IN A PRIVATE CONVERSATION sometime in the late 1980s, a sharp-tongued young aspiring musician made an extraordinary statement about Carnatic music’s most iconic figure. “MS Subbulakshmi,” he said with disdain, “is the greatest hoax of the twentieth century.” Many readers will leap to accuse me of blasphemy for even citing this rather obnoxious remark. But it has stayed with me ever since, and I have a somewhat severe explanation for why.
This musician’s assertion was based on the argument that it was packaging and marketing that made Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi the global face and voice of Carnatic music; her music was otherwise intrinsically hollow, and lacked “stuff.” The Carnatic hinterland would not employ the word “hoax” to describe her, but would consider, with varying levels of empathy, the hypothesis that she was stage-managed. The marketing of MS—orchestrated, as is well-known—by her mentor, husband and business strategist, T Sadasivam, was undoubtedly astounding, and far ahead of its time. But to claim that what he sold to the world was intrinsically empty is unacceptable.
The world of Carnatic music, and its nerve centre, Chennai, is an intense, and intensely insular, world. Its norms of adherence, practice and evaluation are unforgiving. Through conversations, informal criticism, even hints, learned musicians and seniors, working in tandem with informed listeners, bestow various degrees of so-called classical value upon musicians. These value judgements become harsher as the popularity of a musician rises. Some of these musicians have publicly offered MS gestures of admiration, even adulation. Many use her performance techniques to enhance their own. But serious critical and technical appreciation has been rare. MS’s contemporaries, and even her juniors, have received weightier musical approval.
This was as true at the crest of her fame as it is now, over a decade after her death—and in this, her centenary year. Quintessential Carnatic connoisseurs and musicians differentiate between the real rasika, or aesthete, and the janata, who attend concerts to hear merely melodious music. The only praise that the hardcore section of this small universe bestows upon MS with honesty is that she had the most beautiful and pitch-perfect voice, and immaculate presentation skills. But let me make this clear: musicians don’t consider that combination a compliment. It usually means that there is nothing in the music to really write home about. I gather, from those close to her, that MS herself used to get quite upset when people only admired her voice—or worse, went on and on about the exquisite sari she was wearing.
TM Krishna is a Carnatic vocalist, public speaker, and the author of A Southern Music: The Karnatik Story.