The Unsung Pathfinders Who Helped M.S. Subbulakshmi's Journey to Fame

When celebrating the life of gifted classical singer M.S. Subbulakshmi, the sacrifices of some of those behind her success – like her mother Shanmugavadivu – often go unrecognised.

M. S. Subbulakshmi. Credit: Twitter

M. S. Subbulakshmi. Credit: Twitter

Few among those reading this will fail to recognise the name M.S. Subbulakshmi, and a few of those who do, will be unaware of the fact that we have just celebrated the birth centenary of the brightest asterism on the Carnatic firmament.

But the number of those who recognise Subbulakshmi’s initials as Madurai Shanmukhavadivu or Shanmugavadivu is small. They belong to her mother and form the full name of the woman who was born in the half light of obscurity in 1889 and died under the palest of lighting in 1962.

Google has slender wordage on her saying that she was a vainika (vina player) of devadasi descent in Madurai and her daughter was the celebrated Subbulakshmi. There are almost no other details on the internet telling her story. There are also just about one or two pictures of her, and some pictures they are.


M. S. Subbulakshmi’s mother Shanmugavadivu. Credit: Twitter

Would they have been passed by had it not been known to be that of Subbulakshmi’s mother?

No, unless the viewer is dead to faces and to photography.

Subbulakshmi or no Subbulakshmi for a daughter, those pictures are something. For one, they are sharp enough to show the creases on her face and on her sari in razor-edging.

They are studies, yet unposed. Formal, yet completely natural. Above all else, they capture the intensity of her eyes. Yousuf Karsh of Ottawa was great at getting eyes in his pictures, even when the subject was not looking into his lens, like in his famous profile of Jawaharlal Nehru.

Nehru is not looking at you, but his gaze reaches you, and that is how it was with faces in Satyajit Ray’s footage. The eyes of Sarbajaya, Apu and Durga from the famous Pather Panchali still is all about the eyes. It is as much about what they are seeing as it is about what they are saying, which is how it is with G. K. Welling’s photographs of Ramana Maharshi’s transformational gaze.

And so it is with these photographs of Shanmugavadivu. In his captivating biography of Subbulakshmi, which Aleph Book Company recently republished, T. J. S. George describes Shanmugavadivu’s eyes as “penetrating.” There is nothing in them of the kohl-lined beauty that set Subbulakshmi’s dreamy eyes apart.

Vadivu’s eyes are no ‘sellers’. They have not been and will not be likened to the eyes of Minakshi, Kamakshi, Kanchadalayadakshi. They are not the eyes that will, like it is with those of some Goddess, synchronise. But how they penetrate. In fact they do more than that, they lacerate.

How and why do they do that?

George suggests the answer to the question of why. But one may add to his suggestions by some reflection.

Shanmugavadivu knew from very early on that her daughter – whom vidvans had noticed and audiences had begun to see as a prodigy – would be a sensation. She knew that as a mother she would have to both protect and promote her gift, which was a sensational combination of charisma and talent.

Looks, good looks and great looks would have assured Subbulakshmi automatic entry into the devadasi world of Bharatanatyam. Musical talent would have wedded Subbulakshmi to the vina or to the singing stage. But here, in her daughter, Shanmugavadivu had someone whose looks defied description, whose voice rendered description wholly inadequate and whose natural simplicity along with her intelligence made her not just unusual, but also unique.

Plain-looking, poor, weak of body, Shanmugavadivu had brought into this world – by the propulsion of progenitive impulses working in blind randomisation – a star that was putting known celestials and asterisms in the shade. Protecting and promoting such a person was beyond her. After one or two of what may be called wrong steps, from which sheer good luck alone saved Kunja –  as Subbulakshmi was called at home –  from perdition, arrived on the scene Thyagaraja Sadasivam –  who was to launch Subbulakshmi into her second birth, into the orbit.

Shanmugavadivu was not spurned, as much as just, simply, left behind. Subbulakshmi was the moon that left the earth behind. It had to. Sadasivam triggered the counter-gravity and stabilised the new orb in its own utterly unique space.

Vadivu accepted her daughter’s second birth with pride and pathos. She accepted her own deprivation with forbearance. To the chance of birth, Shanmugavadivu added the design of aesthetic transference. She imbued her daughter with a sense of grandeur of the seven svaras, the beauty of the 22 srutis.

In 1936, Subbulakshmi left her mother’s home in Madurai – unescorted and unnoticed – for Sadasivam’s in Madras.

On this 100th anniversary of Subbulakshmi’s birth, we must also recognise the 80th anniversary of her second birth with this knowledge that in the first, her mother received Subbulakshmi and in the second, she lost her. In making Kunja and turning her over to a setting where she became Subbulakshmi, her mother Shanmugavadivu gave birth to the star twice.

Marriage photo of T. Sadasivam and M. S. Subbulakshmi, 1940. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Marriage photo of T. Sadasivam and M. S. Subbulakshmi, 1940. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

There is yet another motherness to be marked.

Sadasivam, versatile, volatile and vital, created yet another void. Even as Shanmugavadivu relinquished a daughter to fame, Sadasivam’s wedded wife, Apitakuchambal or Parvati as she was known, relinquished two daughters – Radha and Vijaya – to fame’s care. She launched Subbulakshmi, an undirected meteor, into the rhythmically ordered orbit of home-rooted, concert-propped, Sabha-based music. She made her what she needed to be, Mrs. Sadasivam.

No Shanmugavadivu to bear her, no Kunja.

No Parvati to make way for her, no Mrs Sadasivam.

Surviving her husband’s not-to-be-stopped romance with Subbulakshmi, Apitakuchambal died with the knowledge that her successor would rear her motherless children as her own. I have not seen any of the photographs of that woman. But if one exists, the eyes in it have to be cold craters.

No greatness can be more sublime than Subbulakshmi’s.

But her bosom holds, somewhere within its deep blue folds, the shot-silk of a pain that must sing in order to not burn up.