“Who am I, a mere Prime Minister, to speak about this Queen of Music, Queen of Songs?”
So said Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on two occasions, once in New Delhi and the second time in Chennai (then Madras). The second occasion was the laying of the foundation stone for the building of the Music Academy in 1955, which this writer attended. M S Subbulakshmi, the queen of Carnatic music, gave a memorable performance in the presence of Nehru, who had become one of her innumerable fans along with Mahatma Gandhi, Sarojini Naidu and other national leaders, ever since she became famous through her Hindi movie Meera. In her introduction in the movie, Naidu said that Subbulakshmi was Meera come to life. After attending its premiere, Naidu said that she had surrendered the title “Nightingale of India” to Subbulakshmi.
Before his last birthday, Gandhi expressed a desire that she should sing “Hari tuma haro” in his prayer meeting on the day. Unfortunately, she did not know the song or its tune and would not venture to sing it, as was her wont, until she mastered it. However, Gandhi said that he would prefer to hear her speak the words of the song rather than someone else sing it! Touched by the Mahatma’s remarks, she arranged for the tuning of the song by Dilip Kumar Roy of Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry (now Puducherry), who did it overnight. The song was recorded at the Madras studio of All India Radio on the night of October 1, 1947 and was finished by 1 am on the next day, the Mahatma’s birthday. She sent the record by air to Gandhi since she could not travel to Delhi.
Subbulakshmi was born on September 16, 1916 in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, to eminent veena artiste Shanmugavadivu and lawyer Subramania Iyer. Her birth centenary is being observed all over the world. It is an international celebration of Indian music at its best. She had her early training under her mother and was given formal lessons by Srinivasa Iyengar. Later in life, even after becoming the doyenne of Carnatic music, she had no hesitation in learning to sing kritis (Carnatic classical songs) from her contemporaries, some of whom were younger to her. Such was her humility.
Subbulakshmi had many firsts to her credit. A few may be mentioned here. In December 1968, she became the first female musician to be conferred the Carnatic musicians’ most coveted title of Sangita Kalanidhi by the Music Academy. She was also the first musician to be honoured with the title of Bharat Ratna in 1998. In this writer’s view, there was one award of awards that she richly deserved but did not get and it was the Nobel Prize for peace. She helped in the development of a peaceful world by bringing the East and the West together through her music and contributed to the welfare of society through her philanthropy. The definition of “peace” by the Nobel Committee was broad enough to qualify MS for the prize.
Subbulakshmi was a film star at a time when there were no “best actress” awards. Otherwise, she would have got them. She acted in four movies in Tamil: Seva Sadanam (1938), Sakuntalai (1940), Savithri (1941) and Meera (1945). All the movies were box office successes. Meera was made in Hindi also (1947). It marked the acme of Subbulakshmi’s career as a film star.
It was once reported that Jaidev, the venerable music director of Hindi movies, had approached her to sing “Allah tero naam” in Gaud Sarang for the movie Hum Dono (1961) starring Dev Anand. Unfortunately, she did not agree. One can only speculate on how the song would have been rendered by her. Instead, Lata Mangeshkar provided the playback singing in a chorus. She sang the song brilliantly as only she could have done. It became an all-time hit. In an interview to The Times of India she listed her ten favourite songs. The first one was “Aayega aanewala” in “Mahal”. And this is what she said: “In those days I was a fan of M S Subbalaxmi (sic). I must have seen her film Meera at least 50 times. Her style of singing got ingrained in my memory. Though the lyrics of Mahal (written by Kamal Amrohi) were almost Urdu, while singing it I imagined how Subbalaxmi would have sung it.” This writer has a hunch that Lata might have been unconsciously influenced by Subbulakshmi in singing her second most favourite song (“Allah tero naam”) also, which was in the nature of a bhajan.
Along with Pandit Ravi Shankar, she captured the hearts of audiences abroad wherever she performed through the sheer magic of her voice. There are pious devotees who believe it to be a gift of goddess Saraswati as a result of oblations of honey through her previous births. An ENT specialist, on the other hand, found it to be due to the unusual arrangement of her vocal chords. A dulcet voice that had the capacity to reproduce musical thoughts, competence in adhering the classical idiom without any compromise and an attractive stage personality were among the contributor factors for her professional success.