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MS Understood

The myths and misconceptions around India’s most acclaimed musician

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.

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39 thoughts on “MS Understood”

Hello Mr Krishnan
Dont write to get publicty to you and your magazine. Whether she is not good to satisfy the conniseurs of Chennai but she has captured the mass the public and a lot who enjoys music and feels happy to hear her.is important than the few to comment on her. She was a great singer and her songs are immortal and every house still listens to her songs . Any way Mr Krishnan you have your points and be with it.

Is it the story of MS that she was converted from a devadasi to a Brahmin? Is it that she relinquished the abandon of a devadasi singer that would have made her a true artist? Is it that she was caught in the cocoon of Brahminical conservatism from the cracks in the walls of which her musical genius could only gleam through, but not shine forth? Is it that by singing lighter pieces and giving a large number of devotional lyrics her true Carnatic music forte was blunted? Is it true that being made to sing Sankarabharanam repeatedly, her music was stifled? Did she not sing other ragas with as much mastery and fairly often? If Semmangudi was identified with KHP, does it mean that his musical genius was confined to it? Is it that the ignoramuses adulated her slavishly while the aesthetes had a poor view of her credential as a classical musician? Is it that the praise of Chembai, Sambasiva Iyer, Palghat Mani Iyer, and so many other greats was all stage managed or said merely for public consumption? If SSI said that her tanam singing was the best among women singers, or Musiri and SSI congratulated her after a varnam in Begada, is it all fictitious, and no one really acknowledged her in this area? Is it that Brahminism is a spoiler of the creative environment to music and that without that environment CM would have occupied the world stage? Is it that MS was totally dominated upon (which wife does not have a complaint) and that she was a reluctant victim? Then, why did she advocate a similar role to women in her interview? Was it also said in duress? Was it universal that her singing would be disrupted to sing a thukkada to satisfy a bigwig?
Those who lap up all these arguments pay a rich tribute to the oratory of TMK. His ideology of opposition to the ARI format (tukkadas being given prominence), Brahminism and the CM being a prisoner of Brahmins, runs right through the article cleverly and infectiously like space invades the universe.
It is well written, cleverly written, drawing effortlessly on his command of language, brilliance of mind and mastery of music, but the stance from which it is written does justice neither to MS nor to truth.
The article has done quite a bit of damage as those who have not followed the life and musical career of MS would believe all it says because of the uncanny articulation and specious arguments, and a subtle anti-Brahminism that has a large following. I am not worried about Brahmins (they deserve a worse fate) but about presenting MS in a stained light.
I would have appreciated if he had written an honest piece on the merits of her music and where it fell short.

Thank you Shri T M Krishna and Caravan for such a wonderful article. It is the closest, nuanced and empathetic glimpse in to MS’s life I have got.

Whether she was a dear to the critics or not, EOD, face of carnatic music undoubtedly is MS. Not certainly an unbiased article. Speaks the same in a polished, inconclusive way.

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