Singer, saint, goddess: who was M.S. Subbulakshmi?

कौसल्यासुप्रजा राम पूर्वा संध्या प्रवर्तते
उत्तिष्ठ नरशार्दूल कर्तव्यं दैवमाह्निकम्

kausalyāsuprajā rāma pūrvā sandhyā pravartate
uttiṣṭha naraśārdūla karttavyaṃ daivamāhnikam

Oh Rama! Kausalya’s auspicious child! Twilight is approaching in the East. Oh, best of men! Wake up; the divine daily rituals have to be performed.

With this opening verse from Valmiki’s Ramayana begins the Venkateshwara Suprabhatam, a hymn composed in the 14th century that is recited every morning at the Tirupati Venkateshwara temple to wake up Lord Venkateshwara (a form of Vishnu), the presiding deity of the temple. A specific recording of this hymn, rendered by a slightly nasal but mellifluous voice, is played every morning in the homes of millions of South Indian Hindus–including that of my family.

As long as I can remember, every weekend morning I would drag myself out of bed while the voice of M.S. Subbulakshmi called out to the Lord from the CD player in our living room. By the time I would brush my teeth and come downstairs, where my dad would be making breakfast or reading the newspaper while my mom did her morning exercises, that same voice would have begun singing Bhaja Govindam, a popular Hindu devotional composition.

In this way, Subbulakshmi’s voice was a constant presence in my life. However, I didn’t know much about who she was, and I only remember hearing a few adulatory snippets about her life. The first prime minister of India called her “a queen of song”. She gave a concert at the United Nations in the 1960s, taking South Indian classical music to a level of recognition it had never previously received. “M.S. amma [mother]” was one of the greatest Carnatic vocalists of the 20th century.

I often heard people praise her as an avatar (incarnation) of Saraswati, the goddess of art, music, and knowledge.

All the while, I continued to hear her voice every weekend morning.

It wasn’t until a couple years ago that I started taking more of an interest in Carnatic music, the tradition I’ve been learning since fifth grade, and it wasn’t until very, very recently that I found myself wanting to learn more about the social and political history of Carnatic music and its performers, as well as its musical aspects.

M.S. Subbulakshmi’s reputation today seems to be that of a modern-day saint; a demure singer of Sanskrit hymns and devotional compositions, whose music was wholly infused with religious fervor, and whose voice continues to bestow spiritual bliss on her listeners.

In reality, however, the life of Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi (1916-2004), referred to as “M.S. amma” or simply “M.S.” by her listeners, was much more complex, dramatic, and in some ways, troubling. From her teens, she was thrust into the public eye and very quickly became a musical celebrity in South India before achieving recognition throughout the country, and was finally elevated to “near-official status as an icon of independent India” on the international stage. Yet, as Sunil Khilnani, a scholar of Indian history and culture, remarks in a BBC podcast, “what was required of Subbulakshmi, in moving from South Indian musical celebrity to national cultural symbol, is deeply uncomfortable when considered through the prism of contemporary feminism.”

I highly recommend listening to the above podcast, but below are some excerpts that I found to be particularly interesting.

“In public, Subbulakshmi styled herself as submissive, asserting her dependence on others, and often, too, that her music was visited upon her, as if her greatness was not of her own doing.

But beneath the placid surface a different woman can be found. Hidden by the facade of the icon she became, there was striving, determination, and decisiveness. Unknown to the millions who worshiped her performances, her life away from the stage was punctuated by a series of brave, independent, and modern choices; choices which sing a new counterpoint to the public story.”


“M.S. was born in 1916 in Madurai, in what is now Tamil Nadu, far south and inland on the Indian peninsula. She grew up with her brother and younger sister in a house that is now an optician’s, and is just around the corner from Madurai’s famous temple to the goddess Meenakshi. The temple drew thousands of visitors every day, and annual festivals brought up to a million to the town; crowds to be entertained, for music was integral to the worship.

The providers of music were women known as devadasis, and Subbulakshmi’s mother was one. Women of the devadasi tradition were officially wed to the deities of the temples they served, and effectively they acted as concubines for high-class Brahmins or members of the landed classes. Children born from these alliances belonged to the mothers; daughters, when they came of age, would in turn be dedicated to the temple devadasi tradition. So, while her brother got formal schooling, M.S. and her younger sister were taught music and performance in preparation for their lives as devadasis.”

“In keeping with tradition, their mother was also seeking to match her girls with wealthy patrons, and the son of a local prince was taken with Subbulakshmi. That was to be her fate; but when her mother tried to settle her with him, the girl resisted. It’s an early glimpse of her independent spirit, that she was able to stand up to and fight this expectation.

The renowned temple at Kumbakonam, near Madras [now Chennai], hosted a great festival once every twelve years. A singer meant to perform there took ill, and M.S.’s mother persuaded the organizers to give her daughter a slot. It was the beginning of M.S.’s rise to stardom, and the end of the life her mother and tradition had laid out for her.”

Unpredictable passions

“In 1936, M.S. received a request for an interview from a popular Tamil magazine. The interviewer was the magazine’s co-founder, a man named Sadasivam. Sadasivam had been an anti-British radical in his youth, and was jailed for it; alive to revolutionary ideals, he was close to the nationalist Congress party, and agitated for independence as he ran the magazine. M.S. was nineteen; Sadasivam was thirty-three, hot-tempered, and decidedly married. His subsequent pursuit of her was so dogged that before long, her panicked mother rushed her home to Madurai and arranged a marriage to a businessman. But, instead of going to the businessman’s house, where she was expected, M.S. fled back to Madras, to Sadasivam, whose wife was away having their second child. It was the beginning of several years of vicious, behind-the-scenes fights. But in the public eye, Subbulakshmi kept singing serenely, her struggles safely hidden.

M.S.’s mother charged Sadasivam with using her daughter as a “meal-ticket”; Sadasivam charged the mother with the same. And as the two of them scuffled, rumors of elaborate schemes to kidnap M.S. and return her to Madurai enlivened Madras gatherings. Around the same time, in 1940, Sadasivam’s wife died after a prolonged depression; rumors of suicide persisted. And while it wasn’t quite funeral-meets-furnishing-marriage-tables, in a matter of months he quietly married Subbulakshmi.”

“Subbulakshmi herself, meanwhile, compounded this drama, by falling in love with another man: a great Carnatic singer and actor, a man she admired deeply. Though her love for Sadasivam was flagging, Subbulakshmi had a choice to make. Marriage not only offered her more security than her love affair with an entertainer; it also allowed her to change her public image and reputation. Originally of a low caste associated with what might be called prostitution in many places, once married to Sadasivam, she could cut the image of an upper-caste housewife.”

T.M. Krishna, a leading Carnatic vocalist and author of A Southern Music, states, “She chose to be a Brahmin, let’s make that very clear. M.S. Subbulakshmi chose to be a Brahmin because she realized that in being a Brahmin she got acceptability, she got acknowledgement, and, most importantly, she got respect.”

The bhakti saint of modern India

“There was further rebranding to come; in Madras, Sadasivam was working overtime to broaden his wife’s fame by linking her to the wagon of nationalism and its aspirations for a pan-Indian, national culture, which she could embody.

It was the movies, even in the 1940s India’s most popular pastime, which helped to win M.S. national recognition. The image she projected to those cinema-goers was the spiritual one, as Sadasivam constructed it. “She is a simple woman, and naive,” he told reporters. Subbulakshmi’s supposed innocence left her well-placed for roles in religious or socially-instructive films, which her husband had begun arranging for her almost immediately after they became a couple.”

Below is one such role: Subbulakshmi played the sage Narada for the 1941 film Savithri.

“Sadasivam appreciated the money his wife was making, but not the adulation she was receiving, especially from charismatic male film stars. After getting her into the movies, he now wanted to get her out of them. However, there would be one last film. Sadasivam had not forsaken the idea of linking his wife’s talent with the nationalist cause, and the perfect opportunity came with a project about the fifteenth-century bhakti singer Meerabai, much admired by Gandhi.

Not yet thirty when the film was released, through the end of her life Subbulakshmi’s devotional music would sustain her persona as the modern-day bhakti saint; an artist who sang only for God, and for whom God was the only inspiration.”

The woman behind the performer

“That she said so very little, and certainly nothing controversial, made me [the narrator of the podcast] assume that there was little in the famous singer’s head. It was only later, via candid shots of her off-duty, that I made out the mischief and intelligence behind the somewhat bovine demeanor. Take one of my favorite photographs of the singer, in which she and her friend, the dancer Balasaraswati, are probably in their late teens. Decked in striped pajamas, they are ravishly feigning to smoke cigarettes. Instead of the soulful, impassive gaze that was her professional trademark, Subbulakshmi’s eyes are alive with fun; girlish fun, a quality that might have been tough to preserve in her actual girlhood, during which her talent was tuned like a machine.”

“As with so many Indian women elevated to canonical status, Subbulakshmi’s human reality gets drained away, replaced with idealizing myth.

Her love letters, saved by the recipient, are among the few documents of her candid thoughts; the rest of the record was under her husband’s control. But the words so often used for her — tranquil, content, beatific — fit awkwardly with the choices she made when it counted. As with so many other stories of exceptional, hardworking women, their own ambition is denied a role in their achievement.”

“Subbulakshmi lived in a time now past in India; a moment in which it was possible to believe in a national culture, and in singers and artists who could embody it. But what was required of Subbulakshmi, in moving from South Indian musical celebrity to national cultural symbol, is deeply uncomfortable when considered through the prism of contemporary feminism.”

This is a recording of M.S. Subbulakshmi singing the Carnatic kriti “Sobhillu Saptaswara”, composed by Tyagaraja in the raga Jaganmohini:

Another article, “The M.S. Phenomenon”, describes Subbulakshmi’s musical talent:

“A critic noted, ‘She was the earliest to compete with male vidwans in the form and substance of the concert, including niraval, swara and pallavi singing, a fact hardly noticed in her early years because it was accomplished with a quiet innocence and humility which have characterised her eventful life.’

[Her guru, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer] too singled out three aspects of technical perfection as special to the M.S. style. ‘No other women can sing tanam like her. For me her reach in the lower octave, rare among women, is as impressive as her obvious essays in the higher. Thirdly, I should rate her niraval singing among the best I have heard from women.'”

“Particularly in the niraval the listener can perceive her vidwat – in the permutations of rhythm, in the spacing of syllables, in the perfect anuswaras connecting the curves, the sangati blitzes at crucial spots, the remarkable length of phrasing and the karvai balam (strength in dwelling on a single note). Through these technical feats, she retained and enhanced the qualities of raga and the sahitya [lyrics], seeing them as inseparable.”

Below is a recording from a concert she gave in 1959. From 2:25 onwards, notice how she improvises on the line “raaka shashi vadane”, a Carnatic improvisational technique called niraval.

“There is a school of thought that Subbulakshmi was a natural genius, that her music is not so much cerebral as inspired. However, the discerning listener knows how her music is crafted and polished; how the conscious and the unconscious elements are balanced. On those rare occasions when she was induced to talk about her approach, she would say: ‘The ragaswarupa [form of the raga] must be established at once. Don’t keep the listener in suspense as to whether it is Purvikalyani or Pantuvarali. This difference must come through in the way you dwell on the notes common to both ragas, even before the introduction of dissimilar notes. In Sankarabharanam stress the rishabha, but in Kalyani accent the gandhara quickly.’

She would go on to sing out differences in treatment between Durbar and Nayaki, Saurashtram and Chakravakam, Devagandhari and Arabhi. At a crowded wedding she could suddenly call your attention to the distant nadaswaram’s mishandling of Sriranjini to sound those phrases exclusive to Ritigowla. She could fascinate with her demonstration of the tonal levels of every note in Bhairavi, their inter-relationships, permissible degrees of oscillation.”

“The M.S. Phenomenon” also discusses how “the Meera archetype [got] superimposed on this Tamil daughter of the 20th century”, and how although she was more than proficient in the more technical aspects of Carnatic improvisation, she was encouraged by her husband to focus on the devotional aspects of the music:

“Her image, the course of her career, the direction of her music – they were all carefully fashioned by Sadasivam who, from the earliest stage, had a clear vision of what she was one day to attain.

This freedom fighter, who sang nationalist songs himself in public while courting lathi charge and arrest, introduced M.S. to the great Congress leaders – Rajaji, Nehru and Gandhiji. Sadasivam, who made an early mark in the advertising field and in publishing, was always the organiser.”

M.S. (right) with Nehru (middle), the first prime minister of India and Edwina Mountbatten (left), wife of the last British viceroy in India

“If M.S. came to be regarded as a symbol of national integration, one reason was the inclusion in her repertoire of compositions in languages from many parts of India. This catholicity was consciously developed at the insistence of Sadasivam who saw music not as an aesthetic exercise, but as a vehicle for spreading spirituality among the populace. For this reason he insisted on her giving predominance to bhava [feeling] and bhakti [devotion] in alapana, kriti and niraval, while minimising technical displays in pallavi rendition and kalpanaswara. Though M.S. had learnt pallavis from the old stalwart Mazhavarayanendal Subbarama Bhagavatar, she readily followed her husband’s instructions.

The universality of her appeal owes in large measure to the vast collection of songs in several languages over and above the impressive range of classical compositions. Whether Hindi, Gujarati bhajan, Marathi abhang, Rabindra sangeet, Sanskrit sloka or Tamil Tiruppugazh, they are all marked by lyrical allure, poignant feeling and philosophic content. Thus the lighter numbers acquire a seriousness of their own. As critic and admirer Dr. V.K. Narayana Menon saw it:

‘She is, no doubt, constrained to sing music she would rather not. But that is the price one has to pay for being a celebrity. A musician is at once an artist and public entertainer and it is not easy to set aside the wishes of large sections of one’s audience. This is not succumbing to popular acclamation. It is a kind of invested responsibility.’

She aroused devotion more than analytical scrutiny, despite her undoubted musicianship. In a nation quick to canonise and deify, she was first transformed into a saint, then to the veena-holding Saraswati – the goddess of learning and the arts.”

As I finish up this post, I’m sitting in the listening room in the Mansueto Library at the University of Chicago, listening to a “concert album” of Subbulakshmi, recorded in the 1970s. Although this set of LPs was actually recorded in a studio in imitation of a full Carnatic concert, I can’t help but imagine them being performed in a crowded, humid concert hall in Chennai or Bangalore.


Traditionally, Carnatic concerts are dominated by a long segment, the ragam-tanam-pallavi, which is wholly improvised and extremely complex; one could say that the RTP is the finest expression of a musician’s technical virtuosity. For this “concert”, M.S. performed nineteen compositions in five languages (Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Hindi), all containing devotional lyrics. However, there is no RTP in these LPs, and throughout the album Subbulakshmi’s opportunities to showcase her technical mastery of Carnatic music seems to be limited to a few short alapanas before some compositions.

Was this the work of her husband Sadasivam, who tirelessly directed his wife’s performances and public image, striving to present her as a modern-day saint? Was this a decision made by the recording studio? How much of a say did Subbulakshmi have in what she was allowed to perform? We can only speculate.

However, this speculation about what she wasn’t allowed to perform should in no way detract from our appreciation of the music she did perform. M.S. Subbulakshmi still shines through as one of the most talented vocalists of the 20th century. The complexities of M.S. amma‘s life may have slipped through the cracks of history, and it is definitely our job to retrieve those details before they are forgotten, but meanwhile, “her extraordinary voice… continues to ring in the mind with vibrant power and clarity, whether heard from near or far, or from any angle”.



7 thoughts on “Singer, saint, goddess: who was M.S. Subbulakshmi?”

  1. Very interesting Nikhil! Though I was familiar with some parts of her life, your post highlights other parts which I was unfamiliar with. Today’s stars are open books thanks to the media but in those days there was an aura, a persona that public figures could maintain, a persona quite different to reality. How important is it for us as the audience to know what is the ‘true’ person behind a performer? The star, the performer, the artist, the person – do they not clash? Interesting to think about..

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice report.
    She was a phenomenal musician – the kind that occurs once in a lifetime. All other nattter is eminently ignorable. The way she made top class, superior music when so many storms supposedly raged on around her never ceases to amaze me. It all (her mother, madurai, the lord and Goddess of that city, the 78rpm plates, madras, the talkies of those years, Kalki, sadasivam, the large family… everything) seems like a heavenly coincidence. – perhaps her inescapable destiny. When it comes to her music Everything else really pales to insignificance.
    Neo musicians who belitttle her, prop themselves up using unimportant (to the sheer quality of her music) aspects such as her birth or background and a few compulsions that drove her life – which now don’t matter at all. One of them lamented recently that he found a lot of sadness in the way the “evolved…brahminised” MS rendered her music.
    The NYT music critic JOHN ROCKWELL’s take on her music is an perfect counterpoint to that sort of commentary…
    “It is a rare art and a rare artist that can simultaneously seem happy and sad, contemplative and yearning, and Miss Subbulakshmi and her music encompassed those supposed opposites effortlessly. ” (October 21, 1977). That’s the essence of this great singer.
    When musicians who cannot execute even the simpler items in her repertoire with matching felicity, openly bring her down or vitiate public opinion or the high regard that her aficionados hold for her, it is a sad day indeed. “Great Minds Discuss Ideas; Average Minds Discuss Events; Small Minds Discuss People.”. I think this is enough of raking up the past and letting the world know of the intriguing details… letters… heartbreaks… facades etc etc… guess she knew what was best for her and her music… which after a 100 years we realize was what mattered to her.
    Many cheers to a woman of great courage beauty and intelligence . A great musician.


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