. was unable to honor his request, but sent a recorded version of 'Hari Tuma Haro' to him. A.I.R. played this after the announcement of the Mahathma's death.

Meanwhile, she did not allow her musical career to flag down even for a minute. She started giving concerts all over the country. In the 50s and 60sShe traveled constantly. The couple bought "Kalki Gardens', the sprawling mansion in Chetput which symbolized the couple's lifestyle at that time. Always a trend setter, her saris, her diamonds, the particular style in which she wore flowers in her hair, all became trademarks. In the 50s, almost every Madras housewife had at least one sari of the M.S. blue shade. Along with her public VIP image, she developed an equally strong private life of the orthodox Hindu housewife whose husband's word was her command.

"They have done an unbelievable amount for public cause. Now they are forced to live in a rented house. I don't suppose they give a second thought to this. But, it reflects on the rest of us. In Japan, eminent artistes are declared as national treasures and are protected and nourished by the state. Why can't our government implement a scheme like this?"

Through the years, both M.S. and her husband Sadasivam have helped a staggering variety of public causes both by donating rayalties from her LPs and by holding benefit performances for raising funds - the amount runs to crores and crores of rupees. M.S's recordings (she has set a record in this respect) have played a big part in this activity. Her 'Venkateswara Suprabaatham', the proceeds of which went to the Thiruppathi Devasthanam, set a trend following which every south Indian singer cut at least one 'suprabhaatham' disc. The 'Vishnu Saharanaamam' proceeds went the 'Ramakrishna Math'.

Perhaps the most touching aspect of M.S. and Sadasivam's involvement with charity work was when Sri.Sadasivam announced that M.S. would no longer sing for money - it came at a time when the couple were in serious financial difficulties following the near collapse of 'Kalki'. Kalki Gardens was sold to meet the debts. From a very lavish lifestyle, they had stepped into a far simpler one. The decision to perform for charitable causes alone, when they themselves needed financial help, required courage, to say the least.

Another M.S. achievement is that she played a large role in spreading the concepts of Carnatic music, to Western musicians, which was deemed in exportable. She gave concerts almost all over the world like at Edinburgh festival and at the United Nations (1970), Carnegie Hall as the inaugural concert of the festival of India in London in 1982.

Subbalakshmi has been the recipient of the highest awards and honors the nation could bestow upon an artist and significant international recognition. She has earned doctorates from famed universities and her divine voice has earned acclaim from big and famous personalities like Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Jawarharlal Nehru, Maharaja of Udaipur etc as well as top rank musicians both in the Carnatic and Hindustani sphere in the country. In 1998, she was the first musician to receive the highest civilian award 'Bharata Ratna' from the President of India. Padma Bhushan(1954), Padma Vibhushan(1975), Ramon Magsaysay award (1974) are some of the major awards she has received.

The world of fame and adoration of thousands of fans has left Subbalakhsmi untouched. She remains the simple, neat, devout, down to earth person she always was and having a genuine interest in others. She passed away at the age of 88 on December 11th,2004.

Some of the major Awards

  • 1940 Isai Vani, conferred by Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and Rajamaanikkam Pillai.
  • 1954 Padma Bhusan
  • 1956 The President's Award
  • 1968 Sangeetha Kalaanidhi, the Music Academy, Madras (first woman to be honored).
  • 1970 Isai Perarignar, Tamil Isai Sangam, Madras
  • 1971 Doctor of Letters, Sri Venkateswara University.
  • 1973 Doctor of Letters, Delhi University.
  • 1974 The Ramon Magsaysay Award.
  • 1975 Padma Vibhushan.
  • 1975 Saptagiri Sangeetha Vidwanmani, Sri Venkateswara Thyagarajaswami Festival, Tiruppathi.
  • 1975 Svar Vilas, Sur-Singer Samsad.
  • 1979 Doctor of Literature, Indira kalaa Sangeeth, Viswavidyalaya, Madhya Pradesh.
  • 1979-80 Producer Emeritus, All India radio and Doordarshan.
  • 1980 Thanipperum Kalaingnar, Tamil Nadu Iyal Isai Naataka Manram.
  • 1980 Doctor of Letters, Benares Hindu University.
  • 1981 Member d'Honneur, The International Music Council.
  • 1981 Desihothama, Doctoral degree, Viswa Bharathi University, Shanthinikethan.
  • 1986 Spirit of Freedom Award, VST Industries, Delhi.
  • 1987 Doctor of Literature, University of Madras.
  • 1988 Trustee for Indira Gandhi National center for the Arts.
  • 1988 Kaalidas Samman
  • 1988 Ustaad Hafeez Ali Khan award.
  • 1990 Indira Gandhi Award for national Integration.
  • 1991 Konarak samman
  • 1996 The Dr. Rajah Sir Annamalai Chettiar Birthday Award on her 80th birthday
  • 1996 Dec. 20.The Rasika Ranjani Sabha conferred the title of `Kala Ratna' on Smt. M. S. Subbulakshmi, regarded as the queen of music.
  • 1996 Gupta Award
  • 1997 Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi
  • 1997 Swaralaya award
  • 1998 Jan.14 The President of India Conferred the title Bharata Ratna.
  • 1999 Sangeetha Sagara Award - CMNA
  • 2000 S.V.N. Rao Award

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