A day after her birthday, two former executives recall doyenne M.S. Subbulakshmi's long and fruitful association with HMV.
The little girl in pavadai chattai, oiled curls pressed into a tight braid, was too timid for noisy games with other children. But she devised a secret game for herself. Rolling waste paper into a cone, she sang into it for hours – pretending to record a ‘plate' for ‘His Master's Voice', then the biggest gramophone company in India.
Little did the child know that one day she would render the company's bestseller in ‘Venkatesa Suprabhatam,' still enjoying the longest shelf life among Indian audio recording.
“Whenever the turnover decreased, it became a regular practice to issue 1000 copies of ‘Suprabhatam',” says S. Sankaranarayanan, retired marketing manager, HMV (now renamed Saregama). He adds, “No distributor or retailer ever refused, or returned copies unsold.”
On the eve of MS Amma's birthday (September 16) this year, The Hindu Saregama M.S. Subbulakshmi Award was instituted at a function in Chennai to recognise the pursuit of excellence in young talent in the Carnatic music world. On this occasion, going down the MS lane with old HMV guards Sankaranarayanan and K.S. Raghunathan (recording engineer/artistic and repertoire manager) is to re-live MS Amma's shraddha and sadhana.
Raghunathan believes that what the world calls divinity in MS is her total commitment. When he joined HMV in 1967, young Raghu, belonging to a musical family, could hardly imagine that he would develop a close bond with the celebrated singer whose ‘Deviyai pujai seivai' (from the film ‘Savitri') he had invariably sung as a child at Navaratri kolu; whose live prayer he had heard at a political meeting in Rajaji Hall, with the Mahatma urging her to sing a second bhajan (‘Vaishnava Janato'). Asked to ‘investigate' MS's reluctance to record at the studio, Raghu discovered that she had sensed some ‘strain' in the non-musician sound engineer, due to her insistence on perfection that demanded retakes.
No one knows what M.S., V.V. Subrahmanyam (violin), T.K. Murthy (mridangam) and V. Nagarajan (ganjira) thought when they saw Raghu, introduced as an expert in stereophonic technology, making exhaustive notes on A4 sheets as they rehearsed ‘Bhajagovindam.' But when he vocally demonstrated how forcefully the high notes must be sung to maintain voice-violin balance, MS stood up to announce, “I want to record with this man.” Among those who recorded her (Dinshaw, Madgaonkar, S.K. Sen, Ramachandran and Krishnamurthy), Raghunathan earned the lion's share, including the ‘Balaji Pancharatnamala,' and the first time recording of a Carnatic concert in 3 LPs, from varnam (Bhairavi) to thillana (Dhanashri).
“In the first week, it set a record in sales,” he explains. As the trust grew, MS began to consult him on matters musical as well. Raghu has great respect for T. Sadasivam, MS Amma's husband and irascible mentor. “When the first version of ‘Kurai Ondrum Illai' omitted its final cry ‘Malayappa Govinda' believing that those words (and the dots!) were beyond meter and talam, an enraged Sadasivam not only objected to cuts in Rajaji's lyric, but also recited it with metrical form intact for a ‘proper' tuning.
The monumental ‘Vishnusahasranamam' was ready for the factory when scholar Agnihotram Thathachariar discovered a single mispronunciation. (‘Preetyarthe' had become ‘prirthyarthe'). In those days any mistake meant re-recording the whole. Raghu recalls, “Amma slumped against the wall and said feebly, ‘Get the tambura.' But crafty editing set it right. HMV developed the concept of editing with MS Amma. I learnt to cut and splice to ensure quality in balancing/ synchronising voice and instruments. I never needed to edit Amma who was pitch-pace-bhava perfect.” Nor did Raghu ever find her singing with a book in hand.
Sankaranarayanan recalls how at their first meeting (1973), MS “served dosai and coffee herself, and happily chatted about her early association with my native village Sundarapandiyapuram, where she had sung even at nalangu functions.”
Once Sadasivam's urgent demand for some LPs to gift Australian visitors on a Sunday had Sankaranarayanan knocking at AVM Meiyappa Chettiar's door and demanding the key to his Saraswati Store. Chettiar, himself a legend, got into the car, came to open the stockroom, and located the LPs.
Though a marketing man, his devotion to MS Amma made Sankaranarayanan stay through her studio recordings. He recalls her childlike pleasure in his mimicry, and how she brought home made lunch for all the artists and technical staff. “Her dedication was phenomenal. I remember how she rehearsed ‘Nanati Baduku' (Revati) again, before recording it to Sadasivam's satisfaction.”
Why did MS Amma stay faithful to HMV from the days of wax records, Twin Record label and market monopoly -- through decades of competition that reduced it to being one among many companies? Hadn't D. K. Pattammal and M.L. Vasanthakumari moved to Columbia? Sankaranarayanan answers: “This is a reputed organisation. Having recorded the speeches of Gandhi and Nehru, we have nationalistic associations. MS Amma was a national, not regional, artist. Sometimes her records sold more in Mumbai than Chennai.I myself have taken 500 LPs of hers to our Guwahati branch.” He adds wistfully, “Do you know, Amma was so naive that she'd ask, ‘Is HMV losing money because of me?' Never once did she talk about monetary transactions. All her royalties go to charity.”