November Fest

Take 4: Celebrating an icon

( From Left) Nithyasree Mahadevan, Haripriya, Sowmya and Shanmukhapriya. Photo: R. Ravindran

( From Left) Nithyasree Mahadevan, Haripriya, Sowmya and Shanmukhapriya. Photo: R. Ravindran  


Four Carnatic singers, who will be performing at The Hindu November Fest, tell Madhuvanti S. Krishnan what M.S. Subbulakshmi means to them.

A video on YouTube showed a woman whose face was wreathed in sublime concentration. Notes of melody flowed from her lips while the tala followed in harmony, to keep up with the voice exuding honeyed sweetness. The audience sat spellbound, as the queen of Carnatic music sang on. A dancer in her own right, M.S Subbulakshmi, fondly known as MS Amma, displayed many rasas with élan — first, bhakti, as she extolled lord Govinda, and then sringara. Whether it was love for the god she sang about with such fervour, or for music, her passion, one could never tell. And that is how most people remember all her performances — divine, passionate and full of emotion.

How does one separate a bow from the bowman? Similarly, how does one separate music from the musician? Almost for as long as one can remember, music and MS have been concomitant. It was but natural, for those who never had the opportunity to watch her live, to be curious about which of her performances was the best. The experienced listener’s answer would, however, be a one-word syllable — all. MS Amma was a vision in grace and musical eloquence. A serene smile that never left her face, the diamond nose-stud adding to the glow of fervour, and a voice that was almost transcendental in nature are what the nightingale of India is remembered and renowned for, among other things. Advancing age could not dim the unerring clarity with which M.S. Subbulakshmi sang.

To celebrate the queen of music in her centenary year, four musicians, all ardent rasikas, came together one unusually hot October afternoon at Amethyst Cafe, Royapettah. Not even the sun bearing down could dampen the enthusiasm among Nithyasree, Sowmya, Haripriya and Shanmukhapriya (the Priya Sisters), who will come together for The Hindu November Fest this year. “It is for MS Amma that we have planned a tribute. Nothing else matters,” says a visibly excited Nithyasree.

Sowmya points out that Amma is a global figure. “Her music is enjoyed by millions across the world. She dabbled in music from other languages and was successful too.” Indeed, M.S pulled out all stops to ensure perfection when she sang in other languages. When it came to getting the Kannada pronunciation correct, for instance, she visited experts to master the nuances of the language. This was a side of MS quite different from what the world knew of her. Here, she was an eager learner, on the quest for perfection and knowledge, tirelessly gleaning every bit of information that she could add to her repertoire.

Not just in her performance, but in her demeanour too, MS stood out. The wave of nostalgia that hits Shanmukhapriya at the mention of MS bears testimony to this. “The first time we (Haripriya and I) saw Amma was in Puttaparthi. We had gone to perform in the Sprit of Unity concert and Amma too had come there. We were waiting backstage when Swami called out to us, announcing that it was time for us to perform. We stepped on to the dais, and there was Amma. We ran to her, took her blessings and rushed off to perform.”

“She’s too much of a personality to take in all at once; that’s how awe-inspiring Amma is,” adds Haripriya. “We were too young to understand the full purport of what we had experienced, we were playful,” she smiles. “It was overwhelming for us,” says Shanmukhapriya. “There were two divine people on stage — Swami and Amma. We were torn between our excitement to perform and to fall at Amma’s feet to seek her blessings. The next morning, we went for darshan and saw Amma there. She was seated by herself and made no attempt to draw any attention. Her simplicity is what set her apart. That was the closest we had come to having a moment with MS Amma.”

For Sowmya and Nithyasree, their association with MS goes back a long way. “I’ve grown up being around her and learnt a lot from her,” says Sowmya. “Though I was aware of her greatness, it was a different experience for me. She was the epitome of affection, and I had an extremely personal relationship with her,” recalls the singer.

She remembers how MS would take the trouble to listen to her on the radio and call her with feedback. “Amma was always sweet and caring. She would compliment me and point out what aspects of my rendering of a particular song she liked or enjoyed. The manner in which she put forth her criticism was positive — it was constructive criticism,” explains Somwya, marvelling at the veteran’s ability to point out flaws in a manner which would ensure that the latter did not feel inadequate.

On a lighter note, she remembers how MS would be upset because she liked cold foods. “She made me promise I would stop eating foods that could harm my throat. I remained silent, as I knew I could never resist the temptation for cold treats,” admits Sowmya, with a smile.

Nithyasree’s association with MS is both exhilarating and emotional. “I have met Amma so many times, at functions, during her concerts, with my grandmother. She would never brush anyone away; though I was very young, she would always acknowledge me. I cherish an incident which took place when I was 12. Amma had presided over an event at the Academy and I had won a prize. When I went to the stage to receive my prize from her, she remembered that I was D.K Pattammal’s granddaughter and smiled beatifically at me. I was elated.”

Nithyasree remembers what a treat it was to have watched her grandmother and M.S sing together. “Whether it was singing or interacting, they were a sight to behold,” she says, in awe. “One could never say if they were friends, contemporaries, sisters, or just two divine people.”

Curated by Gowri Ramnarayan, the theme of the Fest’s tribute is Kaatrinile. “It is the signature song of M.S. Subbulakshmi and is special to people all over the world. It is a fitting tribute to M.S. Amma,” explains Gowri, who will also write the narrative. “It is necessary for the theme to flow logically from the beginning to end. People should be reminded of the greatness of Amma’s music,” says Sowmya, while the others nod in concurrence.

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Printable version | Jan 20, 2020 11:09:21 AM |

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