MS Subbulakshmi, the soundtrack to Tamil homes every morning

In a Tamil household, mornings aren’t complete without the holy trinity of filter coffee, The Hindu, and MS Subbulakshmi’s “Suprabhatam”.

I am very particular about my coffee: It has to be filter coffee, strong and sugarless. I am also particular about the newspaper I read in the mornings: I grew up with The Hindu and even though it has changed form numerous times to stay relevant, it’s remained an integral part of our lives. But this is about another constant in my life, one I lost and found again after many years — the mellifluous voice of Bharat Ratna MS Subbulakshmi.  

While there is a lot of emphasis on the first words that a child speaks, not much thought is given to what the child first listens to. I have no doubt that MS Subbulakshmi’s voice was the first music I ever heard and am sure the same holds true for countless others.

In a sense, MS Subbulakshmi is a stereotype, indicating a proper upper-caste, upper-class Tamil Brahmin upbringing. And we dismiss stereotypes with a vengeance, because we believe that in some way, they limit us.

MS was the part of my #TamBrahm heritage that I wanted to dismiss and disengage from.

Growing up, my mornings began before the crack of dawn with the sound of the bell invoking countless Gods and MS Subbulakshmi singing:

Kowsalya supraja Rama poorva sandhya pravarthathe
Uthishta narasardoola karthavyam daiva mahnikam

(O Rama, son of Kausalya, the sun is about to rise in the eastern skies; please arise to offer the early morning oblations.)

It was my default alarm clock, one that I avoided every day by covering my ears with a pillow, the last remnants of sleep completely erased by her voice that reached all corners of the house. Every day, unfailingly, her voice would start playing from a cassette tape on a tape recorder and go on for an hour at a volume that always seemed too loud.

Classical music and dance are always associated with some vague notion of godliness and purity. And it is for this very reason that most of us didn’t escape our childhoods without being forced to learn some form of classical dance or music.

“Sri Venkateshwara Suprabhatam” was replaced by Limp Bizkit. “Kurai Ondrum Illai” was replaced by Korn. “Bhaja Govindam” was replaced by Eminem.

Peep into the dust-laden lofts of many homes and you will find violins and mridangams sitting there, long forgotten by their owners, remnants of our parents’ unfulfilled dreams for their children.

In a bid to defy the stereotypes that bind us, we do things our future selves won’t be too proud of. We experiment with vices, dress weirdly, cut class, all in a bid to fit in. We begin to hate mornings and look forward to the promise of long nights. It was during my angry teenage phase that I decided that I had enough of MS Subbulakshmi. I wrestled a stereo from my hapless sister, installed it in my room and proceeded to lambast the choicest selections of loony tunes from it.

“Sri Venkateshwara Suprabhatam” was replaced by Limp Bizkit. “Kurai Ondrum Illai” was replaced by Korn. “Bhaja Govindam” was replaced by Eminem.

In the ensuing years, MS Subbulakshmi became a distant voice. In my rare visits to places of worship, I would hear her voice. While going for a walk, I would hear her voice emanating from people’s phones. She was mostly out of earshot, but never out of mind.

The years went by. Time played its hand. I got married. I took to running and yoga to instill some sort of a discipline into my wayward life. I began to prefer the stillness of the mornings to the fatigue of late nights. The shift was slow, but certain.

It was one such morning when I woke up at the crack of dawn. After many hits and misses at waking up at an ungodly hour, something I abhorred, I found that it gave me a sense of calm. At the same time, the unmoving silence of the morning was unnerving. I didn’t want to lose it but yet I needed something to anchor me. In a bid to punctuate the eerie calm – and in a craving for the familiar – I time-travelled to my childhood. I opened YouTube and typed “MS Subbulakshmi Suprabhatam.” The tape recorder of my childhood, which always seemed too loud, was history and her voice was chromecast onto the television.

I don’t know whether it was her voice, rushed memories of my childhood, or the cracked silence of the morning, or a combination of all three, but I swear I got goosebumps. For a few seconds, I was lost in MS’s voice. This time, I wasn’t hiding my ears under the pillow.

From that day onward, my mornings duly returned to her renditions. After all those lost years, I had found my way back to her voice again.

A cursory glance at MS Subbulakshmi’s life on the internet tells us how Mahatma Gandhi was entranced by her rendition of the Meera Bhajan. A YouTube video shows us her historic performance at the UN General Assembly in 1966. Glowing articles speak of how her career was controlled with an iron fist by her husband Sadasivam. And how with MS Blue, she made a sari colour her own.

But to many of us, she is a lot more.

There are some things that are a part of the fabric of our lives. They are omnipresent and we take them for granted. Home, comfort food, parents. If you’re a TamBrahm, you can add MS Subbulakshmi to that list. Whatever hand life deals you, you know that you can find succour in them.  

MS has been gone for 14 years now. But one thing is for sure – aeons from now, her voice will still reverberate, setting the tone for all our days. She isn’t just the soundtrack to all our mornings. She is the soundtrack to our lives. 

Listen to her here

About the writer

Pawan has lived in Bangalore all his life and gets withdrawal symptoms if he misses South Indian food for more than two meals in a row. He can be found and

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