Let's Not Succumb to Misremembering M.S. Subbulakshmi

There is much to really celebrate, critique and understand, not just about M.S. herself but also history, society and, more significantly, ourselves.

M.S. Subbulakshmi. Credit: Balaji Shankar Venkatachari/CC BY-NC 2.0

M.S. Subbulakshmi. Credit: Balaji Shankar Venkatachari/CC BY-NC 2.0

When tomorrow dawns, we will witness the slow but certain disappearance of M.S. Subbulakshmi from our active minds. She will retreat into the spiritual realm, only to be summoned whenever we want to reaffirm our faith in the religious, sanctified, spiritual and ritualistic. And then abracadabra – Meera will reappear.

Over the last year we have heard people drop her name at the drop of a hat. Anything and everything connected with music, even more so Karnatik music, has been prefixed with her name. Subbulakshmi memorial concerts, series, tours, corporate shows, awards, presentations and competitions have traversed the entire scale of investment and visibility; from the by-lanes of Mylapore right up to the big daddy of global power, the UN General Assembly. And as with any parochial religion or ideology, we have commodified the deity and mass-marketed her. The twist to this tale lies in the fact that what was being sold was the seller and not the product itself. M.S.’s memory played host to crass opportunism. This is not really new, but the centenary year allowed us to legitimise it.

Where was this grand old lady of Indian music in between all this clutter? Insiders say that even when she was alive, there were times she felt that her two initials and image were all that people cared about. The person and singer behind those letters was not understood or respected. We can pat ourselves on our backs; in her centenary year too, we have not let her down!

There has been an effusion of writing on her, including by yours truly in Caravan a year ago. As I scan the pieces, they seem to largely follow two well-known trajectories: hagiographical outpourings and nostalgic re-collections that are meant to reestablish her Meera-ness. There was also the Indian sampradaya (tradition) of the people saying more about themselves using M.S. as just a peg. And god-forbid if the writer or speaker is a musician, then we are told about their own musical greatness – in M.S.’s unverifiable words. But there is one more trend that hurts the most. All those who until 2015-16 thought very little of M.S. or her music suddenly began writing and speaking paeans about her greatness. I would be at peace with this transformation if there was some honesty in admitting their earlier position. But no. Reading or hearing some of these people speak we could easily presume that these people were life long admirers of the nightingale.

Wow! What a woman

M.S. was no goddess or saint. She was a spectacular, multi-faceted musician, a person of goodness – complex, strong, clever and intelligent. A woman who was in tune with all that was happening around her, including the gossip! She was used like a toy to satisfy the agendas (however noble they might have been) of her husband. Yet, she was no victim. There is much to really celebrate, critique and understand, not just about her but also history, society and, more significantly, ourselves.

Except for some serious events and writings, which were far and few in-between, there has been no real time spent on understanding her music. It is not enough if we play recordings of her complex renditions of ragas and applaud in absentia; we have to delve deeper, understand the process and view the magic from close quarters. There was no symposium on her music or analytical debate on her contribution. The Indian cultural universe, specifically the Karnatik community was just happy showing her off as an icon. Any sound bite from a musician or connoisseur would only address her simplicity, humility, voice, perfection and stature.

M.S. and her huband. Credit: Facebook

M.S. with her husband. Credit: Facebook

The truth is that we have never thought of her music as being worth any serious investigation. As we would say in Tamil, “solratthukku yenna irukku” (what is there to say). We treat her like a saintly Barbie doll, yet we have duped the outside world into thinking that we revere her. It is indeed sad that even now, we have been unable to give her that ‘Karnatik throne’ that she so yearned for. Of course she too holds some responsibility for this image and that fact cannot be wished away. But there is also a lot to discuss about the negative impacts of her musicality and artistic journey on the Karnatik landscape. Of course, that is a space we can never enter; how can we pollute the garbha griha (sanctum sanctorum) of her memory

But M.S. was much more than music. Here is an unbelievable story of a woman who was a feminist at a time when that word was hardly used, least of all in this part of the world. She invaded what was then a man’s world, fought a full-blooded fight – from one point of view she won the battle and from another lost everything. A quiet revolutionary, who loved with abandon, succumbed in awareness and smiled knowingly. Wow! What a woman.

Much more than music

There was one anomaly about her. On stage she was a princess in command of her art. Sadasivam (her husband), by gesture, could have forced upon her musical choices, but the music, she became. This selfless ownership was supremely powerful. And then there was the other M.S. who would say very little, never take a decision and remain a soft, coy, subjugated housewife. I have always wondered about this dichotomy. Was there an inherent tension in this play? Thinking about M.S. allows us to explore ideas of marriage, companionship, partnership and the dynamics involved in relationships. But this is not just a socio-historical exercise. There are M.S-es living amongst us with husbands who are not half as decent or visionary as Sadasivam. Therefore, understanding her personal life may go a long way to addressing these issues.

Isn’t it astounding that though we will all agree that M.S. has been one of the most beautiful musicians from India’s classical space, the word ‘sexual’ can never be used in the context of describing her. We have been brainwashed to forget that she was simply stunning – not divinity personified nor lakshanam (an inner, charismatic sign of worth) – but in possession of an utterly overpowering loveliness. Let me make it very clear, I am not referring to any inner beauty. She was, what my daughter’s generation would call, sexy. Let any honest man besotted with her beauty deny that his fascination with her had as much to do with her looks as with her music and that Cupid played with his darts wherever she went. The smarta-brahminkattu (a specific style of wearing the sari) has never looked more fetching, been more alluring than on the daughter of Madurai Shanmukhavadivu. She was a diva, yet we are unable to openly celebrate her physicality, even in 2016.

M.S. Subbulakshmi as Meera. Courtesy: West Virginia State Archives/Scroll

M.S. Subbulakshmi as Meera. Courtesy: West Virginia State Archives/Scroll

M.S.’s life also provokes us to think about the politics of a woman’s body. The stigmas that were associated with her early life are still alive in the celluloid world. What does M.S.’s metamorphosis into the perfect Brahmin housewife say? I, myself, have criticised this make over, but was there any other way for her? She sought respect and dignity and that she got only because she erased her past from her life and mind. Even today we presume that actresses are promiscuous, lacking morals – and use words such as kalaachar to legitimise our inherent misogyny. That very same weaponised morality is unleashed on women who want be carefree, open and just simply independently happy.

For all the sainthood that we have anointed her with, we have rarely spent a moment exploring her bhakti or surrender. She gives us an entry point to understand religion, language, piety and worship through her voice. Was it just about Venkatachalapati, Kamakshi , Krishna and Rama, or was there more to the journey? She was a shishya to every acharya or guru who dotted the spiritual landscape, from the Paramacharya of Kanchi to the Sai Baba of Puttaparti. Even to Jiddu Krishnamurti, who would beseech her not to do a pranam to him, but she wouldn’t listen.

But every time I hear her dissolve in song and verse, I cannot but wonder if she was just way ahead of the people she bowed to. We have unfortunately mummified her ‘self’ and hence trivialised her path in life. The numerous gurus of today have done nothing in this centenary year to bring to life the real in M.S.’s sound. It may be abstract, but it is necessary to acknowledge the abstract and not trap it in the literal. This too we have done successfully.

M.S. Subbulakshmi is a metaphor, an idea that needs to be explored. She enables a precious inner exploration, a possibility to embrace the temporal, dissect the technical, delight in the poetic, come face to face with the darkness within and critique our own lives. The centenary has passed, but maybe we can begin tomorrow, when a new dawn awakens us with the drudgery of another M.S. cliché: Kausalya Supraja Rama purva sandhya pravartathe.