Kausalya supraja Rama: MS’s kin reprise Suprabhatam

Kausalya supraja Rama: MS’s kin reprise Suprabhatam

M S Subbulakshmi’s great-granddaughters welcome 2022 with a fresh rendering of an invocation she first sang in 1958

S Aishwarya (centre) and S Saundarya, great granddaughters of M S Subbulakshmi, are learning Hindustani classical music from Omkarnath Havaldar. This picture was shot at their practice room, which has a portrait of the legend in the background. Credit: DH Photo

S Aishwarya and S Saundarya, great granddaughters of the legendary M S Subbulakshmi, have just released their rendering of an evergreen invocation she first recorded in 1963.

Sri Venkatesa Suprabhatam was first broadcast in Subbulakshmi’s voice on All India Radio in 1958 on Vaikuntha Ekadashi. The 20-minute hymn became an LP record in 1963, and its popularity continued well into the era of cassettes and CDs. It is one of India’s most widely played hymns, with temples and homes waking up to its gentle strains every morning.

The reprise comes 58 years after it was first recorded for HMV, at the insistence of the YouTube channel @Top Tamil News. The rendering by Aishwarya and Saundarya was launched in Chennai by Ilaiyaraja, legendary composer of film music. Mandolin U Rajesh has arranged the music, with several well-known instrumentalists adding their flourishes to a recording they were eager to be a part of.

For much of south India, mornings are synonymous with the suprabhatam, and MS is revered almost as highly as the deity she invokes. Her recording, also featuring her daughter Radha Viswanathan, has no accompanying instruments other than the tanpura, which provides a resonant drone and highlights her pristine voice. Aishwarya and Saundarya practised continuously for six months to get the raga inflections and the Sanskrit pronunciation right. Their recording comes with interludes commonly heard in studio-produced devotional music, and is aimed at a younger crowd, and perhaps the car stereo.

Aishwarya and Saundarya live in Bengaluru. The family moved from Chennai to Bengaluru in 1999. V Shrinivasan, their father, worked for 17 years for the Swiss perfume company Givaudan, with a factory in Jigani, Bengaluru. It supplies perfumes to many industries and counts leading detergent brands among its clients. Shrinivasan quit in 2016 to manage his daughters’ career. He has a wealth of Subbulakshmi lore, and recalls how his mother Radha groomed the little Aishwarya, and first taught her the suprabhatam in 2010.

Letter from Gandhi

The Shrinivasans’ home in a gated colony in Gottigere, on Bannerghatta Road, also houses a museum dedicated to Subbulakshmi. On display are the tanpuras she used for her milestone recordings and concerts.

One of the unusual exhibits is a letter Mahatma Gandhi wrote to MS on September 28, 1944. He wrote: ‘Dear Subbulakshmi, Rajaji has told me everything about your good work in connection with the Kasturba memorial fund by using your musical gifts. May God bless you.’

Gandhi was going all out telling all of India to learn Hindi, and had run into opposition in Tamil Nadu. The Rajaji he refers to is C Rajagopalachari, a big name in the freedom movement from the south. Bengaluru has named a neighbourhood in his honour. Gandhi signed the thank-you letter to Subbulakshmi in Tamil to reassure her, and her legion of admirers in the south, that he was not against the southern languages.

Aishwarya, now in her mid 20s, was just nine when Subbulakshmi passed away in 2004. Radha Viswanathan is the first daughter of Subbulakshmi’s husband T Sadasivam from an earlier marriage. She sang with Subbulakshmi at almost all her concerts and recordings. After Subbulakshmi’s passing, Radha continued to perform on stage. On YouTube, you can catch Radha singing many compositions made famous by MS, with a teen Aishwarya accompanying her.

“We have had really busy schedules in spite of the pandemic,” says Aishwarya. Many of the sisters’ concerts have been virtual since mid-2020, and that has meant better audio quality and bigger audiences. With travel and commutes within the city coming down, they also have more time to practise. 

“MS’s rendering of the suprabhatam is regarded as perfect, so Aishwarya and Saundarya were hesitant initially,” says Shrinivasan. 

When DH on Saturday visited the family, the sisters sang ‘Baagayanayya nee maayalento,’ a Thyagaraja composition in the rare raga Chandrajyothi, to demonstrate how they have adopted techniques practised by Subbulakshmi and Radha. Aishwarya sings in a lower octave while Saundarya sings higher, and they do it in perfect sync.  

Aishwarya also plays the veena, and is a student of B Nagalakshmi, a Bengalurean and exponent of the Karaikudi style. The elder of the two sisters is focused on Karnatik music in her listening as well. And now that she is learning Hindustani music (see companion story), she tunes in to maestros such as Bhimsen Joshi and listens with close attention to ragas she is learning. She hardly ever listens to film songs, although she is familiar with some Ilaiyaraja tunes. At a college event, she learnt and performed ‘Mere dholna’, a raga-based Hindi song, at the prompting of her teachers. 

Saundarya, who learns vocal music from the renowned Neela Ramgopal, is not averse to pop — Ariana Grande is a favourite — and does tune in to film songs. She learns the piano from Rishikesh Hari and the Western violin from Profulla Mondal, and is curious about chords and arrangements. “I try to understand what instruments they use,” she says. “And see if some of those chords can be used in Karnatik music.” An array of her violins share museum space with Subbulakshmi’s tanpuras.

The first verse in the Venkatesa Suprabhatam comes from Valmiki’s Ramayana, and the rest was written by the scholar-poet Prativadi Bhayankara Sri Ananthacharya sometime in the 15th century. It became an all-time bestseller after Subbulakshmi recorded it in her voice.

“It was an HMV recording, and they had limited production capacity. They just couldn’t meet the all-India demand for this cassette,” says H Ashwath Kumar, who has worked in music distribution for 25 years. Many who pirated the recording in the cassette era became rich and built mansions, he says, explaining its unsurpassed popularity.

Smaller labels roped in other singers and released their own recordings of the Venkatesa Suprabhatam. “These cassettes sold well, but it was universally accepted that they were no match for MS,” he says.

With music stores and CD-pressing units shutting down gradually since 2005, the appeal of the suprabhatam was not easy to fathom, but it has remained popular online as well, he reckons.

Aishwarya and Saundarya are aware they are custodians of the legacy of MS, the first musician to be awarded the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honour. It is an onerous responsibility, and the suprabhatam is an auspicious beginning.

And they are learning Hindustani music…

The sisters have the potential to represent pan-Indian classicism, says their guru Omkarnath Havaldar.

M S Subbulakshmi, the most famous Karnatik musician of her time, was no stranger to Hindustani music.

She had taken lessons from Pandit Narayan Rao Vyas, and some of the songs she sang for the film ‘Meera’ (1945), in which she also donned the titular role, had a Hindustani lilt.

Her great granddaughters S Aishwarya and S Saundarya, already popular on the Karnatik music circuit, are following in her footsteps. They are learning Hindustani music from Omkarnath Havaldar, the young Bengalurean vocalist making waves across India.

Under his mentorship, they have recorded an 11-minute video of ‘Bhavani jagat janani,’ a fast-tempo composition made famous by Pandit Bhimsen Joshi. In just a month, it has garnered 34,000 views.

“Initially, I was sceptical about learning Hindustani music, sceptical about whether I could do justice to this great art form,” Aishwarya says. But Omkarnath, and his father Dr Nagarajrao Havaldar, a well-known exponent of the Kirana gharana, reassured her that it was all right even if her singing sounded Karnatik. “They were encouraging, said they would teach me the nuances of Hindustani music,” she says. “I was not scared!”

In addition to khayal compositions, Aishwarya and Saundarya are learning Kannada devaranamas, and Purandaradasa is on top of the list. “MS had a repertoire of devaranamas, and when she sang in Karnataka, she would invariably get requests for Jagadoddharana, Narayana enniro, Naaneke badavanu, and Dasana maadiko enna,” recalls her grandson V Shrinivasan. 

“Many Karnatik musicians learn Hindustani music to understand voice culture,” says Omkarnath, conceding that not many Hindustani musicians attempt Karnatik music. “Aishwarya and Saundarya adapt quickly, practise and work towards achieving perfection.”

Aishwarya and Saundarya spend at least six hours a day practising music. They are both home-schooled, and that has helped them pursue music intensively even as they remain connected to formal academics.

Does a knowledge of Karnatik music help or hinder the learning of Hindustani music? “A bit of both,” says Omkarnath, citing the example of raga Miyan ki Todi and the corresponding Shubha Pantuvarali. He says the singers were able to begin with a Karnatik-style spiral and end with a Hindustani-style coda. “We try to find a meeting point while maintaining the distinctiveness of the two traditions,” he says.

Omkarnath believes a confluence is possible. “I have always been fascinated by the idea of Bharatiya shastriya sangeet,” he says, suggesting that Aishwarya and Saundarya are in a sweet spot between the northern and southern traditions.

Museum Visit

Suswaralaya, the MS museum in Gottigere, is open to music lovers, but not at the moment, given Covid concerns. You can write to cienu33@gmail.com to ask about appointments.  

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