Remembering MS

Tracing the legend in her own city

Arvind Kumar Sankar. Photo: S. James.

Arvind Kumar Sankar. Photo: S. James.   | Photo Credit: S_James.

It is melody queen M.S.Subbulakshmi’s 100th birth anniversary today (September 16). But there is hardly any fanfare visible in Madurai, the city where she was born

“The M in her stood for Madurai – the sweetness of Madurai Tamil, the fragrance of Madurai malli, the gentleness of Madurai people, the magnificence of Madurai in legend, history and literature, all equally celebrated in verse and song...” from the pages of the book “MS and Radha – Saga of Steadfast Devotion” by Gowri Ramnarayan.

Yet the loving people of Madurai appear to have sidelined the legend. The birth centenary year of M.S.Subbulakhsmi -- the shy girl from the Temple Town who rose to be acclaimed as one of the greatest musicians of India – was commemorated without effective celebrations. With deafening noise we celebrate our tinsel town celebrities and spend big money on their film promotions. Then why not on MS whose divine vocals and graceful and endearing persona made her a shining star and whose golden voice continues to mesmerise people?

Why does the city fail in projecting MS as the pride of Madurai?

“The native genius who became a cult figure,” says M.P.N Ponnusamy, the nadaswaram vidwan, “should have been given a more befitting tribute by music lovers and people of Madurai.”

“There will not be another MS in times to come,” he says and recalls several fond memories of his meetings with the great singer. His daughter P. Sampoornam, who teaches at the Government Music College, Pasumalai, feels these days only students studying Carnatic music know about and learn the songs rendered by MS. “Majority of youngsters otherwise care only about film songs,” she says. “I doubt if the new generation really knows about one of the greatest musicians in the country that Madurai produced,” adds Ponnusamy, who lives barely a kilometre away from the house where M.S.Subbulakshmi was born on September 16, 1916.

On the eve of her 100th birth anniversary, the West Hanumantharayar Street that houses the heritage building is as cacophonic as any other busy evening. Cramped with shops, people walking and two-wheelers parked, you feel creativity is so easily stifled here. The approach is quite an uninspiring guide to a tourist or any admirer of music or MS. Only the veena motif jutting out of the first floor faintly fights to remind you of the connection to Carnatic music. Once you climb up the narrow staircase squeezed in between two optical shops, it is only your imagination aided by just two b/w photos (one showing MS playing the tanpura and the other a portrait donated by the TVS school) that vaguely help to reconstruct the early years of ‘Kunjamma’ here.

The present occupant of the house R. Subbulakhsmi (whose father Raju Pillai was MS’s maternal uncle) tells about the last meeting with her cousin in 2001 in Kotturpuram. “She always had special attachment for people of Madurai and visited this house last in 1976,” she says. “All her things were sent to Chennai,” she adds remembering MS’s elder brother M.S.Sakthivel who played the mridangam but not the younger sister Vadivambal who died young. In fact, she informs that Sakthivel’s wife passed away on August 24 this year.

Whether anything special has been planned for MS on 100th birth anniversary draws a blank. Her daughter, Sridevi, is busy taking tuition classes inside the small house which has partially been rented out. “The TVS school students will probably come and sing in the morning and occasionally some foreigners and visitors drop in,” she says matter-of-fact.

It is unfortunate that no effort has been made to showcase M.S.Subbulakshmi’s contributions and Madurai’s thereof to the nation’s cultural arena, laments Ponnusamy who suggests at least a statue could have been installed in her honour, either near the West Tower of the Meenakshi Temple from where her house is at a stone’s throw or at the Sri Sathguru Sangeetha Samajam premises which plays host to cultural programmes and sees the assembly of artistes from all over. “Her statue has been installed in Tirupati by the Tirupati Thirumala Devasthanam but in her hometown there is no remembrance of her,” he says.

Leave alone a statue, there is not even a sign post in the city that says MS was born here, points out Arvind Kumar Sankar, former convener of INTACH (Madurai). Few years ago, INTACH Madurai and the Samajam had jointly pushed a proposal to convert MS’s ancestral home into a memorial. But it is lying on the back burner.

However, there are several old and traditional families in the city who realise the importance of remembering people who made the small town famous with their talent and contribution. Recording and documenting histories connect us to forgotten pasts or else memories of a different time era will fade with each successive generation.

It is perhaps beneficial to build narratives out of primary sources like articles, letters, photographs, mementos, memoirs and various documents. An attempt to seek out raw materials led mostly to oral stories from people whose families knew or were associated with MS. And these are equally valuable.

Lakshmi Murugesan, daughter of the industrial doyen Karumuttu Thiagarajan Chettiar remembers her father was close to C. Rajagopalachari and T. Sadasivam and how MS would often meet her parents and on many occasions sang all Bharathiyar and Tamil songs for them. Dr.Sowmini Ramesh, who married into the iconic TVS family in 1966 recalls her mother-in-law as a great friend of MS. “Herself an ardent music lover she composed many songs that were sung by MS,” she says. Not only did the famous MS Blue sari woven by the Kanchipuram master weaver Muthu Chettiar form a part of her wedding trousseau but Sowmini also remembers MS’s rendition of Oonjal songs during her brother-in-law’s wedding.

For advocate M.S.Meenakshi Sundaram, growing up a few houses away from MS are childhood memories. He knew her brother well and never missed a concert of MS in Madurai. He remembers her mother, Shanmukhavadivu Ammal, a veena player, who would come to their house to listen to the radio each time MS programme was being broadcast.

For English teacher Sita Krishnamurthy, the association comes through her great grandfather who started one of the first girl schools in Madurai – Sri Meenakshi Vidyasala (where present TVS Community College is, opposite Setupati Higher Secondary School) where MS studied till class V. “My recollections are mostly through the books I read on her and the only time I heard her sing was at a wedding ceremony in Coimbatore four decades ago,” she says. “I never imagined to see her at such close quarters and listen to her sing without any instruments playing.”

The Principal of Music College run by Tamil Isai Sangam, Dr.S.Mallika’s grandfather Chinnaiya Iyer always played host to MS whenever she was in and around Karaikudi for her concerts. Mallika remembers she met MS for the first time at the age of seven. “We waited for an hour and when she appeared, she looked like a goddess, an image that will never leave me,” she says.

“I met her on several occasions each filled with pure excitement. I loved her composure, simplicity, humility and appreciation of other’s efforts. She is a role model for every woman,” says Mallika.

As one digs, many anecdotes tumble out and one feels there could perhaps have been a better and a greater collective act of remembrance for the daughter of the soil on this day.

Remembering MS

To mark the centenary celebrations of MS, Sri Sathguru Sangeetha Samajam organised its 3rd annual series of concerts from September 12 to 16 and conferred the title of Madurai Sri Meenakshi Award in memory of Bharat Ratna Dr.M.S.Subbulakshmi to Gayathri Girish this year.

Earlier, another series called the Madura Geetham was started by INTACH (Madurai) to mark the birth week celebrations of MS from 2008 to 2013.

Students from TVS Matriculation Higher Secondary School and Sathguru Sangeetha Samajam go to MS’s house every 16th September morning and sing her famous songs in remembrance.

Best compliment

It was MPN Ponnusamy’s grandfather, M.K.M Ponnusamy Pillai, who introduced MS to Madurai public at the age of nine. “I have heard stories that my grandfather made the little girl sit on his lap and encouraged her to sing solo at a wedding ceremony. Later he told her mother that the child prodigy will shine and scale heights as no one else.”

Ponnusamy’s meetings with MS were mostly in Chennai. “First time when I met her, she asked me to play the nadaswaram and said I would become a great artiste like my grandfather. That is the best compliment I have ever got,” says the 83-year-old.

“I used to call her chithi and she taught me to sing Srikanthimathi kriti in Hemavat raga. Her last visit to Madurai was during her mother’s demise and I and her brother took charge of the funeral arrangements.”

He cheers up remembering MS’s hearty laugh when he met her for the last time in 2002. “I went to congratulate her for receiving the Bharat Ratna and requested her to resume singing as artistes were earning so much money. Suddenly she broke into laughter and said all those artistes need money for their hairstyling and layers of make-up before going on stage. The helpers in the house said they had heard amma laugh like this after a long time.”

Grace personified

Arvind Kumar Sankar’s family has been associated with MS for generations. Madura Geetham was his brainchild to remember the greatest musician with some unique performances tailor made for the occasion. He remembers when his family had the opportunity to host the Sadasivams in their Chokkikulam house, how he was excited as a 10-year-old. “I was extremely fond of her bhajans and when she came home I grasped her absolutely silken palm and took her to our puja room and non-stop bragged about my Radha and Krishna idols. She listened to me patiently and only interrupted with exclamations. Now I realise how great she was mingling with a child with such attention and interest.”

In July 1966 when M.S came to attend Arvind’s parents’ (Lalitha and S.B. Sankar) wedding reception, she had evolved from the humble Hanumantharayar koil street resident to a film star and the numero uno in the South Indian classical vocal music world.

“It is her aura as an extremely refined human being that will never fade from peoples’ memories,” he says. As an ardent music lover himself, Arvind feels the younger generation needs to remember and celebrate MS at 100. “Her focus made her break all obstacles and penetrate into the male-dominated world of Carnatic music and hard work was her only priority. She not only had a golden voice but also a golden heart and kept giving away in charity. Even so many years after her demise, the royalty of Venkatesa suprabatham goes to TTD and Vishnu Sahasranamam goes to Ramakrishna mutt,” he notes.

Arvind recalls meeting MS many years later in a rented house off Sterling Road near Valluvarkottam, Chennai. He remembers asking her why she continued to live in a house that could barely accommodate her musical instruments and awards when the then Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi were offering her government accommodation. “What is one's own actually?, she replied and seeing me taken in by surprise she flashed her radiant smile and said, haven’t you heard my recording - Kuthagaiyaai eduththa piravi? (this birth is what the soul has taken on temporary lease)”.

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Printable version | Feb 25, 2020 6:01:10 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/music/Tracing-the-legend-in-her-own-city/article14400378.ece

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