Remembering a star

Remembering a star

I was 10-years-old when I first saw her courting another super star. That sce-ne remained with me for several years. The song which they sang together – “Anandamen solvenen….”– is still remembered. Many years later, I met M S Subbulakshmi again. Her musical journey had come a full circle. I, a mere journalist, waiting to ask questions. She, an artiste who had stunned world assemblies.

That interview was a flop. Surrounded by her entourage, she was reticent and I got little out of it. A whole year passed when I learnt more about her through people who had known and seen her in different situations and surroundings. From their conversations emerged this fascinating personality who was revered more for her “divinity” than for her superb strengths as a musician. 

My research also revealed a person who was all too human. It came from people who had seen her without the hype surrounding her. For example, the technicians working on the sets of “Meera” at Sree Sounds Studio remembered her gracious concern for them when director Ellis Dungan mercilessly shot the scenes over and over calling her “a lousy actor.”

Her accompanists recalled her asking minutes before a concert, “Do you think I will sing well today?” revealing an innocence of her own artistic eminence. Her guru, “Semmangudi Mama,” related how she sent him her car punctually at 2 pm every day to come play cards with her husband, while she made delicious dosas and “sukku kapi” for his bridge cronies.

Then, there was “Papa” Venkataraman, who was present when she made her maiden appearance at the Music Academy in 1933. He innocently wondered then why his mother quickly covered his eyes when he gaped at this dazzling vision. Like my brother-in-law,  Narasimhan, who never forgot the thrashing he received for sneaking into the street where she lived with her mother, hoping to catch a glimpse of little Kunju playing the veena.

Those were days when she was castigated by an uncharitable media and a still more uncharitable society. Like this editor of a popular Tamil magazine slyly giving me a photo of a teenaged MS flaunting a cigarette, and advising: “Use this for your article – it will make the newspaper sales explode!” 

In a harsh environment where a hidebound, hypocritical and unforgiving “upper crust” judged artistes by their birth rather than their talent, she bravely travelled the long and lonely road from Hanumantharayar Koil Street in Madurai to the rose garden of Rashtrapathi Bhavan. I feel that the intrepid musician who came through unscathed from her ruthless critics, including that doyen of Carnatic music, Ariakudi Ramanuja Iyengar – who refused to accept the same fee from AIR as “that woman” – deserved the Bharat Ratna for her quiet courage as much as for her music.  
Today, when we remember her on her birth centenary, let us salute a remarkable musician who left us a priceless legacy. The legacy of artistic courage which survived and won.

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