The musical legacy of MS Subbulakshmi
As a journalist, TJS George’s credibility and credentials are unparalleled. In his career of over six decades, the veteran author and editor has penned biographies of several noted personalities across various spheres of life. Diplomat VK Krishna Menon, Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, legendary Hindi actress Nargis are some of the luminaries whose life George has chronicled in a way few others could.
In his list of exceptional biographies, the most recent and noteworthy is MS Subbulakshmi: The Definitive Biography. Revered by musicians around the world and worshipped by many in India, Madurai Shanmugavadivu Subbulaskhmi was the first ever musician to be awarded India’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, in 1998. On her birth centenary this year, the United Nations issued a stamp to honour the legendary vocalist. These and numerous other laurels have cemented MS’s legacy among the finest musicians to have ever been born in India. However, there is no denying that awareness of her legacy is mostly confined to the Southern part of India.
To throw light on the enigma that is MS, George began his biography project way back in 1990. He went through numerous struggles, hit several walls, was denied necessary information by people close to MS (mostly because he was considered an outsider to the world of Carnatic music) and gave up the project midway. However, after a chance meeting with MS herself, George began pursuing the project with great vigour and finished it in 2004, the year she passed away.
The book MS: A Life in Music was released the same year to critical acclaim and is considered a seminal work on the woman who was considered the Aathuvaansur (the eighth musical note) by another legendary musician Kishori Amonkar. The Definitive Biography is indeed the same book, but written with a new foreword and renewed wisdom.
George, untutored in Carnatic music and the inner workings of the Carnatic music fraternity, embarked on a journey that gave him knowledge of not just MS amma, but also how she was shaped by Madurai, her hometown, and her family, especially her mother Shanmugavadivu. The author devotes copious pages to how much he, during the journey to this book, came to learn about the history of Carnatic music. These chapters are in the very beginning and feel like a drag, despite the fact that George’s research on the subject is commendable. It also delves into the hierarchy that ruled the Carnatic music scenario back in the day and is quite educational. At the cost of educating the readers, however, the author seems to have forgotten that people completely unaware of MS’s legacy will find many of these chapters boring. As a South Indian, who was regularly forced to listen to MS’s rendition of Bhajagovindam, I must say that the book made me realise and proudly embrace my South Indian roots.
To the layman, the book might feel a biography written by a man completely in awe of a skilled musician. It cannot be denied though that anyone who will listen to MS amma, know about her personal life and the struggles she had to face from upper caste domineering figures in the 50s and 60s will appreciate the hard work put in by the author.
The book is not just a lesson in history and socio–political milieu of Tamil Nadu during MS’s time. It is also an ode to some of the greatest female musicians to have graced this culturally diverse and spiritually united soil of India.