Culture & Society

Ideas of India: Of Gifted Voice

Shruti Rajagopalan talks with Keshav Desiraju about Indian classical music and the legacy of M. S. Subbulakshmi

M. S. Subbulakshmi in a concert with K. S. Narayanaswamy. Possibly the first anniversary of Nehru’s death, Delhi, May 27, 1965. Image Credit: Vaak Issue 03, March 2021

Ideas of India is a podcast in which Mercatus Senior Research Fellow Shruti Rajagopalan examines the academic ideas that can propel India forward. You can subscribe to the podcast on AppleSpotifyGoogleOvercastStitcher or the podcast app of your choice.

In this episode, Shruti and Keshav Desiraju discuss Indian musical traditions, devadasi women and the music of M. S. Subbulakshmi. Desiraju is the author of “Of Gifted Voice: The Life and Art of M. S. Subbulakshmi.” He has recently retired from a career with the Indian Administrative Service and in 2013 was Secretary of Health & Family Welfare to the Government of India. He has held many positions with the Government of Uttarakhand, the Government of Uttar Pradesh and the Government of India. He continues to remain engaged with issues in public health, particularly mental illness, primary healthcare and community health, and he serves on the board of several nonprofit organizations.

SHRUTI RAJAGOPALAN: Welcome to Ideas of India, a podcast where we examine academic ideas that can propel India forward. My name is Shruti Rajagopalan, and today my guest is Keshav Desiraju, who is a retired civil servant after a long career with the Indian Administrative Service and the author of the book “Of Gifted Voice: The Life and Art of M. S. Subbulakshmi.

We discussed the evolution of Carnatic music, its shift to Madras, the evolution of the devadasi tradition, M. S. Subbulakshmi’s life, her art, her musical influences, her politics, philanthropy, her contemporaries, Keshav’s intellectual influences and much more.

For a full transcript of this conversation, including helpful links of all the references, songs and concerts mentioned, click the link in the show notes or visit Discourse Magazine DOT COM.

Hi, Keshav. Welcome to the show.

KESHAV DESIRAJU: Thank you very much for asking me, Shruti. Lovely to see you; lovely to be on this show.

The Evolution of Carnatic Music

RAJAGOPALAN: I wanted to get into some of the broader context on the evolution of Carnatic music in the late 19th and the early 20th century, so we all really understand what is the space that M. S. Subbulakshmi inhabited as an artist. Can you tell us a little bit about how the epicenter of Carnatic music shifted in the early 20th century from temple towns, royal courts to sabhas in Madras, and what it did to Carnatic music?

DESIRAJU: A great many things were happening. If we look back at Carnatic music, the art music of South India, over the last 250 years, I think two definitive events or things happened.

One, to my mind, was the existence of the three great composers known as the Trinity at the same time; it was one of those flukes that happened. There were lots of people learning music; there were lots of people learning Sanskrit, learning recitation, doing devotional stuff. But the three persons whose musical genius was, if anything, even more than their spiritual attainments happened to come about at the same time in the same area. I think that made a permanent impact on the future of the art form between the late 18th century, mid-19th century.

The other big development was the growth of English education in the districts and the consequent movement by English-educated men to the cities—and in those days, Madras was really the only city in the entire Madras Presidency. Even places like Trivandrum were still very small and Mysore likewise still small; Bangalore was just a small cantonment town.

Madras saw people coming not only from the southern districts and from Kerala, but also places like Coorg, the Kannada-speaking areas, and they were coming from upcountry Andhra; from all the way from Visakhapatnam, Vijayawada—all those places. A lot of wealthy, cultivated Andhras were making Madras their home.

It was the men who had education, who made the move in search of employment, and their women came with them once they were establishing homes and families. In the country, their whole world was different. They lived in small towns. The distinction between rural, semi-urban was all blurred.

All of them were landed—their entertainment was limited to what was available in the temple courtyards. The more allegedly sophisticated amongst them probably visited courtesans in their salons. For the bulk of the people, the only thing they got by way of entertainment was whatever was being performed, either in the temple courtyards or in some kind of public place. Harikatha was important, and song and dance, chanting, this sort of stuff.

When this educated professional crowd moved to Madras, there was no tradition, there was no local ruler. There was nothing else of that sort, so spaces had to be created, and sabhas were created to try and replace either the wealthy temples or the wealthy patrons of the arts who were organizing events in the country. The establishment of the sabhas, the availability of a space for performance . . .

The men came in search of jobs; the women came to set up their homes; children were born in the cities, growing up as city persons whose touch and contact with the village and rural life was breaking. Then these spaces were created where the entertainments from the mofussil could be recreated.

The sabhas came up; musicians then began to move—Tyagaraja himself, we’re told, went and stayed for a long while in George Town in Madras. The Music Academy itself was only 1927, but by 1920, we had Pune Gayan Mandali’s Madras branch. You had the Jagannath Bhakta Sabha in Egmore and the Parthasarathy Swami Sabha which was set up. These are all the early-time sabhas. There may have been others which have now disappeared which served their purpose.

Then, through this time, gramophone records starting from 1902-1903 had become very important, and millions of plates (as they were called) were cut and were being played everywhere and heard everywhere. All India Radio itself was only 1935, but various things, sort of the ham radios of the area, were beginning to happen.

All these things were happening, providing spaces and opportunities for voices to be heard.

Sanskritization and Brahminization?

RAJAGOPALAN: Both the events that you have pointed to—which is the Trinity, which is, of course, Tyagaraja, Dikshitar and Syama Sastri, and they are associated with a particular kind of Sanskritization of music, right?

DESIRAJU: Yes—yes.

RAJAGOPALAN: The second is the movement of people who are educated in English and who moved to the Madras city from other parts of the presidency, incidentally also mostly Brahmins or upper caste, because they have access—more likely to have access to education.

With these two moves, what changes in the way people listen to music? One, we have moved away from a single patron, which is either the temple or the king. Now we have moved to patronage from an audience, which is from a particular kind of subgroup. They’re not all subaltern the way the artists are.

Does that change the way people performed Carnatic music? Did it change which artists got entry and who were not appreciated? What did it do to the form?

DESIRAJU: The Trinity were of Brahmin origin, and I’ve said so in the book. We can presume that they were of their time and place. Almost certainly, they were caste conscious. They were aware of their own position in the caste hierarchy and almost certainly had views on how other people in the hierarchy should conduct themselves. Almost certainly, they were patriarchal in their thinking about their lives and their society and their families. Almost certainly, they were conservative in their manner.

But you can’t really blame them for that. That is who they were, and let us not forget, there were people before them who were not all Brahmin. The point here is that access to education—in particular, to Sanskrit education—was pretty much restricted to persons from Brahmin households in those days. You probably could acquire quite a good Telugu or Tamil education even if you belong to one of the upper non-Brahmin castes, but it was much more easy to acquire a Sanskrit education if you were Brahmin.

And let us not forget, the Trinity—this is what makes them so interesting—they were superlative musicians, but their musicianship was built entirely around their belief. It was the fact that they had access to Sanskrit, to Sanskrit texts, to religious texts; that they were probably raised in very conventionally religious way—Syama Sastri himself belonged to a family of pujaris.

A lot of people may have been singing in their home. We don’t know. The songs of these people have survived only because of their quality. Because they were good, they attracted disciples. Because there are disciples, the disciples spread the word; it carried on like that. We should not make the mistake of saying that there were only three people who are sitting in their homes and writing songs, but clearly there was something extraordinary about these three people whose equipment, their access to religious texts, to mythology, to fables, to tales—if you look at the kind of classical allusions in their song, clearly, therefore, their times—they were very, very well read. They knew a lot of what was going on at that time.

The second point you make—and I refer to this in the book—a lot of the people who were migrating to Madras were not Brahmins. The whole community of dubashes—or the bilingual merchant intermediaries who intermediated between the French and the Tamils, between the English and the Tamils—they were not of Brahmin origin at all. They may not have been low caste, but they were not Brahmin either. A lot of them were extremely wealthy and extremely influential.

In the old days, in villages in rural Tamil Nadu, if somebody was singing in a temple courtyard, anybody—even in those days when possibly persons now identified as scheduled caste were not allowed access within the temple, they would have had access to the temple precincts, to the grounds. They would have been able to listen, had they wanted to. That may not have been so easy in a sabha, in a Madras sabha.

You’re right about that: in some ways, the audience was a little less universal than it was in a temple courtyard, but it was also not highly exclusionary. The thing is, could they afford the price of the ticket? That was more the determining factor of whether somebody went to a sabha or not—because even in those days, sabhas were ticketed shows.

Women would have been easily able to go to a temple courtyard to listen to music being performed, a nadaswaram being played. It may not have been easy for women to get their husband or father or brother to buy them a ticket to go and sit . . .

Even in the 1930s, ’40s (I quoted it somewhere in the book), you see notices about women’s section; women’s tickets are priced differently, sit differently. It was exclusionary in that sense.

We can say that in Madras upper-caste men with a little spare change in their pockets were the ones who were going to these concerts.

RAJAGOPALAN: The other aspect is they are not just listeners, the way they would listen in a temple courtyard: now they’re also patrons because they’re paying for the ticket. Now, a sabha is a very different format from, say, a concert which is happening at a wedding.

My grandfather has talked about listening to some of the greats of his time, and he said once they would start singing, they would go on for five, six hours, and you would just listen. That is typically not what we associate with a sabha. The sabha is a . . . “ticket priced at 6 p.m., ends at 8 p.m.” kind of show.

What did that do to the nature of what was being performed and who was performing? What does it do to the type of music and the craft?

DESIRAJU: I have two answers to that. One answer is you can be sure that when the musicians followed their audience to Madras, initially they would have been struggling because they were used to a certain type of performance. And you talk about these famous four-, five-hour night concerts. In those four hours, they may have only sung three ragams.

They were used to shouting without a mic so that people in the far corners would hear them. There they were used to singing long alapanas; their repertoires would have been quite small, and they were used to shouting, and that’s what they came with. I suspect there were a lot of adjustment difficulties till Ariyakudi. I think it was Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar who quickly took stock.

Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar was born in 1890 and came to Madras in the 1910s and figured out that if he and his fellow musicians were going to have an audience, that all-night concerts were not possible in a city setting where people have office jobs to go to, and the concert timings had to change and concert duration had to change.

I suspect it was all these factors that led to the creation of what we now refer to as the Ariyakudi margam—all the long alapanas were thrown out. There was a concert of three hours: it may have had a ragam tanam pallavi suite, but it would have also had another 10 or 11 songs in addition to that. Tyagaraja given the pride of place, mainly because more Tyagaraja songs were known than Dikshitar songs.

Almost no Tamil songs—he himself greatly experimented with viruttams, the free-flowing Tamil verse, sung to tunes composed by him, but there were relatively few Tamil pieces composed as concert pieces. I think that is where that whole story, the change in the concert-style pattern from what was popular in rural areas to what became the norm in the cities, I think that happened over, shall we say, 1915 to 1935, culminating with what Ariyakudi established.

Another very important thing is, remember the audiences moved—many of the devadasi establishments also moved to Madras. [Veena] Dhanammal, who moved her family from Thanjavur, but clearly there were other women doing this. Women went further out also. I’ve read somewhere that Dhanammal’s sister Rupavati spent most of her adult life in Hyderabad.

The devadasi establishments all over Madras were also very active. We only know about the famous Friday evening concerts in Dhanammal’s house, but many of them are doing this. This was their life: they were performing, they were almost certainly learning. They were maintaining their own households. This was also available in addition to the sabhas, but, as I said, even more limited audience: You probably need to have more money to spend if you were going to visit a courtesan in her salon to listen to her perform.

They may actually have continued to stick to what they were doing in—Dhanammal in her George Town establishment probably performed exactly the same way that she would have done 50 years earlier in Thanjavur or wherever she was.

Devadasi Tradition

RAJAGOPALAN: About the devadasis—that is another interesting tradition, both in terms of a tradition of music and dance but also a matriarch-led tradition which lasted for a very long time and then suddenly had to undergo a lot of changes in the early 20th century. One, of course, is that they moved from the temple towns and the royal courts to Madras. They still have this exclusive clientele: very wealthy men of sophisticated taste. But their place in society undergoes a major change.

On the one hand, there are groups of people who want to save the devadasis from their situation of basically being married to temple idols and everything that comes with that. On the other hand, you have groups of people who want to shame them or put them in a box, deride a particular kind of traditional art form. Somewhere in the middle of trying to be saved by bringing in legislation and shunned by this new movement of people who have come to the city and are forming new hierarchies, that style undergoes a dramatic shift.

Can you tell us a little bit about that evolution?

DESIRAJU: This is a difficult subject and, as you say, there are strongly held views.

Traditions—around the world over the ages, we have known of educated, cultivated, talented women whose designated role within their society was to perform: They were dedicated to the arts. One knows about ancient Greece, ancient Japan. Across India, the tradition was largely temple-driven in the South and largely court-driven in the North.

The tradition was the same: that you had educated, intelligent, talented, cultivated women whose job it was to provide entertainment to wealthy, cultivated men. That was broadly the kind of where—in South India, the Tamil country was by no means unique in having any such establishment.

Now there’s also this question of what is the role within patriarchy assigned to women? The upper-caste men who were quite happy to visit a salon and listen to music or to see a dance performed and in due course even to enter into relationships with some of these women, they did not countenance their women in their own families, their wives and their sisters and their daughters, for even watching. All they were allowed to do was within the context of ritual worship at home, within whatever devotions were happening within the home. If there was some singing that was necessary for that, they were permitted to sing—sing devotional verses or chant or whatever. But there was never any question of a Thanjavur mirasdar taking his wife with him to the salon to listen to the music.

I think the fact that the establishment of traditional courtesan musicians existed used to do with the fact that women in caste society were not supposed to be doing these things. It was even more complicated in the case of dance. Dance calls attention to the form; you have to look at it. This is something that was simply beyond the pale—they were quite prepared to admire a woman dancing on stage, but they would not have wanted to see women from their families doing that. The deep bias and prejudice that comes into this view, it’s important to remember that it was there. It’s important to remember this because that was the bias and prejudice that had to be broken.

In the early 20th century, the world changed—everything was changing. I think in this particular context, if we think hard about it, it was really English education that began that whole process of change. It was amongst the same men who migrated to the cities. Somewhere they also began to understand that the life and world of their women also had to change.

I can give a personal example: my mother grew up in Calcutta in the 1920s, and her sister—one sister learned how to sing, one learned the veena, one learned the violin in Calcutta in the 1920s. This was beginning to happen. It may not have been so easy in village Tamil Nadu or village Andhra.

This is where people like [D. K.] Pattammal are important, is when they were not just singing within their homes but actually began singing in public. Pattammal’s first appearance was when she was 14 in 1933. Her father, likewise—they had not actually moved. They were Kanchipuram people. He brought his daughter to Madras in order to find a music master. Individuals who made a difference.

M. S. Subbulakshmi. Image Credit: Saregama Carnatic/Wikimedia Commons

The spread of English education, better realization within caste communities that women needed a better deal—that encouraged women to take to performing music, to start with, and then with Rukmini Devi in 1935 or thereabouts, dance also. Everything collapsed very quickly, actually. If you look at the developments of those years, from the early 1930s, it was complete collapse. All known beliefs were thrown out. There were just literally hundreds of women. It was all bottled up somewhere and let out; women who had the ability to perform, the training to perform, who wanted to perform and who performed first on radio and then in public spaces.

RAJAGOPALAN: As you already hinted, there is a big change in perception of—now caste Hindu women can perform in public without the tag of being “public women.” Female seclusion is reducing, and now with supportive husbands, fathers, brothers—supportive accompanying artists—women are able to take their place on stage.

But there has been a tension when it comes to dance. Of course, there are people like Rukmini Devi who really smashed whatever was the glass ceiling of that time, but there is also a major tension between what people call upper-caste and Brahminical appropriation of what was traditionally a devadasi art form. This conversion of Sadir into Bharatanatyam and making it “respectable,” and in the process of making it respectable excluding the devadasi women quite explicitly by certain perceptions of their background while simultaneously taking over the art form and changing it . . . is a very frequent tension and accusation that keeps coming up.

DESIRAJU: [laughs] Shruti, those are very difficult and complicated questions, but I think the heart of this debate is . . .that this was an art form that belongs to the devadasi women, and it was taken away from them. And Rukmini Devi is always accused of sanitizing the form, of depriving it of what may be seen as its raw but more genuine elements, etc. Now, actually, I talk about this in the book (on page 254), about Rukmini Devi and [T.] Balasaraswati, and talking about this manner of this whole perceived conflict between sringara and bhakti. Balasaraswati herself in several very important speeches has said that sringara is at the core of bhakti.

When you say that this was an art form that belonged to devadasi women, I think we are completely losing the plot if you then say, “Therefore, only the devadasi women can perform this art.”

It may well have been a tradition that grew in a certain context; it evolved in a particular setting, and there were musicians and poets and dance masters. Fantastic imaginations that wrote “Natyashastra”—we don’t know who these people were, but we do know that they were phenomenally gifted in their understanding, in their imagination; and you can certainly make the case that the core repertoire of Bharatanatyam, or Sadir (as it was called then), came from here. But I don’t believe we are on such strong ground when we begin to say that therefore, this is something that should have been left to the people who were the traditional holders of this form.

In saying that is an art form that belongs to the devadasi, I am not just condemning the art form of devadasi: I’m condemning the devadasi to the art form. There is absolutely no reason—there is no way in which you can justify the existence of a system where somebody has really no options in life other than singing or dancing.

We know about Balasaraswati because she was the greatest dancer of her generation, of many generations. We know about Subbulakshmi—we know about very great performers. A very large number of devadasis may not have been great performers at all. It may just have been the way of life that they were told was theirs: and that I find very hard to accept. That that could even be justified, I find quite monstrous.

RAJAGOPALAN: On the appropriation part, I don’t think the accusation, at least the way it is framed, is so much that people outside the devadasi tradition should not be performing Bharatanatyam or Sadir. I think the accusation is more that the art form was taken and made respectable and sanitized, but the artists were left behind in some way.

It is more that the tradition was accepted and the women were not accepted, right? The women were put in a particular box, they were talked about in a particular way, they were excluded from sanitized and dignified society in some sense. I think that is the true grievance.

DESIRAJU: That may have happened, but who was responsible for that? Look, when it became acceptable for girls and young women from caste households to begin learning dance, they were learning from the same non-Brahmin nattuvanars who were teaching the devadasi women—who presumably were still teaching devadasi women. They had not stopped teaching there. They just had a wider selection of students to choose from.

Now if the argument is, “Oh, Rukmini Devi did not teach devadasi women in Kalakshetra,” I mean, I don’t know enough about that, whether she did or she did not. But again, it could be argued that devadasi women had no difficulty in finding a dance master if they wanted one, whereas women from caste households probably did and needed to go to a place like Kalakshetra.

Where you are right (and this is an important point) is that devadasi women who were maintained by upper-caste men, strange as it may seem now, had a certain degree of respectability, even acceptability—respectability. They were known as they were—it was a relationship that was . . .

Through Balasaraswati’s life, it was [not] disputed the fact that R. K. Shanmukham Chetty was publicly known—but it was known about many people.

RAJAGOPALAN: The children were recognized and acknowledged.

DESIRAJU: Many of these women had lived in homes that were given to them. Whether it was Dhanammal, whether it was [T.] Brinda, whether it was [T.] Muktha, all of them lived in homes that were given to them by the men with whom they were in very, very long, stable relationships. An important thing is that while that was known, accepted, recognized—sadly, with the passage of time, it also became stigmatized.

I think Brinda, Muktha, Balasaraswati—that was the last generation of women who could actually manage to live their lives as per the norms they were brought up under. It would have been impossible. It also coincided with the legislation, but it would have been impossible for a subsequent generation of women to have . . .

By that time many barriers had come down. I think women also realized that there was no need for them to simply accept the label that had been given to them.

RAJAGOPALAN: Victorian morality becomes a big part of this story. One, of course, through legislation; but as you said, these relationships were recognized. They were stigmatized, but they were not looked down upon. The children were recognized; the property relationships were recognized. But the real hammer came upon them through the Victorian route which was adopted in a big way because that was the sensibility of the time; that’s how the laws were written. That was the prism through which many of these things were viewed.

DESIRAJU: Yes. The Anglo-Saxon view simply could not accept the fact that there was a religious or ritual element to temple dedication. In fact, it horrified the British administrators that such a thing was not just happening but being justified in the name of traditional ritual practice. That’s where they came from.

The one inescapable conclusion was that it was a system designed by men for men. I think the men realized very early on that monogamy is boring, and they figured out a way in which they could enjoy what they thought was all that was good about the arts and the way the arts were performed in this part of the world, but did not also have to give up caste-ordained practices that they were in any case tied to.

They [devadasi women] were forced to become matrilineal, really, not because they wanted it but because that was the way it was. They all ran what in today’s day we would call female-headed households. These were female-headed households, and they had to look out for themselves. I said somewhere in the book that they certainly had more functional literacy education. They earned and spent money, which caste women were not doing.

I still hesitate looking at these as signs of progress in any way. The fact that a devadasi woman was more likely to be educated, the fact that she was more likely to be able to manage money, buy property, adopt children—I don’t see them as features to be very proud about. I don’t think they reflect a progressive society. They reflect the fact that women showed the ability to protect themselves as best they could in a very, very invidious system that was stacked against them and that they learned to defend themselves.

They had no choice. Today Dhanammal is sort of worshipped beside idolatry—Dhanammal died in penury.

When they were down and out, when they lost their ability to sing and dance and be charming, when (as Naina Devi calls it) creeping old age catches up with you and you’re on your own.

From Madurai to Madras

RAJAGOPALAN: All this is really relevant, I think, because now suddenly everything about M. S. will come into sharp focus. The most interesting thing about M. S. is she comes from Madurai and she gets to Madras at a relatively young age. She moved from a system where there was a particular devadasi tradition. Her mother was a very, very well-known veena artist of her time in Madurai, and M. S. Subbulakshmi decided that that is not the life for her and traded that tradition for the protection of [T.] Sadasivam, who was a married man and then, of course, widowed.

M. S. Subbalakshmi in “Sevasadan,” March 1938. Image Credit: FilmIndia/Wikimedia Commons

This is very crucial to the journey of M. S. Subbulakshmi as an artist, right? This trade that she makes to move from the devadasi household to a married, someone who has a place in society. In that process, of course, she loses financial control, but she gains other forms of control. Maybe over her art, maybe over where she performs, the currency—her husband can provide her entry into spaces, entry to the prime minister’s home. It’s a choice that she explicitly makes.

DESIRAJU: All these women we’ve been talking about—Rukmini Devi could afford to flout convention. Balasaraswati could not. Subbulakshmi managed to reject one set of conventions and exchange them for another.

The pity is we know so little about what she was doing and what was happening to her, but to grow up in a devadasi home—she never went to school. She was just learning how to sing, but we can be fairly sure that by the time mother and daughter came to Madras in 1932, after the Kumbakonam Mahamakham in February, she was 16. At 16 she probably knew quite a lot. She knew pretty much what her life was going to be.

We also know very little about 1932 to 1936. They lived under the protection of somebody called Lakshmanan Chettiar somewhere, and she sang in Indian Fine Arts Society in 1933, December. There were a lot of things happening, but we know actually very, very little. We don’t know who else she was meeting. We do know that she met Sadasivam in 1936. She certainly had known director K. Subrahmanyam by then. He engaged her for “Sevasadanam” (the film) around that time. She and her mother lived upstairs with S. D. Subbulakshmi, who was director Subrahmanyam’s wife. These may have been some of the people she knew.

At that point of time, she still had no sense of how she was going to escape the life that was destined for her. Not that I can—there was nobody she knew who provided an escape route. Even when she met Sadasivam, she would have figured out fairly soon that he was attracted by her, but he was married. In her world, in her family, in her community, married men did enter into relationships, but that is not what she wanted. That’s not the kind of future she was wanting for herself.

She did take some calculated risks. We know that mother and daughter went back to Madurai after the “Sevasadanam” shooting was over when the mother was concerned about what was going on; we do know that she ran away on her own and came back. She came back to Sadasivam’s house in early 1938 when Mrs. Sadasivam was actually expecting her second child. She probably knew by then that this was a safer option than anything else that was being planned for her.

I think she had a single-point agenda at that point of time, which is this man’s protection, because she would have known him for about two years by then, and she probably thought that “this person will look after me.” All this is speculation, Shruti. She may have known that he had influential friends like Kalki and Rajaji. Rajaji would not have encouraged Sadasivam to enter into a relationship with her as a woman, with a wife alive. It simply would not have worked.

I suspect she has some sense that of all the various options available at that point in time, this is the safest.

RAJAGOPALAN: Sadasivam is both her husband—he also performs the role of her manager later—but he’s also one of the earliest scouts or recognizers of her talent.

Who before Sadasivam played that role? Because her first recording is when she’s eight years old.

DESIRAJU: Those would have been professional touts for the recording companies, many of whom were European. I think Director Subrahmanyam was the first because he was somehow connected with her Kumbakonam appearance in 1932, and then he gave her a role in “Sevasadanam.” He was a very interesting man. He made films on patriotic themes.

He recognized it. Sadasivam certainly recognized it. At the time when she was even prepared to abandon everything and just settle down into domesticity, he was the one who realized that he really had gold in his hands and that this was something that could be developed.

There are some interesting questions. I think marriage to Sadasivam was only possible because the first Mrs. Sadasivam passed away. This is before the Hindu Marriage Act, and I suppose Hindu men could have more than one wife, but it would have been difficult. One doesn’t know what would have happened to her after she sought his protection and if it didn’t culminate in marriage; what would have been her situation is very hard to say at this point of time. There would have been nobody on her side, and she would have been alone. It’s a very unhappy and very unpleasant question as to what would have happened to her. It worked out for her that that unfortunate lady passed away.

The other interesting question, of course, is GNB [G. N. Baalasubramaniam], because all of that was going on at the same time, but I don’t believe she ever expected anything from that. She was just swept off her feet by—

RAJAGOPALAN: A very good-looking leading man, a very charming man.

DESIRAJU: —and the wonderful, wonderful musician that he was. She was by no means alone in this.

These are the ways in which I think that providence plays its part. A man who sensed—whatever else he may have sensed, he certainly sensed this was an opportunity—and then the other lady is dead and GNB fading away. It was inevitable. When you look back upon it now, you can say, “OK, this happened, this happened, this happened,” but at the time when you didn’t know what was going to happen . . .

Nineteen thirty-eight onwards, she was singing, often publicly—’38 was the first [Music] Academy performance, ’39 Academy, and there must have been other concerts. There were wedding concerts happening by that time. She was very famous even then. There was all this going on and then the turmoil in her own life, so it must have been a very difficult time for her.

Vision as an Artist

RAJAGOPALAN: At this point, she almost seems like a reluctant artist, right? It’s clear that she enjoyed performing in movies, but there were only four. Radha Vishwanathan has said that she was quite happy to be married and to be a mother and to a life of seclusion and domesticity and dignity, and she didn’t really want to be the superstar. That was more a strategy created by Sadasivam, who was more ambitious for her as an artist than she was herself.

Now in this situation, what is M. S.’s view of her own craft? What is her vision of her art? Is she just aping other people and singing what is popular at that time? Is she just singing because certain things are expected at weddings and sabhas, or is she singing what Sadasivam has picked out, or does she have control over how she presents her vision as an artist and executes it through her performances?

DESIRAJU: I think it’s a bit of both. In later life, despite her very demure manner, despite her very deferential manner, it was very clear that she knew who she was. She knew what she had, and she also had a clear sense of what she could do, what was not doing—all this was very, very clear in later life.

I would suspect that in 1940 when she married—she was still only 24. She should have known the man she married reasonably well by that time, and she probably knew that he was keen on her continuing as a—because by that time she had been pulling record audiences in Madras. She would have seen that herself.

She was still obviously learning songs all the time. There were radio appearances all the time. “Shakuntala” was a hit when it came out. My sense is that, having got married, she then decided, “Look, this is what I want. Anything after this is a bonus,” is my reading of this. She would have married anybody at that point of time who promised her a home and respectability and a good name. It so happens she married somebody who said that “you are much more than just my wife; you are the voice of a generation, and we are going to promote this.”

She went along with that because I think that was the deal. “You do this for me; I will do what you say for the rest of my life”—which she did. It is he who decided that they would do Tamil “Meera.” It was he who decided that they would translate it into Hindi. It was he who decided there would be no further films.

All of these decisions she went on with. It was—and as it’s famously known, it was he who decided what she would sing, when she would sing it. There was—not a single decision was ever left to her. My sense is that it was part of the deal. She was not fighting it.

RAJAGOPALAN: How much of this public adoration of her film performances as Shakuntala, as Meera in these films convinced her that “this is the public perception that seems to adore me, so I need to walk this line”?

DESIRAJU: I don’t think that was her decision; that’s what she was told to do. I don’t believe she went through this thought process of saying that, “Look, this is a good place I’m in, and this is what I need to be doing.” I suspect it was more that she was told that, “Look, this has worked and there is an image that has been created; whether we knew we were creating it or not, we have created it.” Now this is it. Now there is no question of deviating from this image.

I don’t really believe—if her husband had said to her, “Let’s do another film,” she would have done it. In fact I’ve quoted her: Somewhere in 1950 there is some correspondence where they to go to Bombay to make more money for Kalki. And then for some reason that film was never made.

She would have done exactly as she was told. I don’t believe it was her decision. I don’t believe she said, “This is a very good image that I have acquired in the public. This is what I want.” No, no, no.

RAJAGOPALAN: This is Sadasivam’s Pygmalion moment. He’s literally creating her and molding her the way he wants, and it’s very Pygmalion-like also in the sense that he is providing her that upward mobility. He’s bringing her out of one kind of world that she was destined for and giving her greater currency, but in the process, he’s molding her to be exactly the way he wants her to be.

Subbulakshmi’s Politics

RAJAGOPALAN: M. S. Subbulakshmi is both apolitical and political, in the sense that she doesn’t seem to have political views or partisan views personally, but she is involved in political movements. I can think of at least three: One is the Tamil Isai movement, which is Tamil being left out as the language of Carnatic music, where Telugu and Sanskrit dominate—again, because of a historical accident, as you pointed out, because of the Trinity—but that’s a big one. On this, she is firmly on the side of the Tamil Isai movement, even compared to people she respected, like Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar and so on.

The second part where she is political is her relationship with the Indian nationalist movement and various causes that are supporting the Indian nationalist movement, either because these causes were espoused by Gandhi or Rajaji and she decides to sing these benefit concerts and raise money for them, or directly her association with these people through her husband Sadasivam.

The third is her global perception—and this is her singing at the United Nations. She becomes sort of an ambassador of peace and culture in a world which is still very dominated by the Cold War and particular kinds of global alliances. She brings bhakti and devotion and songs in the praise of the Lord. I feel like it is almost a political statement in that context.

There are these three things, but she is personally very apolitical. I don’t think she has ever expressed a view on any of these.

DESIRAJU: I think that was a very good way you put it. The interesting thing, though, is that both Tamil Isai and both the nationalist movement—and you’re right, that was to do mainly with Gandhi—but in neither of these cases was she alone. Pattammal, [N. C.] Vasanthakokilam—they were all singing Tamil songs. They were all singing nationalist songs. They were all singing Bharati songs. She was part of the larger association.

We know more about her because we know more about her generally, and it’s been repeated so many times. But then, yes, both of those are very good examples of her taking part in a political activity without herself being in any manner political.

The third: Now insofar as Subbulakshmi being a global face is concerned, yes, you’re right in what you say; but I think there, that position was occupied for much longer by Ravi Shankar. It was the Beatles, it was Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, it was Ravi Shankar. While we know a lot about Subbulakshmi at United Nations, da da da, that in itself was only a relative blip compared to the mass adoration that Ravi Shankar was receiving in the United States and in Europe and everywhere.

There is something in what you say, in that it is possible that Western audiences were not familiar with overtly religious music, and it may have just been—if you read the reviews of 1960 United Kingdom and the United States concerts, this very clearly comes through. They were astonished, they were bewildered, they were thrilled by what they were listening to, but I think they found it difficult to relate in a way they did not find it difficult to relate to Ravi Shankar. But this raises a much larger question about the HindustaniCarnatic styles: Why is it people respond differently, and all those sorts of things.

It’s interesting that you regard that as a political move, because I suppose it was when you think about it. Of course, you’re right when you say that she herself really had no political views of one sort or the other. She was naturally respectful and deferential to an older person. Whether it was Nehru or Rajaji or anyone—Kamraj, Shastri, Annadurai—they were all people she respected immediately without being particularly concerned about what their political views were.

RAJAGOPALAN: The reason I said how UN performance is political is that I think it’s unusual for a couple of reasons. As you said, the template at that time was very much set by Ravi Shankar, Vilayat Khan, Alla Rakha; they were very international in their influences and their collaborations. They performed with John Coltrane and Beatles. This is a very different culture. They were also more cosmopolitan.

And here was a lady who would show up exactly at the UN the way she would dress anywhere else. She’s going to sing the same set list that she would sing anywhere else. She will bring the bhakti tradition with her even though other people may not understand anything about it.

DESIRAJU: Starting from the early ’70s, Carnatic musicians have been traveling very often; Vasanthakumari died in 1990, but even she through the ’70s and ’80s traveled frequently to America. Nobody changed their normal presentational style. You’re correct that M. S. didn’t, but nobody else did either. It’s just a point to be noted. But I think it’s a good point you make, yes.

Subbulakshmi’s Musical Influences

RAJAGOPALAN: There’s a confluence of different, say, musical styles or literary styles. One is—of course the bhakti tradition is very, very important, right? But she also brings in bhajans that are written in other languages, in Hindi. She’s singing things written by Tagore. So there is some pan-India—in a sense, she’s the first to break the language barrier. She also sings and chants in Sanskrit.

On the other hand, there is a very, very rigorous artistic tradition which is going on in the sabhas at the time, which, as you say, she completely absorbs. She’s learning from her contemporaries; she’s learning from her seniors and so on. The third is the film music. Some of it is the film music that she has herself sung. A lot of it was devotional and mythological, so that also becomes part of her repertoire.

She has sung Arabic couplets and dohas and things like that, but is there a big influence from international singers who may have been her contemporaries at the time or international film music or the Middle Eastern or Arabic tradition? What was she listening to when she was performing?

DESIRAJU: I don’t get the sense that there was any of that. I don’t mean this in a bad way, but I don’t think it was. I think she was listening mainly to Carnatic. She probably listened, certainly in her earlier years, to a lot of Hindustani music. As we all know, traditionally Siddheshwari Devi was a particular friend. But the doha, the Ghalib verse she sang and all those are oddities; one can’t draw any lessons from them.

I don’t get a sense listening to tapes of M. S. that she was being influenced by anything outside her own immediate tradition.

A better question to ask may be, Who amongst the musicians she heard influenced her the most? I’ve not been able to answer that question, because you see her own style was so strong. Her own style of raga-rendering was strong.

She was a forceful voice—not easy to—not easy for her, to learn to sing it. But something interesting, since the question has come up: It’s very clear if you listen to tapes of Musiri Subramania Iyer, which certainly she learned alapana from—there is no doubt about the fact that that’s where she learned many of her alapanas and also neraval; that she clearly learned from there.

Another interesting question is, How did she influence other musicians? I think one very important way in which she did that was in the many, many, many songs, the only recognized way in which anybody can present them now is the M. S. version. Her song renderings were near perfect. If you wanted a textbook version of a song, the M. S. way of singing it—and that would tell you.

You may actually improve it. You may do things to it, but you can’t ignore it. That’s what she brought to the tradition.

Male Versus Female Carnatic Vocalists

RAJAGOPALAN: Traditionally women were singing devotional music bhajans, different sorts of things. This rigorous tanam [style of vocalization of a raga using short, accelerated phrases] and alapana, that style, is really a male tradition—maybe by accident and coincidence of the way things were set up at that time. And D. K. Pattammal, M. S. Subbulakshmi, her contemporaries, they are the first to “sing like men.”

I imagine a lot of those influences were male, but what does M. S. Subbulakshmi—and maybe this question is also true for Vasanthakumari, D. K. Pattammal—what did they bring as women to a form or a format that was very male or recognized traditionally for the male voice?

DESIRAJU: I don’t think those forms were designed for the male voice. It is just that only men did it. Muktha to the end of her life never sang alapana. In any Brinda-Muktha concert if you listen to, all the alapanas are by Brinda; they did not do swaraprasthara [distinctly Carnatic musical embellishment where the musician extemporizes the notes of a raga at different speeds] to a—very slightly, if at all; there have been some neraval; there was never tanam, though they came from a vainika tradition where tanam is important. But they—Brinda never performed tanam or pallavi [introductory stanza of a kriti] while singing.

When Pattammal and M. S. began singing pallavis, I wonder who taught them, because they had nobody to go to. There were no examples of women doing this.

What did they bring to it? They just brought their own style, shall we say; perhaps they brought a little imagination to it. Certainly I’ve always believed this—when M. S. sang pallavi, she did not sing complicated talams, but that did not make the pallavi any less difficult to perform.

These days, contemporary musicians, especially contemporary women musicians, sing incredibly complicated talams. Sometimes—the ultimate horror is they put different talams with each hand. One with the right hand, one with the left. M. S. did not do any of this. It was just a simple Adi talam pallavi.

RAJAGOPALAN: It’s simple, but it’s rigorous?

DESIRAJU: Yes—you cannot fault her for want of rigor. In fact, what you need to fault her on is that an artist who was capable of such rigor and exacting position should have been so willing to continuously present what may be regarded as lighter forms. That you knew what this artist was capable of, that degree of control.

To my mind, it was a sad development in her musical presentation that what her husband thought would work with the audience, the cassette and CD revolution, her increasing age and unwillingness to sing over more rigorous pieces, all coincided—Annamacharya—the whole combination of things that, finally, by the time of the end of her life, she, far from being made sure to be remembered (as I try to make the case in this book) as a classical singer of the first rank, she is perhaps more easily remembered as a singer of devotional music. The bulk of Carnatic music is devotional, but devotional music in the sense of simple devotional verses. She could do them very well, but she was much more than that.

Subbulakshmi and Pattammal

RAJAGOPALAN: This, obviously, also has something to do with the way people perceive D. K. Pattammal, who is known as a craftsman and a rigorous artist. They are contemporaries of the same time, but that style is associated with craftsmanship and rigor.

With M. S., do you think some of this also gets lost because the quality of her voice is just so melodious and she is just so beautiful to look at, that all of that is such a big distraction relative to her performance and her rigor? Because when you look at her, you’re spellbound by that.

DESIRAJU: No, you’re right. That’s absolutely true. That she got away with things only because of the presence and the aura.

I don’t suppose you’re old enough to have ever heard M. S. live.

RAJAGOPALAN: No, but I met her once.

DESIRAJU: M. S. Subbulakshmi on stage, that was . . . the word “diva” was meant for her. She was a different—she was a very mild, very deferential, courteous woman, humble offstage. She radiated poise and glamour and presence onstage. I think that counted for a lot.

But I’m glad you mentioned Pattammal, because you see Pattammal achieved the great position she came to achieve solely on the strength of being true to what she thought was her art. That is what she was taught.

She had a fine sense of concert. Pattammal’s concert: well structured, well planned; she knew how to do things. She had favorites but she always presented new items; but she never—early in life, she figured out that “this suits me.” She also figured out that there is—“I will never want for an audience.” She may not have been thinking about the United Nations, but she was perfectly happy singing anywhere in South India that she was asked to sing. It served her well. It served her well because when you listen to Pattammal now, you recognize how much diligence and learning and practice has gone into that.

Her voice was ringing and loud in the 1940s, but by the mid ’50s began to—by the early ’50s, really, it began to—it lost its bell-like clang. But she radiated wholesomeness. She communicated that. She communicated that without any effort. Somehow people didn’t even know very much about the form or get the feeling that what this person is singing is good stuff.


There is a lot of repetition in M. S. Subbulakshmi’s concert performances and her set list at concerts. Even, surprisingly, that sometimes at the same venues, year after year, she’s performing almost the identical set list, which is very odd.

DESIRAJU: I have one example. The kachcheri [concert] given in Bhavani, in Erode, in 1956, which has come out as a commercially released CD. It’s a fine concert of its time. The identical list was presented in the Music Academy in the 1958 season. Song for song, in the same order.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, which is very odd for someone of her time.

DESIRAJU: I think there was only one reason for this: Her husband figured out that he knew what the audience liked. Why mess with it? Why mess with a business model that worked?

RAJAGOPALAN: So this is a money-spinning device, right? We know what you’re going to get when you come to an M. S. concert, so this is what we do.

DESIRAJU: He probably also rationalized that maybe three people who were in Erode would also be at this Madras concert. How does it matter?

There is a great tradition in Western classical music of precomposed pieces. Extemporizing doesn’t come in. The conductor’s genius lies in being able to create something out of precomposed material.


DESIRAJU: I was laughing with a friend the other day: The great joy of listening to an M. S. version of a song that you have never heard her sing.

A very well-known song, Tyagaraja’s “Ra Ra Mayinti Daka” in Asaveri, I have never known that M. S. sang the song. She did sing it in the Academy in 1976. Even that song that she sang once in her life: perfectly produced—but sang it once; never sang it again. She probably knew every song written in kharaharapriya [raga], but 90% of the time she sang Pakkala Nilabadi and the other 10% of the time all the other songs that she knew.

I think the only reason for this is that, “Why fix it if it isn’t broken?”

RAJAGOPALAN: Do you think it diminished the view of M. S. among her contemporaries, who were doing a lot of improvisation on stage? Especially the men.

DESIRAJU: Certainly, because I think—I tried very hard to fight this in this book—but somehow there was a lack of vidvath [erudition], which I think is a very unfair comment to make, because everything she sang and produced presented, to my mind, scholarship of a higher order.

In fact, it’s sometimes quite sad to see younger musicians, younger male musicians especially, very dismissive when M. S. is mentioned. Saying that, “Oh, she was only basically a bhajan singer.” It tells you more about these younger male singers than it does about M. S.

But your point is correct. I think her reputation as a classical musician has certainly suffered for that reason.

RAJAGOPALAN: She also benefited from it in one—on the other hand, right? Because even relative to, say, Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, she is the one who can sell tickets. She’s the one who can lead to full concert halls. She can raise money.

DESIRAJU: Shruti, yes and no. Just look at Balasaraswati. When Balasaraswati went to Edinburgh with M. S. in ’63, they had to arrange eight additional concerts. Eight! Because the crowds were pouring in to see her and paying tickets to come to see her. I think that that argument doesn’t really hold. Kesarbai Kerkar sang often in the Academy during the season, in the ’50s and ’60s.

RAJAGOPALAN: And sold out.

DESIRAJU: Sold out! People would queue to listen to her.

Of the great Hindustani musicians, Ravi Shankar used to play in the Academy for years on end. Never, never changed his style to pander to the—what he thought the South Indian audience may like. No, this was not necessary at all.

RAJAGOPALAN: This was just Sadasivam’s idea of how this should be.

DESIRAJU: He was completely taken by this idea of a pan-Indian singer—or that she sings in Bengali, she sings in Odia, she sings in Marathi, she sings in Gujarati. Which, to my mind, is a very modest ambition for an artist of that scale.

RAJAGOPALAN: She is so great she can transcend language.

DESIRAJU: She would have drawn audiences anywhere because of who she was and the way she presented it. She could attract—people could listen to it. But that was not the decision that was made for her.

Subbulakshmi and Balasaraswati

RAJAGOPALAN: Here, a really striking contrast to M. S. is T. Balasaraswati. There are some huge similarities: They both came from the devadasi tradition; they were friends for a very large portion of their lives. There is an incredible photograph of both of them in pajamas as very young women, holding—I don’t know if it’s one of those candy cigarettes or something like that. But you cannot imagine two people with more contrasting personalities.

We spoke about how M. S. traded a life of insecurity within her tradition for a life of greater currency, more dignity in Madras circles, and security. Balasaraswati, on the other hand, said, “I will make my own path. This is what I do, and it will earn respect and it will earn dignity, and I don’t need that kind of external validation. The art will speak for itself.” To a very large extent, she succeeded. She was an incredible performer, also well known across India and the world. The way her dancing is described is—she’s peerless, in that sense, even with her contemporaries or generations that followed.

Yet Balasaraswati doesn’t have the happy ending and the sort of stardom that M. S. Subbulakshmi has, though she’s an artist of the same caliber.

DESIRAJU: [laughs] I think at the end of the day, Balasaraswati did not fight convention. Subbulakshmi, whether you like it or not, fought convention. Balasaraswati became Shanmukham Chetty’s partner in 1936, when she was 18. Though she was an intelligent, tough, strong-willed woman, she did not fight convention. While Subbulakshmi had no idea of where this was going to take her, she fought convention.

Yes, Balasaraswati had to fight very hard to get to where she got to, but she really had no option. That was all she knew. That was her life. She probably also sensed that she was gifted in a way that many of her contemporaries were not. That it was something that she had that was worth fighting for.

Again, as the story is famously told, she never taught her daughter till very late. Women in families like that [from the devadasi tradition] had learned from earliest childhood—Lakshmi, her daughter, only began learning in her late twenties. It was—while Balasaraswati knew what she had, had a very strong sense of tradition, I think it is interesting that she did not teach the dance tradition, which is the only thing she had, to her daughter. There is something going on there.

How did Subbulakshmi achieve the superstardom? That, I think, is really, at the end of the day, providence. Destiny. I can’t think of—I’m not saying it was unjustified. Subbulakshmi was a superstar. She deserved superstardom, but many people who deserve superstardom don’t get it. Balasaraswati may have been one of those who certainly deserved superstardom but did not get it.

I suppose destiny took a great deal away from Subbulakshmi, but destiny also gave her superstardom.

RAJAGOPALAN: Balasaraswati also took far more ownership and control over her art form. Talking about M. S., you said she didn’t really choose—it was not her vision; it was Sadasivam’s vision. Balasaraswati, on the other hand, is very, very clear on what kind of art tradition she belongs to, but also how she wishes to take it forward. That, I think, is another very big contrast between the two women.

In some sense, I feel maybe Balasaraswati was a little bit ahead of her time. Maybe 10 years or 15 years later, it would have been a little bit more acceptable; but then 15 years later, she wouldn’t have existed in the same way, because that tradition was dying. It’s a really odd spot in history that she occupies.

DESIRAJU: We don’t know about M. S. Had life panned out differently for her, would she have expressed a clearer view of what her music was to her? We don’t know. We know her as this very shy, retiring, demure person, but that was because that was where she was placed. If she had not been placed in that situation, would she have been different? Would we have known more? I really don’t know.

She has said somewhere, and I quote this in the book, that “at one point of time, my mind was running wild.” She doesn’t say more about what that wildness could have been. Hard to say, because while she was, again, the one person we know—mild and demure and retiring—this is also the woman who ran away from her mother’s home. This is also the woman who went to this man’s house and said, “I’m here.” There was—when she wanted something, she knew how to get it.

If she had been on her own, if she had led the kind of life that, say, Brinda did, as a performing musician from the courtesan tradition, with an establishment in Madras somewhere, what could she have done? What would she have done?

Where she was different from Brinda is that she had already acted in films. Before Sadasivam, she did “Sevasadanam” and “Shakuntala.” (“Savitri” was after marriage.) She had two films. She may have had a little more glamor than Brinda and Muktha, only because she was a film star. That may have given her a little edge.

But again, that is what N. C. Vasanthakokilam tried to do. That was, again, a very sad story of—in a difficult professional atmosphere, without someone looking—without a man looking out for you, Vasanthakokilam’s career just collapsed.

If Vasanthakokilam had not died in 1951, you know what would have happened: There would have always have been a voice similar to M. S.’s; maybe not as rigorously trained, but still the same type of voice.

Subbulakshmi and Tyagaraja

RAJAGOPALAN: One thing that is very interesting is how much Tyagaraja dominated her repertoire and her imagination, even among the Trinity. I mean, he did write more and he was the better known of the three, but in particular, for M. S. Subbulakshmi, Tyagaraja had a very special place in her set list.

The other area where I find this great similarity between the two of them is, compared to their contemporaries, Tyagaraja is a saint. The other two are composers—Syama Sastri and Dikshitar—but Tyagaraja is Saint Tyagaraja. M. S. Subbulakshmi is very similar in that sense: where whether you have Vasanthakokilam, whether you have D. K. Pattammal, they are all artists, but M. S. Subbulakshmi is a saint. That’s the perception of her. Either because she sang a lot of devotional music, or you wake up every morning, in every temple town, you’re listening to her singing “Suprabhatham” and “Sahasranamam.” Or the way she looked—that demure look—or maybe because she played Meera, who is also in the process of attaining sainthood.

This is an interesting thing that I find about both of them.

DESIRAJU: I just have some comments. Tyagaraja was hugely important to all artists of those generations. Whether it was Ariyakudi, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, Semmangudi, you know? Tyagaraja was the rock on which their concerts were built. Interesting, because they are all Tamil speakers, but for whom this Telugu composer proved so, so important. So while yes, Tyagaraja was important in Subbulakshmi’s repertoire, she was by no means unique in this. Tyagaraja was hugely important for the tradition.

Tyagaraja certainly [had] more disciples, more active disciples, better spread of the songs. Sainthood—you’re right about that. He has acquired sainthood. Not everybody will agree with this, but I think there’s something . . . the very appealing nature of his bhakti. The kind of language he used. The fact that he was talking to his Rama.

There is something austere and beautiful about Dikshitar and Syama Sastri; there is a formality in those compositions. A lot of Tyagaraja, beautifully composed as they are and with an eye to rhythm and to talam and to raga construction—but I think the nature of his devotion was easier for people to understand. Hence, that made him easier to be identified as a man of God.

Perhaps, again, because he had more disciples, more stories of his life were written at an earlier point of time. Once you have stories, they spread; the stories began to be told in Harikatha. Then the stories were told in film version, not once but many times.

We don’t know any stories about Syama Sastri’s life, certainly—almost none. I tried to say this in the book: Dikshitar, actually, for his time, had an interesting life. He went and lived in Benares and did various things. But we know very little about what was happening then, whereas maybe he didn’t have as many active disciples, or he didn’t tell them as many stories as Tyagaraja told his people. For all those various reasons, Tyagaraja just moved along the path to sainthood.

Likewise, in Subbulakshmi’s case, I think it is—you answered your question. It was “Meera,” then the bhajans and then the chants. It was that that firmly established her.

There has been a katha kalakshepam [an art form of storytelling] on her life done by somebody. I mentioned it in the book. All this sort of stuff has begun to happen to her, and nobody has as yet said that she is a saint, but certainly, her qualities—


DESIRAJU: —saintlike qualities that—she was such a beautiful woman. I think this also contributed. Almost everybody who knew her, her accompanying artists, family, friends, every single person will say, “Oh, what a nice person she was.”

It’s not to say that other performers were not nice people, but just as everyone begins talking about Tyagaraja, people begin talking about M. S. Then people begin to say this again and again: “You know, she is a very nice person.” It grows and so now, in the public imagination, she is this very saintlike person who sang divinely.

Then, of course, in addition to “Meera,” bhajans and the chants, was this business about singing for charity. That she is giving away what is hers. It is regarded as a very otherworldly, saintlike activity, to give away what you earn for some other cause.

RAJAGOPALAN: Also, one way of thinking about it is she lost financial control in a way that maybe her mother would not have, because that’s the trade she has made with Sadasivam. She earned a lot, but she had no control over a single rupee.


RAJAGOPALAN: All of it went towards the Kalki establishment and the household and things like that. She reached a point where she didn’t realize how broke they were.

DESIRAJU: It was a very grand household. Somebody I was speaking to said to me that there were no less than 30 people at any meal—any random meal, on any random day. That was the way that house was run.

RAJAGOPALAN: Entirely on her singing.

DESIRAJU: Pretty much entirely on her singing, and it all unraveled.

RAJAGOPALAN: It seems like she didn’t care about the material and financial aspect of her career, right? The way I look at it is she didn’t have control over it; the way people look at it is she was philanthropic and not interested in material possession and . . .

DESIRAJU: She was always well cared for, she was well looked after and she was well provided for. There may have been difficulties, but I don’t believe she was ever in want or distress of any sort. There were enough people prepared to help if she needed help. I’m sure she knew that. She was by no means friendless. All that would have contributed to her equanimity in a certain sense.

Desiraju’s Intellectual Influences

RAJAGOPALAN: What is your intellectual and musical background?

DESIRAJU: Like many other families of my type, music was taught to people in the family. One grew up listening to music sung; one grew up attending concerts (with my father, mainly), grew up attending concerts, listening to the radio and at some point briefly also learning. Not with any view to sing, but just to develop a better understanding. Yes, constant listening over the years and trying to develop a better understanding of what this is all about.

Now I’ve come to the age when I can actually think of different generations of musicians whom I have heard. Certainly, of the old generation, I heard Chembai [Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar], Alathur brothers, Semmangudi, of course. I did not hear Ariyakudi; I did not hear GNB or Madurai Mani. Then the next generation I heard pretty much everybody. There wasn’t—and after that, yes.

I think it’s just a lifetime of listening, Shruti, is really my connection.

RAJAGOPALAN: Do you remember the first time you saw M. S. perform?

DESIRAJU: I have a very clear reception of a kalyana kachcheri when I was five. Don’t ask me what she sang, but I do remember very, very clearly going to a wedding recital where M. S. was singing. The first kachcheri I attended was September 1967, in Shanmukhananda Hall in Bombay, which was a—in those days, M. S. would sing in Bombay five, six times a year, one way or the other. That Shanmukhananda concert in ’67 I remember very clearly. Then April ’69, December ’69; in Delhi in February ’79.

The funny thing about—I can remember the dates and years when I heard M. S. sing over the years. I can’t remember this for other musicians. I’ve heard MLV [M. L. Vasanthakumari] so many times. I remember the first time I heard MLV. Again, 1967, she sang tri-ragam pallavi: “mohanangi kamavardhini pahimam ananda bhairavi.” I have not forgotten that.

For the first time I heard Pattammal, I remember it was Bharatiya [Bharatiya Music and Arts Society Hall or Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan]. Otherwise I don’t remember much, but M. S. concerts I have a strong memory of. The whole experience was just so thrilling—and keeping lists of the songs.

RAJAGOPALAN: Did she leave a huge impact on you when she sang at the time? Or did that come in later reflections?

DESIRAJU: I grew up listening to music in the 1960s, but I think people a bit older than me who grew up listening in the ’50s—if you began your musical listening in the ’50s or the ’60s, you simply could not get away from the fact and presence of M. S. This was a time when, through the ’50s, GNB, Madurai Mani, Semmangudi, Ariyakudi, the Alathur brothers, Vishwanath Iyer, Musuri (stopped in the mid-’50s), Vasanthakumari, Pattammal . . .

RAJAGOPALAN: All giants.

DESIRAJU: All giants.

Likewise through the ’60s. GNB died in ’65, Madurai Mani in ’67, Ariyakudi in ’66. So within the early ’60s, there were still—but you could not be listening to Carnatic music in the ’50s and ’60s without very, very quickly having to listen to M. S.—wanting to listen. She was the dominant presence.

The high point was the Sangita Kalanidhi in ’68; there she was recognized—she was at the pinnacle, as it were. That was M. S.’s prime. You could not get away from it.

RAJAGOPALAN: What made you choose M. S. as a book project?

DESIRAJU: I decided this a long time ago. I only wrote the book now, but this has been in my mind for a long while.

I’ll tell you why. One, for many of the reasons we’ve been talking about today, but context was very important in the case of M. S. That was why I thought a book project was important—because one has to tell the context.

The other reason was, M. S. has been widely written about, but they all follow what you might call the received version. Interestingly, though there are so many books—many with beautiful photographs; beautiful, beautiful photographs—there’s really very little in all those books about her music. Very little.

All the books follow, I said, the received version, the few stories told time and time and time again, all stories to do with her great devotion or with her role as a philanthropist. So while many, many books were written about her, very few, or none, really, to my mind, had anything of any interest to say about her musicianship.

So I thought that this was a book that’s worth writing. Hence the book.

RAJAGOPALAN: What is your writing process?

DESIRAJU: Around 2000, when M. S. was still alive, I just sat down one day, when I lived in Dehradun, and I just sat down just to write an essay on M. S.—because, obviously, somebody I listened to a lot and admired a great deal. I was doing small bits of music writing. Nothing substantial. For the Hindu Folio magazine I did something, and then I used to occasionally review a couple of music books. Very slight.

Then I actually wrote a 5,000-word essay. Then when she passed away, I actually tried to interest one paper in using it as an obituary notice, but it was too long for them. I just withdrew it and said no. That was simply just sitting with me.

Over the years I’ve been collecting material—program books, newspaper cuttings—and the year 2000, both at Rubin Collection at Harvard and in Teen Murti, Delhi, just sitting and working my way through The Hindu, the Express, Shankar’s Weekly. All those papers of those years. Just with no particular book writing plan in mind, but just material, and just kept pulling things together and such like.

It was only after I retired from work in 2015 and moved to Chennai that I thought to myself that I should do something with my time, and let me see if I can go back to this. I sought out appointments with two people just to begin talking about the subject. Those two conversations went quite well.

Then I went back to this long, 5,000-word piece I had written. It’s a very crude way of writing a book, but I simply broke it up into 10 bits and put them on 10 different files, because that piece was written chronologically, as it were. Then I began working on it.

Then clearly, Shruti, it took a life of its own. It just kept growing; ideas kept coming to me and I knew in my mind what I wanted: a couple of chapters on context and background, and then I knew I wanted a last chapter which very early on I knew I wanted to call “A Life.” In between could be chronological. Again, very early on, I decided that, “Look, I want to use this book. I want to write about themes and persons and events other than M. S.”

I have a confession to make. As I said, I was keen on context. Context is usually important, but as you will also realize after you read the book, I’ve really not had access to what you as a professional academic would call primary sources. I had to depend on secondary sources. Some of the secondary sources are strong, where it’s a newspaper review, an article, published material—anything that exists in evidentiary form, as it were.

Where it’s not so useful is what people say. Hearsay is only as important as you want it to be. Part of the reason why I had to fall back on context was really to compensate for the lack of primary material.

I was able to find a few letters written by her. A couple of those letters prove very important, but by and large (as I’ve said in the introduction to the book) everyone seems to know that Subbulakshmi maintained a diary every day of her life—and nobody seems to know where the diaries are.

They may not contain much, but they would contain something. The important question—you’re also asking, “What does she think about?” Maybe the diaries would tell you what she was thinking about. Now, I’m hoping—a person like Subbulakshmi will always stand—her story can be told again and again, and so I hope that there will be some future biographer who actually has access to more primary material than I was able to locate.

RAJAGOPALAN: What is your favorite Subbulakshmi concert?

DESIRAJU: My favorite concert, which I could not get into because I could not get a ticket, but it is fortunately available on YouTube, is 25 December 1969. The season concert at the Music Academy.

It is an absolutely mind-blowing recital. “Maate Malayadhwaja,” then “Aparaadhamulanniyu in Lataangi,” “Anudinamulu in Begada,” “Pakkala Nilabadi” (a sensational kharaharapriya alapana). Then “Hiranmayeem Lakshmim” with an exquisite stotram, “Jaya Jaya Padmanabha,” “Manirangu.”

The concert that I went to, that I actually attended, was on the next day: 26 December; she sang in Kalakshetra. Since I couldn’t get to the Academy concert, [chuckles] I was very—my father and I went to Kalakshetra. That was really, again, a beautiful, beautiful concert. Maate, again, “Talli ninnu” in Kalyani,Kanjadalayatakshi,” “Ksheera Sagara” in Mayamalavagowla, “O Rangasayi.” It was a wonderful concert. Yes, that’s a concert I remember very well. I will always have happy memories thinking of that concert. [chuckles]

RAJAGOPALAN: Thank you so much for being so generous with your time and your insights. This was an absolute pleasure.

DESIRAJU: I like talking about my book. It’s very kind of you to have asked me. I hope your listeners will enjoy this as much as I have enjoyed being part in this conversation.

RAJAGOPALAN: Thanks for listening to Ideas of India. If you enjoy this podcast, please help us grow by sharing with like-minded friends. You can connect with me on Twitter @srajagopalan. In the next episode of Ideas of India, I speak with Yashica Dutt about “Coming Out as Dalit.”

Submit a Letter to the Editor
Submit your letter
Subscribe to our newsletter