FLAME in the news | February 20, 2021

A new biography of M.S. Subbulakshmi offers a definitive portrait of the icon whose voice captured the nation’s imagination
To pre-millennial generations, MS, as M.S. Subbulakshmi (1916-2004) was known, was the voice heard at daybreak, when her rendition of Venkatesa Suprabhatam played at temples across south India to wake up the multitude of gods and goddesses. In north India, MS embodied Meera, the 16th century poet saint from Merta who became one of the leading voices of the Bhakti movement. Subbulakshmi’s was a voice that truly belonged to the entire nation despite geographical, linguistic and musical boundaries.
To tell the life story of the Carnatic music legend, Keshav Desiraju begins with the history of the musical tradition in his book, Of Gifted Voice—The Life And Art of M.S. Subbulakshmi. Desiraju, a retired IAS officer and former secretary in the Union ministry of health and family welfare, has approached the biography with the rigour of a scientific researcher, with a list of citations that runs into 200 pages. These include references to biographies written by Gowri Ramnarayan and T.J.S. George, magazines such as Sruti, radio programmes, souvenirs published by the Madras Music Academy and articles in various publications, most notably in The Hindu and Kalki.
The origin of Carnatic music is not the only frame of reference that Desiraju offers. The first three chapters depict the politics of gender and caste that female performing artists navigated in the early 1900s to find their place on stage. In contrast to MS, who divorced herself from her Devadasi roots in Madurai to embrace the upper-caste Brahmin traditions of her husband, Bharatanatyam danseuse T. Balasaraswati, a close associate, sought to revive the Devadasi tradition of the temple dance form through her practice.
Subbulakshmi’s life captured the imagination of a range of artists, from writers to weavers, across the nation. A line of saris dyed in MS Blue, the colour named after the vocalist, was rolled out in the 1960s. Novelist R.K. Narayan alluded to her life in his short story Selvi. Desiraju writes: “In Narayan’s story, Selvi finally breaks away from her overbearing husband and returns to her lower-class roots and the home where her neglected mother has died. No such option was available to Subbulakshmi in real life, and we do not also know if this is something she would have wished for.”
How MS became an integral voice of the independence movement has been chronicled by many, most recently by historian Lakshmi Subramanian in Singing Gandhi’s India. M.K. Gandhi believed accessibility was the most integral quality in a piece of music and felt the masses were not drawn to classical music in the same way that they responded to lok sangeet. He made an exception for Narayan Khare, who sang the original rendition of Raghupati Raghava Rajaram, and for MS, whose renditions of Raghupati Raghava Rajaram and Vaishnava Janato, performed on several occasions at Gandhi’s request, made her voice an intrinsic part of his secular movement.
The book also sheds light on another uprising that divided the world of Carnatic music: the Tamil Isai movement, which implored Carnatic vocalists to promote musical pieces written in Tamil instead of focusing on the Telugu musical repertoire of the trinity—Tyagaraja, Syama Sastry and Muthusvami Dikshitar. The movement became an assertion of language, caste identity and music for all non-Brahmin musicians. Though MS had embraced upper-caste traditions, this was a battle she was willing to fight for her mother tongue.
Though the politics that plagued the Carnatic music sabhas (performance spaces) in Chennai is restricted to one chapter, Desiraju draws attention to caste and gender biases through various chapters.In the first one, for instance, he explains how musicians were categorised into periya melam and chinna melam, i.e., greater and lesser musical traditions that were based on caste and gender hierarchies. The thread continues to the last chapter, where the author talks about Kanan Bala and Begum Akhtar, two musical luminaries, who were born in a generation that succeeded MS’ and performed two generations later, when caste and gender biases remained unchanged.
While biographers such as danseuse Lakshmi Vishwanathan bring a sense of the personal into their account of MS’ life and work, Desiraju’s narrative draws from all published work, including other biographies. The transition from a bankable film star, whose musical prowess led to the success of films such as Savithri (1941), Sakuntalai (1941) and Meera (1945) , to the toast of the Carnatic concert stage, to humanitarian to national icon, has been meticulously recorded by Desiraju. And yet, Of Gifted Voice is remarkably devoid of the over-familiarity that often borders on hagiography, though Desiraju admits to having briefly met MS over many years.
MS has over three biographies, a harikatha and a comic book to her name, but Of Gifted Voice is not just a biography of one of the most-loved voices of the last century, but also a commentary on the country’s sociopolitical order through her lifetime.


-Prof. Lalitha Suhasini Vakkalanka, Academic Specialist – Journalism and Mass Communication