S.Rajam’s (Music Appreciation notes)

Thursday, 7 April 2016


Vidwan RK Shriramkumar remembers MS

Lakshmi and Saraswati are in perfect unison, in an enchanting oneness of sruti. The sruti petti blends with them; Nada pervades. Amidst this heavenly space springs a mesmerising experience--ecstatic and blissful.  It is an experience that has brought endless joy to many, enriched many a life and enlightened many a soul.

Smt MS Subbulakshmi’s presence, contribution and impact in society, the musical arena of our country in particular, stand unparalleled.  Her music, replete with the power of purity, dignity and integrity, strengthened the artistic bond across the length and breadth of this great land, transcending caste, creed, class, language, region and religion.

The realm of Carnatic music has seen many a great musician. However, with the advent of Amma, as she was addressed with reverential fondness, it crowned itself with the glory of becoming global. Amma dedicated her life and soul to the cause of preserving, propagating and promoting this beautiful art form in its entire splendour.

Plentiful are the reasons why she shines as the Pole Star of Carnatic music. Numerous are the spaces where her music is heard. Unshakable were her dedication and conviction to present blissful music, faithful to every detail of its form, nuance, aesthetic and grandeur. Innumerable are the causes she lent her voice for. Countless have been the recipients of her philanthropy. Immeasurable were her love and affection to humanity. Unfathomable was her psyche that was deeply rooted in tradition, exuding the fragrance of true devotion. Many were the hurdles she encountered in her lifetime, taking it all in her stride, shedding the unsavoury. Intriguing was her trait to worry needlessly. Fascinating was her penchant for simplicity and inspirational was her persona of humility, charm and goodness.

Amma’s music was all encompassing in nature. Blessed with one of the best voices ever in the history of Indian music, she strove to keep it resplendent all through her life. Not a day would pass when Amma would not sing, to the nectarous drone of her twin tamburas Lakshmi and Saraswati, the varisais in Mayamalavagaula and Sankarabharanam. Her passion to learn and absorb the best from the doyens of the Carnatic world was incredible. She also embraced, into her fold, the music of the North, having been guided by many a veteran of the Hindustani world. Internalisation was her hallmark. From whomsoever she learnt, she made it her own, with her indelible stamp of flawlessness blended with naturalness.

Amma’s concerts were marked by a splendid selection of items, covering a wide gamut of ragas, talas, compositional forms, manodharma aspects, vaggeyakaras, poets and languages. Every composition was rendered with utmost care and fidelity to the music, to the lyric--its enunciation and emotion and to the complete experience of the oneness of sangita and sahitya. Her sruti consciousness was immaculate. It was the trademark of her music. Her articulation of the voice was a visual and aural treat that served as an ideal to be followed, especially by practitioners of vocal music. Amma’s commitment to dwell deeper into the pronunciation and meaning of each word of the composition helped her tremendously with her diction and emotive appeal.  Thus her rendering of a kriti or a padam or a bhajan would be true to its form and feel. Her raga alapana essays  had a perfect amalgam of gamakas, suddha swaras, brigas, jarus, different kalapramanas and most importantly raktitva. Her niraval and kalpana swara singing never sacrificed the raga swarupa. The cheerful and encouraging interactions with her accompanists on stage brought forth her spirit of camaraderie.  An inclusion of bhajans, abhangas, shabads, Rabindra Sangit and the like were also part of her concert repertoire. She presented them in all their correctness and enjoyable devotional fervour. On special occasions she even rendered compositions in such languages as Urdu, Bengali, English, Arabic and Japanese! The count of composers whose compositions she presented in her performing career is almost 200, verily a pan-Indian experience, and one of its kind. 

Amma’s music opened the eyes of the world to look up to Carnatic music. By her music she touched an emotional chord in many a mortal in this great land of ours and the world at large. Her all embracing attitude of humility, unflinching devotion to the art and her heavenly renditions make her matchless and adorable.

Probably not known to many, Amma was a wonderful teacher. A stickler for perfection and meticulousness, she would not let go any nuance from being grasped.  Be it a special sangati in the kriti  Sri Ganapatini that she still preserved, having learnt it from Smt T Brinda, or avoiding an excessive gamaka contour of the gandhara note in Todi, or a vallinam- mellinam concern in a bhajan, or even a silent pause between two phrases in a song – she would impart with utmost detail and watchfulness.

The afternoon music sessions at her home were such memorable moments. Amma would ask me to play along as she sang. She would recall and render, from her wide repertoire, a few compositions and impart the art of understanding and reproducing the compositions in all their beauty. She firmly believed in the fact that the effect would be wholesome when the violinist learnt the composition and played in tandem with her, shadowing each anuswara. Testimony to this was to hear my guru Sri VV Subrahmanyam play with Amma. It was absolutely overwhelming. Her reminiscences of her interactions with the who’s who of every walk of life would be awe-inspiring. 

As she was kindness personified, multiple are the occasions when I have been blessed with her motherly concern. Anxiety about practically everything was also her! From imparting musical and life ideals, to consulting an astrologer about how my stars were when I lost my violin, to requesting the past president of our country Sri R Venkataraman to advise me to get married soon, to find a safety-pin for my kurta after I donated my replaceable buttons to Semmangudi mama, to wonder in anguish about my dislike for coffee, to make me not finish my dinner without having sadam or cooked rice, on an Amavasya day, she had a host of things occupying her mind space!

Having grown up with Amma’s music all my life, to have been associated with her, to have been fortunate to learn so much from her, to have shared many a concert platform with her and to have been a beneficiary of her unconditional affection and care – words miserably fail to express the feeling of gratitude, happiness and honor as I recount these golden memories.

When I answered a telephone call and hung up saying, with all reverence and sadness, that I wasn’t available to play the violin (for an MS Amma concert), little did I realize that my dear friend Vijay Siva would admonish me in the toughest way possible. Graciously enough, Vijay arranged for another violinist to play for his concert at Madurai. Elated that my first concert with her was actually happening, I called back Amma to inform her that I would be available to play for her on the 15th of April 1989 at Sankara Nethralaya.  The Goddess of Madurai was more than benevolent to her ardent devotee!

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