By Kanniks Kannikeswaran
I have only seen MS twice. The first was at a concert at the Music Academy where she commenced the concert with Seetamma mayamma in Vasanta – a raga that was not the most favourite raga of the little boy that I was then – clinging on to my periamma’s hand.
The next time was when I saw her just ten feet away from where I was sitting with my grandmother at the atirudra mahayagnam conducted in Chennai in the early 1970s. I vividly remember MS and Radha seated just a few feet away from us sing to a sruti box accompaniment the Bauli raga kriti Sambho Mahadeva as a musical offering at the celebration.
There I was, a 12-year-old boy listening to that voice that sounded no different from what I was used to hearing on radio, the voice that chanted the suprabhatam every Saturday on All India Radio Madras A, early in the morning, the voice that sang Raghupati Raghava rajaram in the Gandhi anjali programme again on Madras A – a Raghupati Ragahava rajaram which would suddenly make a transition to the scale of Mayamalavagaula with the voice conveying a certain sense of pathos that a 12-year-old could easily grasp and sense that it was no ordinary voice. The voice would make the Friday morning programme bring to the little boy, horror and indignation and sorrow at the thought of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.
Sitting in the midst of ritviks, with the mixed smell of the homam embers and flowers filling the air, I very clearly remember the thoughts that raced through my mind as I watched the celebrated duo perform. This was the voice that I had heard performing the famous Dhanasree tillana, Arar asaippadar, Vadavaraiyai mattaakki, Jagadoddharana and some of what would be known as standard MS staple. And there was a presence associated with the duo of singers.
The word MS was special. My periamma, visiting Madras for the music season, would make a beeline to all of her concerts. Her consistency in rendering compositions with a sense of intonation that anyone would envy could be compared only to replaying recordings.
Looking back now over the years, I realise that MS’s popularity and appeal lay not just in her virtuosity but in her ability to sculpt a soundscape that subconsciously became part of our collective cognition. Central to her soundscape was her ability to do the fullest justice to the lyrical content of the pieces rendered – and more particularly the ability to delicately package and deliver a lyrical/melodic motif with finesse that no one else could muster.
Tunesmithing is an art. The perfect marriage of the dhatu and the matu where the right consonant hugs the right note and causes the tune to explode with meaning when the right voice renders it – is what touches the listener. And once the listener is touched, there is no escape from the earworm of a musical passage.
Our musical sensibilities are shaped by the soundscapes that we are exposed to. My father always recollects with pride the gramophone records of Meera and Sakuntalai that he and his brothers listened to, growing up in Tiruvannamalai in the 1940s. Not just Meera and Sakuntalai, there are several tunes that MS has made her own.
I watched the eyes of my good septuagenarian friend – an NRI surgeon from Madurai – mist when I played him Engum niraindayo from Meera in 1986. His eyes wore a faraway look as he recollected scenes from this film that he had watched in his childhood. “A caravan of camels walking across the desert”, he said softly, almost in a trance. “The song comes out, a divine melody that make your hairs stand up.”
Another tune that for some reason brings me memories of the oboe line from Swan Lake is Katrinile varum geetam. Words cannot do justice to this tune that straddles the classical with the popular genre of the 1940s. A good sized orchestra provides the accompaniment and the memorable interludes in this song as well as in the song Giridhara Gopala from the same film. Bharatiar’s lyrics come to life in the simple tune that delivers the vision for the bright-eyed youth of tomorrow Ilaiya Bharatattinai vaa va vaa.
It would not be an exaggeration to state that a recording of MS’s Vishnu Sahasranamam is being played at any given instant of time in some part of the world or the other much like the proverbial sunset on the British Empire that spanned the entire world. Don’t many of us hold MS’s rendition of this work as the yardstick for enunciation? Would the world have even known of Venkatesa Suprabhatam had MS not rendered it? The impact of MS’s recording of Mudakarartha modakam is such that the rendition of these verses in any other tune would be frowned upon. It is not just the Nama Ramayanam and the Hanuman Chalisa. It is the creative addition of the refrains ‘Ramaramajayarajaram’ and ‘Jai bolo Hanuman ki’. The two phrases appear in numerous ragas and each time the effect is different. The concluding ‘Jai bolo Hanuman ki’ definitely brings the sense of a finale to the long recording, the Govindashtakam and Totakashtakam, the Saundaryalahari stotra that precedes Kanjadalayadakshi, the numerous suprabhatams – the list of tunes in the MS soundscape is never ending.
The impact of these tunes is trans-generational. And the emotion filled voice of MS truly makes these recordings immortal.
Some artists are remembered for their virtuosity and what they offered to connoisseurs of Carnatic music. Others are remembered because they tugged at the hearts of people with the right combination of words, tunes, flawless intonation and dynamics, a flawless voice and a sense of devotion to every syllable rendered, every word uttered and every sentence communicated – a combination of skills that could only be referred to as divine, leaving an indelible mark on people’s life. Very few belong to the second category. And M.S. Subbulakshmi is clearly the nightingale, the reigning transcendent goddess even after her lifetime.
(The author is a musician, composer and music educator with a doctorate, based in the U.S.A.)
The Nightingale Overture
Composed by Kanniks Kannikeswaran. Performed by the Raag Rhythm Youth Orchestra.
Is it even possible to pay a tribute to MS? Can any voice substitute hers or even mimic the vibes of the period that she belonged to? Or regenerate the feelings that the voice generated? Any attempt to sing the originals would only remind us of their inimitability! It was a reflection on the tunes that I had heard, cherished and taken for granted ever since my childhood that inspired me to create a full orchestral composition (orchestral strings violins/violas/celli/basses, woodwinds flute/piccolo/oboe/clarinet, brass French Horn/Trombone/Trumpet, percussion and harp) that would weave these tunes across several key changes into a composite concert overture.
The overture commences with the Mohanam raga melody Giridhara Gopala from Meera; it transitions through the process of sruti bhedam to the raga Devakriya where the winds play the tune of a few lines of the Venkatesa Suprabhatam; it then makes another transition, through yet another sruti bhedam to the raga Hindolam where MS’s debut film song Ma ramanan is played. The oboe effortlessly teases us through various melodies of MS, this time into the song of the desert ‘where did you disappear’ Engum niraindaye, nee engu maraindayo? also from Meera. Through another key change to F major, the line ‘meena koorma varaha’ from Dolayam in the Balaji Pancharatnam is presented as an orchestral waltz. This waltz quickly transitions into the well known line Mudakarartha modakam in the raga Hamsadhwani played on the piccolo from the same album. Then comes the piece de resistance of the overture, the melody in the wind Katriniley varum geetam from Meera again. This haunting melody on the oboe is supported by the strings and the harp. It then transcends to the key of F major where the oboe and the clarionets play with the melody of Broohimukundeti from the film Savitri where MS played the role of Narada. Brasses herald raga Sindhubhairavi as there is a quick transition to Brindavanattil Kannan valarnda again from the film Meera. This transitions to Rajagopalachari’s verse set to music Kurai onrumillai first in raga Sivaranjani, with a key change to the Kapi raga section, with the flutes and bells bringing in shades of the melody Punarapi jananam from Bhaja Govindam. The brass announces Jagadoddarana after which the strings take you over to Gandhi’s favorite bhajan Raghupati Raghava Rajaram sung by MS. This bhajan in raga Piloo transitions to raga Mayamalavagaula Ramarama Ramarama Ramarama Ram; the band takes this line and brings in Rama Lakshmana Janaki in Sankara from Hanuman Chalisa again from the album Balaji Pancharatnamala. This is then transformed to Sreyo bhooya sakalajananam from Maitrim bhajata sung first by MS at the United Nations. The overture comes to a thrilling conclusion with this line wishing ‘sreyas’ or brilliance upon all listeners.
The nightingale overture premiered on 19 March at the `Ragas in Symphony’ concert hosted by the Sanatana Dharma Foundation (SDF) in Dallas, in the hands of the Raag Rhythm youth orchestra to a packed house with an audience of about 1400.