A BIRTH CENTENARY could be occasion to revisit a person’s legacy or it could be an excuse to cast them further in alabaster. In the case of Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi (or simply MS, as her fans called her), we are lucky that questions and scholarship have proved that she is far more multidimensional than first imagined.
We all know that MS was a Carnatic vocalist of unparallel skill and devotion. The daughter of a devdasi in Madurai, she gave her first public performance at age 11. While still a teenager, she performed at The Music Academy in Madras, considered the most prestigious venue for Carnatic musicians. Over the following decades, she sang across the world, including at Carnegie Hall, New York, on UN day in 1966. She was the first musician ever to be awarded the Bharat Ratna, the country’s highest civilian honour. Between 1938 and 1947, she acted in five films, but the one that would come to define her was Meera, where she played the role of Meerabai. The film ensured that the bhakti of the saint and of the musician came to mean one and the same thing.
While her ‘angel like voice’ lingers on, and her accomplishments remain beyond dispute, her personality has been far more mysterious. Most of the accounts that immediately followed her death in 2004, speak of her as a ‘saint’, a ‘goddess incarnate’ and an ‘avatar of a celestial maiden’. They speak of her ‘fawnlike timidity’, ‘childlike simplicity’ and ‘gentle’, ‘modest’ and ‘eager to please’ personality. These adjectives seek to glorify and not humanise her.
Two important public intellectuals who have set about ‘demythologising’ her are Carnatic vocalist TM Krishna and professor and author Sunil Khilnani. In Incarnations: India in 50 Lives, Khilnani writes that beneath the ‘placid façade’ of MS there lurked a woman of mischief and independence who made modern choices. She refused to wed the first man her mother selected for her. And instead chose the married T Sadasivam, who was a freedom fighter, journalist and film producer. They married only after the death of his wife, in a quiet ceremony. This liaison ensured that MS could discard the baggage associated with a ‘devdasi’ and embrace the role of a Brahmin wife instead. Khilnani’s interpretation endows MS with an agency, which previous accounts have all but denied. For example, in Kunjamma-Ode to a Nightingale, Lakshmi Vishwanathan writes simplistically, ‘In Sadasivam she found friend, guide, philosopher and the father figure that she needed… She even proved herself in that ‘important domain of an Indian housewife’—the kitchen.’
The older narratives of her, which magnified her ‘spirituality’, ‘feminity’ and ‘purity’, downplayed her own ambition and grit.
Addressing these different narratives, TM Krishna writes, ‘She is an unsolved mystery to me. Every time I engage with the idea of her, a new strand appears.’
While the idea of her will continue to intrigue us and morph over time, what remains unchanged is the force of her music. For example, even today when one hears the 1941 recording of Bruhi Mukundethi Rasane the purity of her notes and the majesty of her voice ring clear through the static. It is that voice that holds us in a thrall and reminds us of the power of music.
On her centennial birth anniversary, it is perhaps best to remember that while the real Subbulakshmi might be unknowable, we do her a disservice by seeing her as a saint, and should remember her as a superlative musician instead.