Birth Centenary of  MS – Musical genius to the world but a melancholic mystery in personal life

A look back at the life of the Nightingale of Carnatic Music, MS Subbulakshmi on her birth centenary.

A look back at the life of the Nightingale of Carnatic Music, MS Subbulakshmi on her birth centenary.
A look back at the life of the Nightingale of Carnatic Music, MS Subbulakshmi on her birth centenary.
M S Subbulakshmi and Cricket offer a free facility to anyone who fancies himself to be a writer of sorts! As there are a billion plus cricket ‘experts’ in India, so are those who love to call themselves as ‘MS fans’ and make bold to a pen a few lines in praise of the music queen.

But the professional journalist/ writer has a problem, a challenge – to tell something that is not already passé.

If HMV recorded most of her songs, another ‘HMV’ (Her Master’s Voice) recorded her thoughts!

So, skimming through an ocean of MS literature, this writer has come up with a few snippets, not widely known, perhaps deliberately hidden from the public domain, lest it hurt the popular image of the diva.

When MS died in December 2004, aged 88, she had nothing left to achieve in terms of fame and  recognition. Her hall of fame was overflowing with trophies and awards that were in a sense ‘honoured’ by her receiving them.

That day, “MS and her music merged with the celestial reverberation that keeps the universe in equilibrium, the cosmic music that flows from ‘Harmony to Harmony,’ in the words of metaphysical poet John Dryden. The soul of the  “Nightingale of Carnatic Music” has flown into Eternity; into a timeless cosmic zone of perpetual Sound of Music that both Physics and Philosophy believe holds the universe together.”

When I recall my own hyperbolic tribute in a newspaper article twelve years ago, I am left wondering if all these meant anything to MS, the woman. Did they add any meaning to her personal life, given, as it must be to vicissitudes of hopes and disappointments? Did her fame bring an iota of happiness to her as a woman given to heart’s aches and love pangs?

Did MS suffer from unrequited love, a rather one-sided love affair?

Her biographer and noted author-journalist T J S George throws some interesting light in his ‘MS – A Life in Music’ published by HarperCollins, 2004.)

George writes that MS was in love with GNBalasubramaniam (GNB). “Like all votaries of Carnatic music, she had been captivated by GNB’s unrivalled singing style.”

By the time they started work together on Sakuntalai, produced by her future husband T Sadasivam, “MS’s veneration for the musician had flowered into a full-fledged affair of the heart.”

In one of her letters sent through emissaries, she wrote, “henceforth even for a moment I will not be separated from you”.

That was not to be. Sadasivam  soon married MS in what struck others as ‘graceless hurry’ so soon after his first wife’s tragic death. Thus, “her hopes for a life with GNB came to a rather abrupt end.”

The letters which GNB preserved were kept in the custody of trusted friends who in turn guarded them “tenaciously for decades. George says that word about the existence of these letters reached him “in the most serendipitous of circumstances”.

George  writes he saw about 20 letters, all believed written during the 1939-41 Sakuntalai period.

According to the author, most letters begin with mere declarations of fondness and yearning. ‘Written to my love who has taken over my life, body and soul’; ‘The love of my life’; and ‘To the person who had taken hold of my life and yet allowed me to languish’. The signing off is done with equal forthrightness. ‘From Kunju who worships you’;’My love, my very life, I kiss your handwriting and your music’; and ‘I will not leave you’. Terms of endearment, especially kanna (darling) and anbe (beloved), appear every so often.

Every sentence in every letter reveals MS, then 24 years old, as a woman profoundly in love.

“There are specific references to unsupervised meetings between the two and also to letters GNB wrote to her. It is unlikely that any of these letters survived, considering the golden cage in which MS was living. On the basis of MS’s own letters, it would seem that GNB was not as forthcoming as she was. She complains about his not looking at her frequently enough, not talking to her long enough, not touching her as much as he should and not spending time with her as often as he should. But she leaves no doubt about the unconditionality of her love for him. She wrote ‘All I want is to feast my eyes upon you. You on the other hand would not even raise your head to look at me. Can you fathom how this torments my mind? I simply wither away.’ On several occasions she explained how she was affected by his words, his looks, his letters ‘I hug your photograph and weep,’ she wrote once. ‘Would that (photograph) speak to me, my kanna?’ (darling!)

“In one instance she wrote ‘in my house there is no happiness for me. There are only problems … My mother is likely to be alive only for a few more years. My elder brother is my enemy. The younger sister is all right … I will not hide anything from you. I have not been happy so far. But I am alive because I am here. Kanna, to write all this I found some time only today … One thing is the absolute truth. Your happiness is mine, kanna … You may ask me what I was doing earlier. I suffered.’

“If I had stayed in Madurai I would have died long ago … there is nobody to whom I can speak and cry out. I dream of you daily. Do you? … When you happen to touch me in the course of our acting together, I think to myself “This is my Lord” and then feel elated.’ More than once she declared ‘I don’t want money. I only want your love.’

George concludes: “It is clear that MS loved GNB with all her heart. In a field full of lecherous, coarse and uncouth men, she found in him a cultivated man of taste. And she adored his music. It is a tribute to the strength of her character that she dared to love, and then dared to close that chapter and settle down with the man she married. This was no ‘docile lamb’, this was a decision maker who knew what she wanted. The letters unveil for us an M. S. Subbulakshmi who is all human And all woman.”

It is not clear to the reader if GNB was equally serious about his love for MS. What stopped him from actively reciprocating? Perhaps, his higher social status as a Brahmin and his being a graduate of English (Honours) from the prestigious Madras Christian College. MS, on the other hand was a daughter of an unwed mother belonging to the Devadasi community. Her father was a Brahmin, though.

If he was not serious, was GNB right in preserving the love letters of MS to him? Was he not aware that the letters, once revealed, might well hurt MS status as a musician and an obedient housewife?

In affairs like these, women are always more vulnerable to slander and scandal, more so in that era to which GNB and MS belonged.

It is again a tribute to the matchless grace of MS that loyalty and devotion marked her entire married life with Sadasivam.

While the greatness of the music of MS and her rare skills can never be questioned, it cannot be denied that MS enjoyed certain privileges not given to her contemporaries like M. L. Vasnathakumari and D. K. Pattammal, both great singers and endowed with comparable voices. With MS, they had indeed represented a formidable female trinity of Carnatic Music for several decades.

Yes, MS moved with the high and mighty of the land in independent India and before.  Sadasivam, because of his Congress links, was a great personal friend of Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari, Rajaji, for short, and knew Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru and others. With Rajaji and ‘Kalki” Ra Krishnamurthy, Sadasivam formed the famous Trio in Tamil Nadu whose lives and works left a great impact on the political and cultural life of the state.

Krishnamurthy, Kalki as he was known, was the founder editor of the Tamil Magazine “Kalki”, a highly respected journal devoted to art and literature in the 1940’s and 1950’s.

Sadasivam died in 1997, past 90. MS received her Bharat Ratna in the following year.

At the Rashtrapati Bhavan ceremony where she received the Award, MS confided to close friends in Tamil: “Avar Illamma Idhu Enakku Eatharku” (“What does it matter to me when my husband is no more”).

While music flowed smooth and sweet from her body and soul, MS articulated her thoughts only through her over-jealous husband who always answered questions put to her, rare as they were, from journalists. If HMV recorded most of her songs, another ‘HMV’ (Her Master’s Voice) recorded her thoughts!

My attempt at the Bharat Ceremony to make her talk only drew monosyllabic responses from MS despite the absence of Sadasivam’s overpowering personality.  Perhaps she felt his presence till she breathed her last. By accounts given to me by friends and some relatives of MS, her last days were not very happy.

“Kurai Onrum Illai (No regrets, no wants) is a moving MS song in praise of Lord Venkateswara penned by Rajaji. Most listeners would be moved to tears by the end of the song.

Did MS die without regrets, wants?

Only Lord Venkateswara knows.

6 COMMENTS

  1. I loved MS music and all our family worshiped her. She came to Mysore for a concert in Town hall to raise funds for Police. My Uncle a Congress leader was one of the sponsors and I was sitting in front row, One gentleman with khadi jubba and dhoti wearing spectacles sat next to me. Concert went smoothly. I was in my twenties and a Medical student having tendency to talk more like an expert. I started giving running commentary to my neighbor. Sir Look at her beauty, look how dignified she looks, look at her she does do any nakras or gestures and is totally focusses. Look how she looks like a Godess ,Saraswati singing. As usual the concert was a master piece. My Uncle came to take my neighbor to dinner and asked him whether I was disturbing his with my continuous comments. To that the Gentle man said, I am happy this man is influences so much by my wife and he has good taste etc. later I came to know He was Her husband Mr Sadashivan. MS was looking at him always while singing and I was feeling as if she was also looking at me! My family still pulls my legs ,often quoting my lecture to Subbuluxmi’s husband.

  2. I am surprised and a bit pained to the reference made on the personal life of MS Amma in this article. Though the author of her biography may have researched before recording the events in her life, I am still not convinced about the veracity of this. Thank God I haven’t had an opportunity to read that book and will also not read the book in future because for a person like me Amma is more than a human being, a very divine personality and will not be able to digest any slanderous references to her personal life.

  3. I do not find any purpose in this article .Every human being has suffering or distress in life. She has sacrificed her life to attain the highest level through her arduous practice through nada upasanana .The melancholy did not affect her.Her songs were soaked with bhakthi .She amassed a stream of followers since the inception of her career.Her fame is has no paralel. She donated like Karna whatever she earned.The bad criticisms she faced during the life time did not deter her from achieving the mile stone.She was truly a Bharat ratna.

  4. Your article is quite revealing to me. My respect for both MS and GNB grows more not because of their musical talents but the way they kept their private life away from public eyes and did not leave any room for rumor mongering.But I silently weep in my heart for MS while her music fills me with a divine experience.

    • I think GNB was married even before he started acting (about 99% sure). My maternal grandfather and GNB were roommates while studying at Madras Presidency College.

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