Remembering MS

That gentle smile

There are some events that etch themselves in one’s memory and are perennial source of joy and fulfilment. The morning of February 20, 2002, is one such for me. On this day, I met M.S. Subbulakshmi at her residence in Kotturpuram, Chennai. The 45 minutes spent with her were precious.

My first initiation into Carnatic music was through an audio-cassette of ‘Silapadikaram’ of M.S. in 1971 when I was posted as Assistant Collector of Customs at Nagapattinam. The cassette was lying with me for some time, and I played it casually one evening after I had returned from a strenuous coastal patrolling. The piece cast a spell on me. This was later followed by her Meera bhajans, Vishnu Sahasranamam and so on. They opened up a whole new world of music for me, exposed as I was till then, only to Hindustani music. Since then I have listened to some of her pieces hundreds of times and desired to meet her in person.

I had some official work in Chennai, in February 2002. I reached the city on February 19. A couple of days earlier, I had asked a colleague in Chennai to request M.S. for a brief meeting. I was somewhat sceptical about her response, as I was told that since the demise of her husband, Sri Sadasivam, she had become more or less a recluse and made very few public appearances.

On landing in Chennai, to my delight and surprise, I was informed that she had consented to meet me at 10.30 a.m. the next day at her residence. This was despite the fact that she had been indisposed for the past three days.

My colleague, J. Sridharan, and I reached the house at 10.30 a.m. sharp. Atmanathan, her secretary, was waiting to receive us at the gate. Her house was a simple structure of modest size. The gate had two pillars, with two doors of iron grills. On top of the pillar on the left, the word ‘Sivam’ was engraved on a marble plaque, and on the right pillar, ‘Subham’, the abbreviated first names of Subbulakshmi and her husband. While walking in, I noticed the still undisturbed kolam near the gate. The house was spotlessly clean. The drawing room had a three-piece cane sofa set with a middle table.

In the rack were images of Ganesha and a couple of other gods. On the walls were photographs of great people like Mahatma Gandhi, U. Thant, Chakravarti Rajagopalachary, T.T. Krishnamachari and many others, whom M.S. had met during her illustrious career. T.T. Vasu, a prominent figure in the cultural field of the city, and a close family friend was seated on the sofa. M.S., who was a picture of grace and simplicity, greeted me with a gentle smile. I kept on marvelling as to how a lilting voice, which had found its way into millions of hearts, falling softer than petals from blown roses on the grass, and then lingering on and echoing endlessly, emanates from the frail frame of hers. She mostly spoke in Tamil. She, however, followed everything that I said in English. While we were conversing, some hot South Indian snacks were served in stainless steel plates. This was followed by coffee. M.S. watched as my cup was filled and sugar added to it, which was then passed on to me without stirring. She pointed out this lapse to the person, who was serving the coffee.

During the conversation I mentioned to her how I began listening to her songs. I also told her I liked ‘Hari Tum Haro Jana Ki Peer’ the most. Her face lit up at the mention of this bhajan. And then she narrated, what turned out to be a gem of an anecdote from her life. In the 1940s, she had been invited to a function which the Mahatma was to attend, and his favourite bhajan, ‘Hari Tum Haro Janan Ki Peer’ was to be sung there. She was asked to sing it. However, she was diffident as she had not sung in Hindi till then, and thought that someone else could do it better. Gandhiji, however, insisted, saying that even if she read it out, it would be better than anyone else’s singing. She was overwhelmed by the words of the great man and sang the bhajan. The rest is history.

M.S. had been endowed with one of the greatest gifts from God. She nurtured it with care and used it not as something which was hers but His. And whatever she achieved through it, she placed it back at His feet.

ANUP KUMAR PANDE

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Printable version | Feb 24, 2020 5:59:35 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/music/That-gentle-smile/article14393329.ece

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