M. S. Subbulakshmi

Singer known as the 'Nightingale' and the 'Queen of Songs'

Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi, singer and actress: born Madurai, India 16 September 1916; married 1940 Thiyagaraja Sadasivam (died 1997); died Madras 11 December 2004.

Asked to sing at prayer meetings by Mahatma Gandhi and given the title "Queen of Songs" by Nehru, Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi was a musical phenomenon of modern India for than half a century.

Popularly known as "MS", Subbulakshmi was born in 1916, in Madurai, south India, into a family of musicians dedicated to performances in temples. She was initiated into classical music by her mother, Shanmukhavadivu, who played the veena, and grandmother Akkammal, a violinist. The Columbia Gramophone Company spotted her at a young age and made a recording of her when she was barely 10. By 1932, when her mother decided to take her from Madurai to Madras, Subbulakshmi was already popular as a singer of Carnatic music, south India's classical musical form of Bhakti (devotion).

The move proved lucky. Subbulakshmi's musical performances met with critical approval and she was given the epithet of "Nightingale" by the press. Here, she met K. Subramaniam, the film-maker, and the freedom fighter Thiyagaraja Sadasivam whom she married in 1940.

Subbulakshmi had a short but significant stint in Tamil films. Making her début in Seva Sadan in 1938, she acted in Shakunthalai (1940) and Savithri (1941). In her best-known film, Meera (1945, remade in Hindi in 1947), she played the title role of the Rajasthani saint-poetess and devotee of Lord Krishna. People all over India identified Subbulakshmi with the saint, and the film gave her an all-India stature as a musical actress. But, while still at the peak of her acting career, Subbulakshmi left films to devote herself fully to Carnatic music, devotional songs and charitable causes.

She met Mahatma Gandhi and performed concerts to raise funds for the Kasturba Gandhi Memorial Trust. Performing to fill the coffers for social causes became her lifelong commitment. In 1947, she gave an All India Radio concert on Gandhi's birthday, in which she sang bhajans of legendary poets of medieval India. Many of her renderings - like Gandhi's favourite devotional song, "Vaishnava Janato" - have become classics.

The 1950s saw the rise of Subbulakshmi as an national figure in India. She branched out and, helped by musicians including Semmangudi, Papanasam Sivan and Siddheswari Devi, learnt fresh compositions and styles of singing, which widened her repertoire and public appeal. Her sarees, diamonds, even the way she decorated her curly hair with flowers became fashionable and the rich shade of blue she wore was known as "MS Blue".

In the 1960s Subbulakshmi broke through in the West; she is credited with giving Carnatic music a wide exposure in Europe and the United States. She performed across the globe,singing for the United Nations General Assembly in 1966 and giving the inaugural concert at the India Festival in London in 1982.

Lalit Mohan Joshi

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