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The legend of M. S. Subbulakshmi

Published by International Herald Tribune on 2004-12-16

She was known as the "nightingale of India," but that scarcely captured what Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi -- who died on Saturday at the age of 88 -- was all about. Known widely as just "M.S.," she was the greatest singer of Carnatic music, the South Indian genre that's considered to be one of the oldest systems of devotional music in the world. Subbulakshmi was more than a voice; she was the very embodiment of a centuries-old music tradition that lives on in the homes of millions of Indians in the Subcontinent and around the globe.

While maestros like Pandit Ravi Shankar of India, the late Nusrat Ali Khan of Pakistan and the show-biz tunes of Bollywood put South Asian pop-classical music on the global map, it was Subbulakshmi who introduced Carnatic music to the West at the Edinburgh Festival (1963) and at the United Nations (1966). She enthralled audiences with her mellifluous voice that captured the seven talas -- or rhythmic cycles -- and 72 fundamental ragas -- or melodic scales -- of the genre in a way that could only be characterized as mesmerizing. She sang bhajans, or spiritual songs, in 12 Indian languages, with perfect diction in each, in venues ranging from her native Chennai to Carnegie Hall.

In a career that started when she was just 13 years old, Subbulakshmi performed before audiences all over the world, and received scores of awards, including the Bharat Ratna, India's highest civilian honor. But perhaps her greatest -- and most enduring -- accomplishment was that she enticed an entire new generation of young Indians to Carnatic music. This generation, consisting of 75 percent of India's population of 1.2 billion, had been largely weaned on Bollywood pop tunes.

Today, even young Indian expatriates living in the United States and other places where members of the 22-million-strong Indian Diaspora can be found, start their day listening to "Sri Venkateswara Suprabhatam," a devotional hymn invoking the blessings of the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh, one of whose many names includes Venkateswara. Professor Sreenath Sreenivasan of Columbia University tells of how his two-year-old twins nod while the hymn is played in the Sreenivasan household every morning, even though they surely do not understand the lyrics.

That the Sreenivasan twins -- and their Indian-born parents -- in New York should listen to Subbulakshmi says something important about the preservation of Indian culture at a time when it's under siege by the Westernization wrought by galloping globalization. Subbulakshmi took Carnatic music out of the concert halls and injected it into everyday people's homes.

It is music which, while indigenous to India's south and its temple-based Hindu culture, appeals to listeners across the board because of its emotion and spirit of improvisation. Indian classical music is categorized under two genres. The best known, of course, is Hindustani, developed in the northern regions of the country, in the form of ghazals, Sufi mystical music, and the sitar, which Ravi Shankar popularized in the West in the 1960s and 1970s, thanks to the Beatles.

What Subbulakshmi did was to advance the system codified by Purandara Dasa, a 15th century guru, who codified Carnatic music and gave it an identifiable format as a medium of teaching, performing, prayer and therapy. It was Purandara Dasa, and subsequent gurus -- including some from Subbulakshmi's own ancestral home such as her mother Shanmukhavadivu, a veena player, and her grandmother, Akkammal, a violinist -- who influenced Subbulakshmi. So did her late husband, publisher T. Sadasivam, who provided financial support during her early years as a singer when she also participated in India's nonviolent struggle for independence from the British Raj.
Subbulakshmi and Sadasivam drew attention to the works of three saint-composers of the 19th century -- Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Shyama Shastri -- by organizing concerts featuring thousands of songs that remain favorites among musicians and audiences. As Subbulakshmi explained years ago when my wife and I met her and Sadasivam at their modest Chennai home, the lyrics of the traditional Carnatic compositions, whether mythological or social in nature, are set entirely against a devotional or philosophical background.
She was sometimes asked if she was surprised that Carnatic music had caught on among India's contemporary youth. No, was her response, it was testimony to the innate power of the genre to induce tranquility and energy. In an age when young Indians, as young people everywhere, are obsessed with career advancement and gaining prosperity, Subbulakshmi's singing offered a welcome musical interlude as well as an opportunity for personal renewal.

Hers was a public life led very privately. She donated millions of dollars from her concerts and recordings to charities. Subbulakshmi once said that she would stop giving concerts if her husband, Sadasivam, died. He passed away a few years ago, after which she only sang on private occasions, mainly to raise money for struggling musicians. She was already a legend during her lifetime. Her voice and music, summoning up India's ancient traditions of peace and devotion to communal harmony, will always be with us, will always be relevant in a world of increasing tensions. What better legacy could this legendary figure have left?

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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