Song of Surrender

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Once in a century

By Bala Shankar

We cannot measure brand ‘MS’ in dollars and cents. As pace gathers with the celebration of MS’s centenary in India and many world centres, we need a moment to reflect on how truly are her music and life commemorated, befitting the ‘Ratna’ we are proud of. 

There are M S Subbulakshmi festivals, special concerts, special lec-dems, exhibitions, new audio releases and even art competition for kids. The music community has vied amongst themselves to ensure that the MS brand is prominently featured in all that is done this year. Concert ticket prices are up. Musicians sing or play her popular songs in their concerts. ‘Sankaracharyam’, ‘rama nannu brovara’, ‘sirai aarum madakkiliye’, ‘Sreeman narayana’ and ‘Sabapathikku veru deivam’ are all essential items in concert menus for this year. Even the MS blue’ (saree) is back on stage. ‘Kurai onrum illai’ has a unique distinction. It is probably being sung by the most number of artistes, in the most varied shades from a ‘near identical’ reproduction to a disheveled object. In between, a lot of manodharma ‘intrudes’ into what is essentially a heart-felt thanking message to Lord Krishna. One is not sure if so much liberty is available in Rabindra Sangeet, which is still sung with the same spirit and style, as were conceived by Nobel laureate Tagore and his group. 

Musicians have taken the imitation to a new level. You probably are listening to the long sustains in the tara stayi gandharam of Sankarabharanam or the Nishadam of Kalyani being ‘attempted’ by many artistes, to create the same effect. ‘Giridhara gopala’ finishes always with the ‘bala’ crescendo, in anticipation of the same applause that MS routinely got.  

Do we have the correct interpretation of the MS brand? Is it just some trademark songs (and sangathis) sung in a particular style? Is it merely a unique sound? Is it just posters with large photogenic MS face shots? Carnatic music has a body and a soul. The MS centenary has probably focused disproportionately on the body rather than the soul - the soul of her music and even the soul of her ‘life’. MS stood for several musical and human values. Her perfect pitch, diction across languages, mastery of the madhyama kala tempo, proportionate raga alapanas and swarams, large repertoire (which kept growing), keeping to the overall Carnatic flavour, pleasing and convincing brigas, emphasis on good kriti rendition (the mooladhara of our music), fidelity to the paddathi, absolute melody, bradmanesque average rating for each concert, excellent voice control (she felt under-appreciated for her ‘sadhakam’, as it was often passed off as god’s gift), the ability to reach the listener’s soul, minimum body or hand gestures and a good sense for balance between artiste’s talent and audience tastes are among the several musical idioms of MS. A good way to pay her tribute would be to follow these pearls of excellence. Should imitation be the route? Artistes do not seek fame by re-drawing Da vinci’s ‘Last Supper’. 

The brand MS, of course, goes beyond her music. She symbolized deep respect, devotion, humility, contentment, soft-spoken manners, brevity of utterances, endearment to kings and commoners alike, simple minimalistic lifestyle, sense of gratitude rather than sense of entitlement, piety, aptitude to learning, devotion to the spouse and family, detachment from money and sincerity of purpose. There seemed to be an arc of perfection and unison in these traits. She attained glory playing these cards everytime and reminding everyone that such virtues are possible to be practised in daily life, notwithstanding one’s colossal talents and fame. Her whole story is an open book and all these are well known. There is even a MS-katha by the versatile Revathy Sankaran. Was MS a one-of-a-kind human being among musicians? Could others emulate slices of it, if not the whole gamut? The youngsters would do well to study the ‘MS’ brand more thoroughly and to imbibe those brand qualities, not just for some time, but through their whole life. MS may have been truly a once-in-a-century phenomenon, but the next century beckons the next aspirant, for she has shown the way. 

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