An invocation of divinity

Travelling through the Southern States for a variety of reasons led me to get to know this amazing creation and legendary artiste. Hotel after hotel, restaurant after restaurant, irrespective of the stars attached from the lowly chai stalls on handcarts, to even some five star restaurants over the breakfast service would play this in the background at varying volumes. The legendary voice associated with the invocation of divinity has graced and purified hundreds of millions of hearts , minds and souls for tens of thousands of days.

The lady who sang this, is a true inspiration and a template for anyone from modest background who can rise with sheer dedication and single minded focus and effort. In the case of M S Subbulaxmi‘s case, she came notionally from an exploited segment of society, that of Devadasis. That she rose way beyond the confines of an exploited class to become a widely and uniformly revered person is a tribute to her lifetime of pure, unwavering single minded and untiring effort. She started learning Carnatic Music under the tutelage of the legendary Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and later went on to learn Hindustani Classical Music under Pandit Narayanrao Vyas.

Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi  would have been 104 years old last Wednesday (16th September) and as the name suggests, was from Madurai, the temple town. Despite her very modest background, she rose to truly legendary and rarefied heights. She is the First Indian Musician to perform in the United Nations General Assembly way back in 1966.  She was an ardent devotee of Kanchi Mahaswamigal Mahaperiyava, Jagadguru Shri Chandrashekharendra Saraswati Swamigal and chose to sing his apt composition Maithreem Bhajatha (O World! Cultivate peace) in her concert at the UNGA.

She is the first Indian musician to be recognised for her dedication to propagation of Classical music by being conferred the Ramon Magsaysay award (in 1974) with the citation stating her as the “leading exponent of Classical and Semi Classical songs in Carnatic tradition acknowledged by exacting purists”. She was the first musician ever to be awarded the Bharat Ratna in 1998.

Her stature was praised by various luminaries in India in various terms. Chacha Nehru had this to say of her “Who am I, a mere Prime Minister before a Queen, a Queen of Music“. While Lata Mangeshkar (who again came from a childhood of extreme struggle, called her Tapaswini (the Renunciate), Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan called her Suswaralakshmi (the goddess of the perfect note), and the great Kishoritai Amonkar called her the ultimate eighth note or Aathuvaan Sur, which is above the seven notes basic to all music. The great national leader and poetess Sarojini Naidu called her “Nightingale of India“.

After such a beginning to the day, it isn’t any surprise that the rest of the day passes off in absolute bliss. Even this 20-minute recording of Venkatesha Suprabhatam made by her for HMV, has its royalty pledged in all perpetuity to the Veda Pathashala run by the Tirupati Tirumala Devasthanam.

I always imagine this song in the unspoilt rustic environment of rural India, this song playing in the background , sounds of the warblers singing in tune and chirping in sync, someone sweeping the courtyard and then spraying the water to make the dust settle, smell of incense burning, the enticing aroma of food being cooked, the thousands of harmonious sounds, sights and smells of village life, serene and easy paced. the invocation to worship by the sounding of bells in temples as devotees enter and announce their entry to all present by the sounding of the bell, the smoke rising lazily from a score of wood-burning stoves/ choolahs from the rooftop chimneys, the Golden yellow sun tardily and reluctantly rising and it’s rays streaming through the misty air, glistening through the dew drops, lighting up the webs that spiders have so industriously built the previous night, and in cool, misty early mornings sitting on a reclining cloth chair sipping piping hot frothy filter coffee in the thin rimmed conical stainless steel glass and smacking one’s lips to what gastronomic pleasure awaits me after that. That’s my idea of bliss, a recurring nirvana that I would like to experience in the last moments of my life.

Stay safe, stay in bliss, folks, while the song plays in my head in a continuous loop this Tuesday.


By abchandorkar

Consultant Interventional Cardiologist, Pune, India

20 replies on “An invocation of divinity”

What a beautiful serene picture you paint of a peaceful village atmosphere –it took me back to those multiple Diwali mornings of the first day –“”Paheeli Anghodh”” almost similar atmosphere at our home in Bandra with the loud-speakers gently giving ko ing out bhavana in Marathi–and in background I am hearing this prayer –divine feeling to the day indeed –an immortal voice and an eloquent pen of yours–thnk you is a very small word for this

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दिवसाची अतिशय प्रसन्न सुरुवात झाली….. तुम्ही केले ल्या दक्षिण प्रदेशातील गावातील सकाळचे वर्णन सुंदर आणि चित्रघन आहे. ते वर्णन वाचून आमच्या कोकणातील सकाळ आठवली….. लहानपणी दरवर्षी जेव्हा आम्ही कोकणात सुट्टीसाठी जायचो त्यावेळी ही अशीच प्रसन्न सकाळ आणि तेथील अतिशय सुंदर आणि चित्र घन वातावरण आम्ही अनुभवले आहे…. त्याची प्रकर्षाने आठवण झाली….. thank you so much for taking me back to my beautiful childhood memories through your writing…. Have a good day sir….

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Her head tilted towards the tanpura, her incredibly curly hair was spread all over , the black waves seemed endless and enchanting. The face they framed turned ethereal. Diamond spark from ear & nose intensified the fragrant dream. When she rose from her cloudy repose & tucked jasmine flowers into its folds, as if she sat before the Gods & sang with her eyes closed, slender fingers gliding over the tanpura strings, I became even more convinced that she was a celestial being. How else could she make music which thrilled everyone all across the world ? When I heard her first recorded concert , I was much too young to realise that she was the idol of hundreds of thousands as the celebrated musician M S Subbulakshmi but I did know about the legends of Goddesses who came to Earth on special missions. Now in my grown up years, stripped of childish fancies and credulous faith, I am still unable to shake off that adoration. I certainly see it reflected in the sea of faces in the audiences looking up at the lady on the dais. To them, she is not merely a performer, not even a saintly singer. She is Goddess incarnate. It is not human art but divine grace which manifests itself through her voice.That voice has been rated peerless from the shy days of her debut when it soared like the high-pitched notes of a bird in springtime. Later, the ravishing trills were weighted with the stately grandeur and sonorous devotion of the classical tradition. Few other artists have been as successful as Subbulakshmi in the melding of the conscious and the unconscious, the inborn and the reflective elements of her art.
She plumbs the depths and scales the heights of the raga, dwelling resoundingly on the gandhara of the upper register, circling it with phrases pure and brilliant. She may drown you in hymnal fervour as she repeats the line, ‘O jagajanani, manonmani, omkara rupini, kalyani…’ The listener is lost in a trance. One doesn’t realise that the ecstasy is founded on technical mastery, marathon training and phenomenal control. Perhaps this was at the back of his mind when the Hindustani maestro Bade Ghulam Ali Khan rightly called her “Suswaralakshmi Subbulakshmi”.And if you pay attention to anything she sang from her vast, ever-increasing repertoire in many languages and in several musical forms from Telugu kritis to Marathi abhangs (devotional songs), you can see how much diction, breath control and thoughtful modulation contribute to the transcendence which characterises her music. Meticulousness is a constant factor in everything she did. Her unquestioning faith in God was equalled by her unfailing commitment to her art.National and international leaders, fellow artists and celebrities from every walk of life ranked among her admirers. For an artist who had never given a single interview, letting her music speak for itself, Subbulakshmi had received unprecedented press coverage. The public adulation was evoked not only for her music but for the other worldly qualities she represented. Indian thought identifies these with the Bhakti tradition, where art is only a vehicle for seeking and finding God.
In real life, Subbulakshmi was an extremely traditional & conservative woman of her generation. She was quite unaware of the trails she has blazed or her pioneering achievements in her lifetime.She was the first woman recipient of the Sangita Kalanidhi title (1968) from the Music Academy, Madras. She is perhaps the only Carnatic musician who is popular in North India. And it was she who introduced the splendours of Carnatic music to the West at the Edinburgh Festival (1963) and at the United Nations (1966). She also won the Bharat Ratna.
Other quiet revolutions include playing the male role of Narada in the film Savitri (1941). Her title role of the saint-poetess & her bhajans in Meera (1947) gave her national prominence.
Cult figure artist that she was, Subbulakshmi is an inspiring role model, not only for the miracle of her culture: humility, compassion, generosity… her quest for perfection, sincerity of effort & concentration were not reserved for the stage. She fills one even to this day with the same rapture when she sings through a YouTube video we hear at home as she did on the concert stage with her eyes-closed. Listening to her is a divine experience… ‘Kurai onrum illai (Lord, I have no regrets)’…

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Divine and nostalgic! Some very good memories around this rendition by the great MSS. Will listen to this again early morning tomorrow.

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विष्णू सहस्त्रनाम आणि सुप्रभातम फक्त यांच्याच कडून. एक प्रसन्न सकाळची सुरुवात.

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