Madurai Shanmukhavadivu (M.S.) Subbulakshmi was a classical Carnatic singer. She was born in Madurai on 16 September 1916, close to the famous Meenakshi temple of that city. Her family and could occasionally hear musicians rehearsing there. Her father, Shanmukhavadivu, was a well known veena player, and his mother Akkammal had been a player of the violin. Her mother, Subramania Iyer, was a lawyer as well as a musician, and in later life Subbulakshmi, known at home as Kanchamma, remembered listening as a child to her mother rehearsing. She studied only till class five, taking up music full time after leaving school.
She began to learn the Carnatic style with Guru Madurai Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyengar but her lessons were cut short by the death of her guru. She had perfect pitch and could sing without any accompaniment. She was famed as a child prodigy, giving her first recording session at the age of ten for HMV, where she astounded the recording technicians with the range of her voice. In 1933 she debuted at the Madras Music Academy. She learnt Hindustani classical music under Pundit Narayan Rao Vyas. She gave her first public performance at the Mahamaham festival at Kumbakonam, followed by a concert at the Madras Music Academy. As a young woman she visited Kolkata in the 1930s and learned khayals and thumris from Dwijendralal Roy.
She became an expert and often Mahatma Gandhi would request particular bhajans from her. She met her future husband, the freedom fighter and Congress politician Thyagaraja Sadasivam, and married him in 1940. He produced many of the films she acted in from 1938 to 1945, including Meera. She could sing in Kannada, Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, Hindi, Sanskrit, Bengali, Gujarati, etc.
She was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1954 for her services to Carnatic music. M S has the distinction of being the first woman to have presided over Music Academy Conference in Madras in 1968. In 1974 she was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award, and the following year the Padma Vibhushan. One of the greatest classical vocalists of her times, M S sang only for charity for a number of years. She was given the “Sangeeta Natak Academy” award and “Desikottam” from Vishwa Bharati University as also “Sangeeta Kalanidhi” by the Music Academy. She was conferred Doctor of Letters from several universities in recognition of her contribution to Carnatic music. M S, who had been performing regularly at the Thyagaraja Festival was given the title of “Sapthagiri Sangeeta Vidwanmani”.
She gave the inaugural concert at the India Festival, London, in 1982, and has also performed in Tokyo, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Manila, Singapore and Malaysia. She also participated in International Festival of Arts in 1963, United Nations General Assembly on UN Day in 1966, and Carnegie Hall in New York and the Royal Albert Hall in Britain.
In 1998 she became the first musician to be awarded the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honour. Reacting to the announcement, Subbulakshmi said, she was accepting the award “in all humility”. However, her moment of joy was tinged with sadness as she had lost her husband Thyagaraja Sadasivam, a freedom fighter, just a couple of months ago.
“My husband’s soul will rejoice in heaven over the honour given to me”, she said about her friend, philosopher and guide. Santoor maestro Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma described Subbulakshmi as the “voice of the nation. She is a living legend, whose music has influenced four generations. By honouring her, the government has done a great service to Indian classical music,” he commented.