Lec-Dem on MS Subbulakshmi by RK Shriramkumar

An Appreciation by Prabhakar Chitrapu

Nov 29, 2016 · 8 min read


On Nov 12, 2016, Sruti audience was treated to a highly informative and educational lecture demonstration (lec-dem) on the legendary MS Subbulakshmi (MS), on the occasion of her 100th birth anniversary, by the vidwan Sri RK Shriramkumar (RKS). The lec-dem lasted about 3 hours and kept the audience spell-bound.

Sri RKS was closely associated with MS, as her sishya, her accompanist and her family friend. As such, he had the unique opportunity to observe her at close quarters and learn from her, not only music but also valuable life-lessons, which he shared with us on that evening. In a comprehensive manner, he covered all aspects of her music, life and personality, intelligently weaving in the academic as well as the informal aspects.

RKS’s lec-dem was comprehensive and academic, because it covered all these aspects in a systematic and organized manner: Her history consisting of her early exposure to music, her first gramophone record, her first concert, her introduction to films, her marriage, her humbleness in learning from so many stalwarts, her national and international fame, her appeal to people from all languages, etc. Her music in terms of her dedication to details of sruti & laya, her concert preparation, her AlApanas, her musical ornamentations, her neravals, her svarakalpanas, her tAnam, her pallavis, her bhajans, her favorite songs, etc. Her personality as a teacher/mentor, as a devotee, as a philanthropist, etc. And her simplicity as a woman that loved coffee, glass bangles, jasmines, perfumes, silk sarees etc.

It is easy to idolize a personality such as MS, and it is easy to paint an ideal, perfect, almost super-human portrait of her, sacrificing in that process the individual’s human-ness. RK Shriramkumar beautifully avoided this, by recalling her simple human qualities as well as the fact the even she was not infallible.

The Lec-Dem itself was cleverly constructed by interspersing his own speech, which included pictures, videos & music of MS with live music by two groups of youngsters from our own area. The groups sang melodious compositions, that were delight to the ears and that were put together seamlessly.

It was also clever that the Lec-Dem started with a projected image of the Madurai Meenakshi temple in the background with the inscription “SrI guru gaNESa SARadA krupA SrI mInAkshi dEvyai namah” and the Dikshitar kriti “mInAkshi mE mudam dEhi” celebrating Goddess mInAkshi, perhaps since MS was born in Madurai and carries the word in her name!

Recollections from the Lec-Dem

Much has been written about MS and more will be written during this, her centenary year, and surely beyond. Rather than repeating well known information, I would like to recapitulate some of the lesser known facts of MS that RKS shared with us.

In addition to being the great vocalist that she is, MS was also an accomplished Veena player! She apparently learnt it first from her mother (who was a reputed Veena player herself) and later from K.S. Narayanaswamy. And she actually gave a full Veena concert at the Madras Music Academy! And that her Veena training (i.e. vaiNika bANi) revealed itself (or should I say, “concealed itself”) in her rendering of tAnam in rAgam-tAnam-pallavis.

In contrast to the influence of MS’s mother, as a Vainika, the influence that her father, Subramania Iyer, had is probably less known. He was an advocate and conducted SrI rAma navami festivals regularly. Young MS apparently was very impressed by the rathOtsava celebrations, during which the seeds of her deep religious devotion probably sprouted.

MS maintained meticulous music notebooks and RKS gave us a rare glimpse of one of the pages. You can see how she wrote beautifully in dEvanAgari and Tamil scripts.

MS had two tamburas, one named Lakshmi and the other Saraswati. If we were to visualize her as an embodiment of pArvati — the musical energy, the audience then was treated to the three divine mothers of Hinduism.

MS’s first gramophone record was released by ‘The Twin’ record company at her tender age of 10 and consisted of a Tamil song (Tirupugal).

It is well known that MS acted as Meera in the film “Meera”. Perhaps less known is the fact that the film was produced by her husband, T. Sadasivam, written by the well known Kalki Krishnamurthy and directed by an Englishman Ellis Dungan. Perhaps even less known is the fact that MS became so immersed in her role and perhaps identified herself with Meera, that in the last scene where Meera is shown as merging into the idol of her lover-God Lord Krishna, MS actually swooned unconscious on the stage!

It is well known that MS sang the bhajan ‘Hari tum harO’ for Mahatma Gandhi, at his request. Apparently, the request came at a short notice and MS initially declined the offer. When Gandhi insisted that he would rather have MS even simply “recite” the song, MS had the song set to music (by one Sri Vaidyanathan) overnight and sang it for the Mahatma!

Almost every household in South India probably knows the Venkateswara Suprabhatam and Vishnu Sahasram recited by MS. These were recorded in 1963 and the preparation MS did, in terms of pronunciation and diction was immaculate. A less observed fact is how these renderings reveal the strict adherence to kAla-pramANam (time scale). Normally, the mridangam helps the artist keep the tempo through extended musical renderings. On the other hand, Vishnu Sahasram is rendered without any such timing assistance and therefore it is easy for the time scale to drift. (Those of us who recite it know how the pace speeds up towards the latter parts of the Sahasram — either due to the genuine difficulty of keeping time for a long time or simply impatience -J). In MS’s rendering, one can observe that the kAla pramANam is identical throughout the 30 min recitation of Vishnu Sahasram.

Even after MS’s fame spread wide and far, she had the humility to learn from many other musicians. For example, she learnt the Bhairavi swarajati — Kamakshi, of Syama Sastry- from Musiri Subramania Iyer, the Sourashtra kriti — Sri Ganapatini of Thyagaraja- from Brinda, several compositions from Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, etc. Yet, after learning from others, she made them entirely her own, placing her indelible stamp on them and often making them even more lovable and appealing from the teachers’ versions!

Of special mention here is her bringing to the audience of classical music connoisseurs the compositions of Annamacharya. These were laying hidden for centuries in the sealed vaults of the Venkateswara temple in Tirupati, and were re-discovered only in the early part of the 20th Century. Under the sponsorship of the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam, MS released 5 albums, containing several mainly consisting of compositions of Annamacharya. Although the music was set by several other musicians & musicologists, such as rALLapalli anantakrishna Sarma, pinAkapANi, vOlETi, nEdunUri etc., MS poured life into these musical structures and impregnated them deep in the hearts of lovers of Carnatic music and Annamacharya’s compositions. RKS mentioned an interesting fact that MS’s favorite among these was the ‘entamAtramuna’ kriti, whose meaning is universal. It says that God reveals Himself/Herself in whatever measure or way the seeker pursues Him/Her.

Such things have been said of Thyagaraja too, and they apply equally to MS’s music. There have been other musicians who possibly surpassed MS individually in different dimensions of Carnatic music, namely bhAvam, sangItam and sAhityam. But, what MS excelled in was blending these in a perfect manner, and produced a balance, that was optimal for each particular composition. Such blending requires the mastery of each individual dimension and determining the right mix for the composition being rendered and controlling oneself to not to over-emphasize any one dimension at the expense of the quality of the entire musical edifice. Like Thyagaraja, she was unique and superlative at such balance.

MS was a fine human being, exhibiting many great qualities, such as being a caring mentor. RKS illustrated this aspect of MS from two of his personal examples. In the early 90’s, MS was giving a concert at IIT Madras, with RKS accompanying on the violin. The piece being rendered was in rAga kalyANi and it was RKS’s turn to perform the AlApana. At one point, MS apparently looked at him questioningly, which immediately conveyed to RKS that something in his rendering at that time was not right. After the concert, MS gently told him that ‘too many oscillations around the rishabham ‘Ri’ can drag the rendering into SankarAbharaNam! At another time, RKS was giving a solo violin concert on the radio, and MS, as his mentor, was listening to it attentively at her home. He was playing the madhyamavati kriti ‘pAlincu kAmAkshi’ of Syama Sastry. RKS played one of the sangatis differently, but quickly recovered in an almost un-noticeable way. The master musician, MS, had, of course, noticed it and wanted to correct him. She had apparently called his home phone twice already by the time he returned home! When he called her back, she complimented him on a fine concert and then gently pointed out the issue with the pAlincu kAmakshi sangati!

Even as we celebrate and idolize MS and her music, we should not lose sight of the fact that she was a human being, after all. As an ordinary human, she was fallible too. But, as an extraordinary human, she recovers from her few & minor slips in the most graceful way, setting an example for all of us to follow. The incident was a concert she was giving at the Birla house, in New Delhi, during the late-1960s/early-1970s. She was singing a Meera Bhajan and towards the end, she seems to have forgotten the next line! Unperturbed and maintaining an inner equilibrium, she searches her mind to recover the faded lines and comes back with swan-like grace! Such poise is what is also taught to us in the name ‘marALi manda-gamana’ in Lalitha Sahasram.

I would like to conclude my appreciation of the excellent Lec-Dem presented by Vidwan RK Shriramkumar with a few pictures of the extra-ordinary human and role-model that MS was and continues to be.

Sruti Ranjani

Sruti’s principal mission is to promote and present Indian…


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Sruti: The India Music and Dance Society

Sruti Ranjani

Sruti’s principal mission is to promote and present Indian classical music and dance. Sruti is based in the Philadelphia area and founded in 1986.

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