An elegant simplicity

Every single thing she did, from serving food to tuning the tambura, was marked by elegance and charm. More than any other famous person, she captured the hearts of people with her inherent goodness. GOWRI RAMNARAYAN recounts her personal equa tion with M.S. Subbulakshmi.


An elegant simplicity

"MY sister died young, my mother died long ago, my brother is gone. Now my niece and nephew are no more. I have no family left," my grandaunt said, tears brimming in her voice. Usually a sympathetic listener to her tales of woe, this time I was stung into retorting, "How can you say that when every single one of us absolutely adores you?" Taken aback, grandaunt hugged me as she replied, "I know. I only meant my pirandaam (family of birth)."

Carnatic vocalist Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi (1916-2004) was an international celebrity. But at home she was the ingenuous and unworldly Kunjamma. She had no sense of money. From the 1940s, Rs.10 remained her gift on festive occasions, until a nephew quipped that after 40 years, he needed an increment. During a temple visit, she distributed Rs.20 notes to the teeming beggars, mistaking that currency for the two-rupee note bundle given to her for that purpose.

Her family feeling was very strong. Husband Sadasivam had two daughters, an orphaned nephew (my father) and niece. A dog-eared postcard written by their dying mother, leaving her children to Sadasivam's care, was a treasured possession in Kunjamma's cupboard.

Even in times of hardship, Kunjamma shared her husband's responsibility in extending financial support to clan members. When a sister-in-law pawned her gold bangles, Kunjamma was happy to give her own pair to the lady and made do with glass bangles. She loved glass bangles anyway, and wore them all her life, matching them to her saree of the day. Sharing was natural. She never put a string of flowers in her hair without checking if everyone had their bit.

Kunjamma enjoyed recounting details of how she brought up the four children, shielding them from hot-tempered Sadasivam's wrath. As you listened you could see that this was as important to her as her earlier career in the movies, or her life long commitment to music performance. Once when I asked her just what made her fall in love with Sadasivam, she blushed and said, "Those children wouldn't let me go!"

She was conservative to the core, convinced that a woman's place was in the home. She shook her head over "independent" girls, it was one of the few English words in her vocabulary. If you reminded her that she herself was a career woman on hectic professional tours, she would look puzzled and say, "I just did what your Thatha (grandfather) asked me to do. Besides, he was always with me."

I remember a hilarious conversation between M.S and a film star activist. "Shouldn't women stand on their own feet?" the young woman asked. "Of course," M.S replied. "I've never done anything against my husband's will." The star persisted, "But women must think for themselves." Grandma agreed, "In fact young women don't think before they act. That is why nowadays there are so many divorces."

The star mentioned women's rights. "The woman's dharma is to be meek, and listen to elders, not argue all the time. Look at television! What vulgarity! Times have changed, become so bad," M.S. shook her head.

My earliest memory of Kunjamma is a dreamy vignette. Her fresh-washed hair is spread on a down-turned basket, drying through a mist of incense. I follow her down the staircase into the garden for the tulsi pooja, incessantly ringing the bell in my hand. She tells me, "Don't skip, walk softly. Ring the bell only when I tell you. Gently." Dressed in woven-to-order Kanchipuram silk after the oil-turmeric Friday bath, in a halo of abundant curls, eyes lined in home made mye, forehead aglow with kumkumam and vibhuti, diamonds sparkling on ear and nose, Kunjamma looks like a goddess herself. Even as a child I sense that her beauty is not just physical. It has to do with an inner serenity.

Precision ruled her life. Very irksome for more casual persons like me, who joined her entourage in 1982. From suitcase packing to stage performance, every thing had its order and place.

When I found myself her sole vocal accompanist for the first time and said, "I don't have the skill," she replied, "You will learn." I learnt many things in those years of closeness. Her tact was inborn, so was her empathy with people, especially those not rich and famous. On a train journey, when a woman came up to M.S. hesitantly and said that she had learnt a slokam from an M.S. cassette, the real M.S. asked the lady to join her in singing the same song there and then on the moving train. The Sadasivams preferred train travel with their whole troupe, and meeting friends who brought fresh food in huge tiffin carriers in stations along the way. On the rare occasions when they flew, they took their own food with them, enough to share with the flight crew. Pilots would come to thank M.S for idli and sarkarai pongal. When an airhostess admired her nose ring, M.S touched my ringless nose and said triumphantly, "So stylish she is, lipstick and all, but see how she likes my mookkuthi! Old ways are the best."

Rehearsals were wonderful, not only because of the privilege of listening to M.S., but because you saw her in different lights and moods. Singing "Sri Dakshinamurte", she might talk about a great Sankarabharanam she heard from guru Semmangudi. A song in Saveri reminded her of another from childhood. "The day my mother taught me this song we had a visitor who played the veena, breaking the string in his attempts to show off his skills," she laughed.

Once, as we practised Papanasam Sivan's "Kartikeya gangeya", M.S. recalled two inimitable compositions he had taught her in Kambodi (Sikkil meviya and Kadirkaama) and proceeded to sing them with all the enjoyment of showing off their beauties. As you swayed in rapture, she would break off to ask, "What did you make for lunch today?" If you answered "Koottu and rasam," she would say, "Bad combination. A dry curry, say plantain or yam, goes well with rasam."

An elegant simplicity

M.S.'s method of teaching was to repeat each line until you got it right. Every swara had to be pitched accurately. She didn't use technical terms like sthaana suddham but said, "Take that note higher, higher!" No theoretician, she sang out the fine differences between first cousins Nayaki and Darbar. What she learnt from others, she preserved intact. One day she asked me if I had attended D.K. Jayaraman's concert. How did she know? "That sangati you sang in `Talli ninnu' belongs to their school," was the answer.

More than any other famous person, she captured the hearts of people with her simplicity and humaneness. Every single thing she did, from serving food to tuning the tambura, was marked by elegance and charm. Long ago, when I read this poem of Byron for the first time, I immediately thought of Kunjamma:

She walks in beauty like the night Of cloudless climes and starry skies; And all that's best of dark and bright Meet in her aspect and her eyes, Thus mellow'd to that tender light Which heaven to gaudy day denies ... And on that cheek, and over that brow, So soft, so calm, yet eloquent, The smiles that win, the tints that glow, But tell of days in goodness spent A mind at peace with all below, A heart whose love is innocent!

Sitting beside Kunjamma after she had breathed her last, when a quiet midnight saw her in her last bed, covered by the shawl gifted to her by the Paramacharya of Kanchi whom she worshipped devoutly, was to recall tender moments of family life. It was also to remember her journey through pain, sorrow, loss and deprivation. Her music is filled with the tears of human grief, reaching out to the bliss beyond: a legacy of love.

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