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A Legend Passes On

Ranjani Saigal

The doyen of Carnatic music M S Subbulakshmi died in Chennai on December 11, 2004  leaving a void that would be difficult – almost impossible to fill. MS, as she was referred to by her innumerable fans, served as an inspiration for aspiring musicians and lived her life with utmost grace and dignity. Her renditions of devotional songs have had a significant presence in the pooja rooms and temples all over the world and millions even today consider listening to her rendition of Venketesha Suprabhatam as an auspicious beginning to their day.

M.S. was born in Madurai on September 16, 1916 to Shanmukhavadivu who was a respected but impoverished Veena player. This shy young girl took the world by storm with her music that always had a touch of divinity.She married Sadashivam a freedom fighter and together they were an integral part of the freedom struggle. She acted in four films and her role as “Meera” brought her national recognition. “When my wife whose parents are Assamese saw Meera, they decided that they would name their daughter Subbulakshmi and send her to Madras to learn Carnatic music and dance. That is how my wife got her name and went to Kalashetra” said Maestro Ustad Amjad Ali Khan in a conversation with this reporter on a recent visit to Boston. “I am extremely fortunate that I had the honor of getting the blessings of Smt. M.S. Subbulakshmi who is like a mother to me” said Khan Saheb.

By the 1950s, MS was a household name and a rage. Aspiring vocalists would dress like her and attempt to emulate her singing. The color - 'MS blue' - became famous in Kanjeevaram silk sarees.

She immortalised many songs, including 'Vaishnava Janato', a favourite of Mahatma Gandhi, Meera bhajans, Annamacharya kirtans and the like. Gandhi even asked her to sing in his prayer meetings at Sabarmati Ashram. 

Though fame and awards including the highest honor of Bharat Ratna came her way,  she never let it touch her. At the height of her popularity she and her husband made a decision that all proceeds from her concerts would go to charity. She raised over thirty million rupees for charities. While keeping that money would probably have given her unlimited luxuries, the giving away of the money transformed her into a saint who seemed quite content with her Spartan lifestyle.  Always kind and caring, she never uttered a harsh word to anyone. She provided encouragement to many young artists. She was a dedicated mother who raised her husband's children as her own, a wonderful sister to her siblings and a devoted wife.  

As she leaves us, one is reminded of her rendition of her husband’s mentor C. Rajagoplachari’s composition “Kurai Onru Illai’ which talks about living in the everlasting grace of the Lord.

The composer says

yAdum marukkAda malaiyappA un mArbil Edum tara nirkkum karuNai kaDalannai enrum irundiDa Edu kurai enakku onrum kurai illai maraimUrti kaNNAmaNivaNNA malaiappA gOvindA gOvindA gOvindA gOvindA gOvindA gOvindA gOvindA

You do not refuse the request from your devotees. The ever-merciful Goddess Lakshmi is residing in your  chest. In that situation what deficiency can I have? I do not have any complaint ("kurai onrum illai"), kannA, maNivaNNa, malaiyappA, gOvindA!

Perhaps only M.S could sing this song and really mean it for she surely lives in the everlasting grace of the Lord!



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