Last week, I did a three-day heritage tour of Madurai. It was the first of what I hope will become a regular feature and so I had to do a considerable amount of reading, research and reconnoitring to figure out what to include and what not to. However, when I began planning I was certain that M.S. Subbulakshmi’s ancestral home on West Hanumantharayar Koil Street had to be a part of the itinerary.
Standing at the doorway last week with the group, I could not help reflecting on how beholden we all ought to be to the place. This was where the great lady had her first lessons in music. It was probably from the two arched windows that she listened to the gramophone being played in the neighbouring house and then faithfully sang all the songs she heard — a talent that made her mother realise that the child was gifted.
It was from this doorway that young Kunjamma must have been taken to the Sethupathi High School for her maiden performance, which was followed by her first gramophone recording, at the age of nine. In between would have been the other outing — to sing the prayer song at the inauguration of a cycle spares shop begun by TV Sundaram Iyengar.
It was also from this doorway that as a young woman of 21 that Subbulakshmi stole out one night, realising that the future she envisaged for herself was not what her mother had in mind. The subsequent night journey by train to Madras, the placing of herself under the custody of T. Sadasivam and star that he made out of her are the stuff of legends. Standing at that doorway I thought of the other scenario — what if she had not chosen to leave home?
Can we imagine life without the songs from films such as Meera or her immaculate renditions of the kritis of various composers? How would countless households or for that matter Lord Venkateswara wake up each morning without her suprabhatam? What of the numerous charities that benefited from her munificence? Would we have had such an edifice as the Music Academy auditorium had she not sung numerous concerts to raise funds for its construction? Would upapakkavadyams be performing at the Academy had she not stoutly refused to sing there if they were barred from its platform? Who would have taken our music to a larger world?
Perhaps all this would still have come to pass with someone or the other espousing each of them. But it is difficult to imagine one individual making that much of a difference without calling any attention to what she was doing. Therein lies the greatness of M.S. Subbulakshmi.
Perhaps that explains why no visible marker other than a stucco veena proclaims to the world that this was the house where she was born. She was a Carnatic musician all right, but she went far beyond the art of which she was an exponent.
Keywords: M.S. Subbulakshmi