In Unabashed Praise of an Artist

Not her, who was created in a mould that had no precedent, in sum or in its parts, and had been given a mental circuitry of containment that could have given competition to the nano-est of silicon dust packed into a miniature semi-conductor.

Subbulakshmi’s mind was not just a micro-chip that held a staggering musical repertory in terms of saahitya and an equally massive one of sangita but one that stored to use, in unpredictable issuances of bhaava, the myriad inflexions of shifting emphases that go to make the uncharted hinterlands of music.

The undemarcated should not, can not shrivel and decay.

Subbulakshmi went as she came, lime in the climacteric scene in ‘Meera’, where she sheds the poet-princess’ form to step into the true blue of Krishna’s seamless skyness, nimbly.

She was born, I said, a star. I am of course using a metaphor here. But then an essential part of music is metaphorical. And she was indistinguishable from her music.
Her light, like that of a star, was meant to shine through Time, till well beyond when the tactile thingness of her being has been reabsorbed in ether. Such is the function of star-light in space.

Subbulakshmi incandesced as she sang. Her singing voice employed more than the processes of phonation, more than the scope of the larynx.

If Sarojini Naidu famously re-positioned her own title of ‘Nightingale of India” on to Subbulakshmi’s avian frame, it was because that daughter of Bengal saw the gift of song arriving and alighting on this daughter of India’s south, like a migratory bird from the collective genius of our music.

Subbulakshmi, it always seemed to me, was seemed herself a bit startled with herself, with her own gift. Looking at herself in a mirror – something she of course did like any artiste, very often – she might have modified a song she sang less and less as she aged, from, ‘Yaro, ivar yaro’, to ‘Yaro ival yaro…’.

Two metaphors have been employed. One of a star, and the one of a bird. A star dims and glows, depending on the play of light’s speed with ambient features. A bird moults, shedding one generation of feathers for another one, seasonally.

Subbulakshmi did both these things. She was, in fact, many things, different things, contrary things, in different climes. Let us acknowledge that. And she did not do so consistently with some linear or progressive logic. She unlearnt as she learnt.

There is therefore an early Subbulakshmi, and a mid-course Subbulakshmi, a Subbulakshmi of the screen, a Subbulakshmi of the sabhas, a Subbulakshmi of fun and frolic and laughter, a Subbulakshmi, sublime, serene and sacred. Each Subbulakshmi is real, essential.

The Subbulakshmi who sang to stun was also the Subbulakshmi who stunned without singing. Small wonder the screen spread itself at her feet like a Pattamadai mat and then unfolded her in high cinema.

The influence of her mother, the one from whose talent Subbulakshmi derived her genius, seems to have influenced her the least or, at any rate, for the least length of time. Other transitory influences, like dust storms, starbursts and sunstorms, changed her light. Until in a major zonation she entered from storm to calm in the two-someness of matrimony, with the remarkable Thyagaraja Sadasivam.

Whether turbulence would have brought from her even greater fascinations of song, none can tell.

The calm certainly gave her iconic form. In something like the legendary action of the lost wax process used for panchaloha castings, the molten lava of Subbulakshmi-in-the-making condensed into a deitified divinity. Something flowed out of Time’s clasp, even as something else took shape.

I celebrate that not, nor do I lament it. For that was meant to be the trajectory of her light’s flight.

What I do regret is the reluctance among those who know better to see that this vigraham is made from the fluid conjugations of more than one, more than several, elements all of which go to make something that is not flawless, for nothing can be flawless, but something that approximates the marks of perfection.

The Sanskritisation of Subbulakshmi, or her Gangetisation which the world venerates, would have been impossible without the earlier lyrical outflows of the village runnels and countryside streams that first slaked the musical thirst of overawed listners. Somewhere in her genius lurks a Vaigai that even one as unmusical as I detect. Both are, to me, equally valuable.

The Subbulakshmi who moved from Pad,a Bhushan to Padma Vibhushan to Bharat Ratna, was the Ganga. The Subbulakshmi who moved from early child-like stage performances accompanying Shanmukhavadivu, to the teenager who drew applause at The Music Academy, featured in Seva Sadan and Sakuntala and then in the amazing Meera and could render songs from the sensuously divine to the spiritually devotional, was the Vaigai.

Friends, we are gathered today to recognise the principle of osmosis in music, of learning and discipleship.

Let us note that Subbulakshmi transmitted the accoutrements of her music al genius to Radha and Vijaya, and later, to Gowri, but she did not, really teach her music to anyone as a Guru does to a Sishya. She has not left behind a school of her music, a collectivity of her disciples. There is a community of Pattammal’s disciples, of Vasanthakumari’s. Not of Subbulakshmi. This can be for many reasons. Exclusivity is its own reason.

Subbulakshmi will have an unbroken and swelling stream of rasika-s as long as music is heard. Subbulakshmi has not had and will not have a rivulet of Sishya-s.

So, a scheme of awards in Subbulakshmi’s name for those fresh entrants in music, honours her influence, not her example of training.

This does not weaken the scheme. On the contrary, it strengthens it. For then, those who come within the award’s compass will refraian from that tinsel form of argent, namely, imitation.

The greatest tribute of a Sishya to a guru is the absorption of learning and the abjuring of imitation, of mimicry.

Pattammal’s grand-daughter, Nithyashree has said her grandmother enjoined on her the resisting of tendencies to imitate. Semmangudi’s outstanding disciple T.M.Krishna recalls his Guru, he does not mime him. Sanjay Subramaniam, Vijay Siva, ‘Bombay’ Jayashri, are their own artistes, deeply influenced by and shaped as they all are by their teachers.

Recipients of these awards must bear in mind the importance of being oneself, and in fact, of being one’s many selves. Something Subbulakshmi, to my lasting regret, could not be because of her being beatified by her admirers.

Recipients of these awards will, I trust, resist anything that stereo-types them.

The maavu is constant, though even there, some variations in the blend, including the admixture of venthium is beneficial for the cooking. The maavu is, as I said, constant and stable, but it makes for a myriad formulations one under steam, another over low fire, yet another over a high one, one in shallow oil, another in deep, with varying results in shape, crust and sizzle.

See the variations of Subbulakshmi’s musical aduppu. I hearken to Subbulakshmi’s ‘Chandrabimba mukha’, as much as I do to her ‘Chandrasekharam aasraye’. Perhaps I am being too much of a philistine, if not a pagan when I do that…

When I hear her sing in ‘Meera’, ‘Prabhu aao, aao…’ I do not confine myself to the interpretation of the soul longing for divinity. I see a Rajput princess in love with the form of Krishna as much as His spirit. Else, why should she long to be the ‘jal kii machaliyaa jab aate hon snaan…’ A more sensuous imagine cannot be imagined.

Let us exult in Subbulakshmi, not deify her. Let us celebrate her in her vivacity, nit just in her piety. Let us by all means, as I did myself, call her ‘MS amma’. But let us not forget the little girl, the not-so-little maiden, the dazzling beauty and star that shone from India’s southern sky. From Madurai, in fact.

Decades ago, while at school, I wrote a versification.

Goddess of Madurai
And by her eyes
Her tufted novitiate priest
Who forgot
Duties his senior
Had taught
As in his mind
Meenakshi’s eyes
With his own
Did Synchronise.

I would like to suggest that The Hindu commissions in conjunction with a leading publisher a definitive biography of Subbulakshmi’s drawing on the succession of concert reviews in that illustrious paper. In the recent past, excellent biographies have appeared of Rukmini Devi by Leela Samson and of Balasaraswati by Douglas Knight.

Though a very readable and in many ways a path-breaking work by TJS George exists and we have portraits of her by other writers as well, a detailed work on her music and on her life waits to be written. I understand she maintained a diary. There must be a great body of correspondence from those seeking concerts, to those writing in appreciation and in rapture. I would urge the custodians of those pictures and papers to place them at the disposal of a sensitive biographer, who should give us a book on one who was so accessible, yet so elusive. Heard so often, yet not really seen enough. Like the Nightingale.

I felicitate the institutors of this scheme of awards and the album of MS’ songs to the Lord of the Seven Hills, and thank them for inviting me to join the proceedings.

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