Remembering MS

The girl from Madurai

March 1, 1998

Number 11, Kotturpuram, is like any other middle class home in Chennai. But if someone had told you that the old lady relaxing in one of those cane chairs — her bare feet on a footstool — had just been awarded the country’s highest honour, you would have laughed. With her homespun cotton sari and turmeric scrubbed face, she could have easily passed off as the woman next door. A pair of old spectacles lay on a table beside her. Ramaswamy, seated next to her, picked them up and examined them. The rims were stained yellow. When he questioned her about this, Kunjamma laughed and explained, “I smear turmeric paste on my face every day, you see. Some of it rubs off on my spectacles as well.” This is what makes M. S. Subbulakshmi unique.

Sangeetha Kalanidhi, Padma Vibhushan, Ramon Magsaysay — they never seemed to excite her as much as they did those around her. And now, the Bharat Ratna. That morning, the newspapers sung her praises and splashed her pictures on their front pages. Congratulatory messages were pouring in. The world of Carnatic music was jubilant. Anybody else would have exulted at this crowning reward for a lifetime achievement. But not this artist. She merely shrugged off the tributes with a characteristic, “Why all this for me?” This sentence holds the key to the charisma of M.S. She never realised the spell she cast on her audiences. On the other hand, she was full of apprehension before every performance. “I lack confidence in myself,” she once stated in an interview to a newspaper.

As a musician, she can move her audiences to tears. As a human being, she can touch a deep chord. No wonder, the crowds swell when she appears in public. Her fans wait outside her concert venue just to catch a glimpse of her. M.S. is an icon who cannot be easily replaced. But, what does Bharat Ratna actually mean to someone who never bothered about titles or other worldly possessions? Who has donated a lifetime’s earnings to charities while retaining the barest material comforts for herself? An artist who does not demand five-star luxuries. Nor expect VIP preferences.

When M.S. attended the Rajaji Commemoration Lecture at the Gokhale Institute of Public Affairs in Bangalore, I remember how she took her place on a steel chair in the packed auditorium . And, when someone asked her for an invocatory piece, she rose unhesitatingly and sang two numbers with no fuss or accompaniment. Her son’s friend and classmate, Acharya, once narrated a similar story to me. When he got married, the young man decided to send an invitation to M.S. Of course, he never thought she would acknowledge it. Imagine his delight when she landed at the wedding venue in Bangalore. She even sang ‘Sita Kalyaana Vaibhogame’. Acharya recalled how the nagaswaram players, suddenly realising what was happening, stopped playing. And there was total silence in the wedding hall until she finished singing. These and more such instances reveal the real M.S. The woman behind the celebrity. A woman who can carry herself with élan in palaces and viceregal homes and, with the same ease, offer you a tumbler of chukku kaapi while teaching you how to brew it. So much has been written about her high connections, her meeting with heads of State, her dazzling appearances at the UN Assembly and other prestigious venues. We talk about her honorary degrees, her titles and her awards. But, how many of us recall the arduous journey made by a girl called Kunjamma, from her hapless childhood in Madurai to her present state of eminence? When social prejudices and gender discrimination were insurmountable obstacles, a 16-year-old exploded on the music circuit in Madras with her incredible voice.

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Printable version | Feb 17, 2020 5:48:24 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/music/The-girl-from-Madurai/article14548102.ece

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