Subbulakshmi and contemporary feminism: Sunil Khilnani on BBC Radio 4 Incarnations: India in 50 Lives

M.S. Subbulakshmi
Born 16 September 1916. Died 11 December 2004

Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi (Tamil: மதுரை சண்முகவடிவு சுப்புலட்சுமி, Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi ? 16 September 1916 – 11 December 2004), also known as M.S., was a Carnatic vocalist. She was the first musician ever to be awarded the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honour. She is the first Indian musician to receive the Ramon Magsaysay award, often considered Asia’s Nobel Prize, in 1974 with the citation reading “Exacting purists acknowledge Srimati M. S. Subbulakshmi as the leading exponent of classical and semi-classical songs in the carnatic tradition of South India.”

Source: M.S. Subbulakshmi – New Songs, Playlists, Videos & Tours – BBC Music
Address: http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/613361fb-24bd-4bc9-ad63-85ac5bc79156
Date Visited: Mon Apr 11 2016 14:17:14 GMT+0200 (CEST)

Sunil Khilnani explores the life of south Indian singer MS Subbulakshmi

Subbulakshmi’s singing voice, striking from the start, would ultimately range three octaves. A perfectionist, she had the capacity to range across genres but narrowed over the years to what another connoisseur of her music has called a ‘provokingly small’ repertoire. In time, the ambitions of those who loved and profited from her combined with her gift to take her from the concert stage to film to the All-India Radio to near-official status as an icon of independent India.

But, as Professor Khilnani says, “what was required of Subbulakshmi, in moving from South Indian musical celebrity to national cultural symbol, is deeply uncomfortable when considered through the prism of contemporary feminism.”

Source: BBC Radio 4 – Incarnations: India in 50 Lives, Subbulakshmi: Opening Rosebuds
Address: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b073b5cb
Date Visited: Mon Apr 11 2016 14:12:31 GMT+0200 (CEST)

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The tambura’s role in perfect alignment to pitch: “The most beautiful way to discover music” – T.M. Krishna

More by and about T.M. Krishna >>

To sing just with the tanpura has been revealing: TM Krishna

M Suganth | Times of India | Nov 27, 2014 | To read the full article, click here >>

They had collaborated earlier for Margazhi Raagam, which was a first-of-its-kind Carnatic concert film and now, singer TM Krishna and filmmaker Jayendra have come together for One, a film that they say will be a peep into a musician going through the process of creativity. The two reveal how the project came to be, the challenges they faced and what it means to the viewer. […]

TM Krishna: To be able to sing just with the tanpura is the most revealing thing for me as a singer. It is the most beautiful way to discover music without becoming dependent on the pakkavadhyam or the mic. There is nothing to protect you. It was a very emotional and intimate experience for me. That depth of my experience is revealed in the film. […]

Source: To sing just with the tanpura has been revealing: TM Krishna – Times of India
Address: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/entertainment/tamil/music/To-sing-just-with-the-tanpura-has-been-revealing-TM-Krishna/articleshow/45284656.cms
Date Visited: 25 July 2021

“Tambura is my constant companion – a bridge to my past, keeping the memories of my childhood alive.” – Bombay Jayashri >>
Learn more about the tambura >>

Perfect alignment to pitch, intellectualism and bhava make for great music

Widely varying styles have an equal place under the Carnatic umbrella. Is it at all possible to define a single aesthetic for a genre that ranges from the thrilling and electrifying rhythms of a Trichy Sankaran accompanying the late Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer singing the Tyagaraja masterpiece Dinamanivamsha, to the subtle rendering of a padam by the late T. Brinda? Such contrasts, though they do exist in a genre like Hindustani music, are always less stark. […]

One common aspect of such artistes who were perceived as highly aesthetic in the earlier days of amplification is the scrupulous attention they paid to shruti shuddham or toaligning themselves perfectly to pitch. Arguably, such scrupulous attention to pitch alignmentmay well have had the effect of mitigating the jarring impact of imperfect amplification. Even where there’s a great struggle to maintain shruti shuddham, an exquisite secret leaps out of old recordings of ageing masters who had lost control of their voices. That secret is the pride of place they accorded the tambura and its overall audibility. The aesthetically pleasing aura created by a sonorous and meticulously tuned tambura has a way of gently embracing a singer’s shruti lapses and folding it into the overall sound. Unfortunately, the exact opposite is feared and hence a tendency to relegate the tambura, whether a real one or electronic, to de facto inaudibility for the audience. This only exacerbates the listener’s perception of a lack of shruti shuddham.

Art, as it is normally understood, is first and foremost sensual and emotional before anything else, but Carnatic music has always been seduced by the intellect, resulting in anything from a mild flirtation to a torrid affair. The intellectual, even in musical contexts, need not be disdained but it certainly challenges conventionally held notions of aesthetics. More importantly, such intellectual music may not suffer as much at the hands of bad audio as conventionally aesthetic music, and hence, could induce stagnation in the evolution of better sound. […]

The emotional in the art is what is referred to in the Carnatic world as bhava. Bhava comes from many aspects of Carnatic music but its most serious claimant is the repertoire itself. The bedrock of Carnatic music is its repertoire – the intensely bhava-laden compositions of great masters. The remarkable vibrancy and sustainability of Carnatic music compared to some other genres come from bhava which is certainly the crown jewel. In fact, it could be argued that this alone often compensates for the lack of other aesthetic dimensions in the overall experience. […]

Source: “Challenges of internal diversity in the Carnatic genre” by Uday Shankar, The Hindu, 17 December 2011
Address: https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/music/challenges-of-internal-diversity-in-the-carnatic-genre/article2721404.ece
Date Visited: 2 August 2021

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Video | Layavinyasam by T.R. Sundaresan and ensemble – Navarasa Navarthri

Doordarshan television 07/10/2019
T.R.Sundaresan Mridangam & Konnakkol, M.A.Sundareswaran Violin, Papanasam Sethuraman Kanjira, Trichy Murali Ghatam, A.S.Krishnan Morsing, Rama Sundareswaran Tampura. | More about T.R.Sundaresan >>

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Video | Interview with MD Ramanathan

Clip from interview with Dr. Amy Catlin and Dr. Frederick Liberman, Dec 1977 MDR talks about his background and he was initiated into Carnatic Music

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Raga Hamsadhvani in: “India’s classical music may be the best antidote to chauvinism” by Ramachandra Guha

To read the full article by the internationally acclaimed author of India After Gandhi, click here >>

After Partition, Bade Ghulam chose to move to Pakistan, but, finding the audience for classical music limited (in all senses of the word), wished to return to the Indian side of the border. In the 1950s, it was much easier to travel between these two countries than it is now. So Bade Ghulam made a trip to Mumbai, where someone brought his predicament to the attention of Morarji Desai, then the chief minister of the undivided Bombay State. Morarji bhai arranged for a government house for the maestro, while the Central government, headed at the time by Jawaharlal Nehru, smoothed the way for this Muslim from Pakistan to become a citizen of India.

Hamsadhvani is a lovely, melodious, raga in the Carnatic tradition, said to have been originally composed by Ramaswamy Dikshitar in the 18th century. There are many songs set in this raga, such as “Vatapi Ganapathim”, a hugely popular item in the repertoire of (among others) M.S. Subbulakshmi and M.L. Vasanthakumari. At some stage the raga was also adapted by Hindustani musicians for their own use. […]

Listen to the rendition of raga Hamsadhvani by Bade Ghulam Ali Khan (YouTube from 3:20), recorded at the Rama Navami 1956 festival in Bangalore’s Fort High School >>

The celebrated Kannada writer, Kota Shivarama Karanth, once remarked that it was impossible to “to talk of ‘Indian culture’ as if it is a monolithic object”. In Karanth’s opinion, “Indian culture today is so varied as to be called ‘cultures’. The roots of this culture go back to ancient times: and it has developed through contact with many races and peoples. Hence, among its many ingredients, it is impossible to say surely what is native and what is alien, what is borrowed out of love and what has been imposed by force. If we view Indian culture thus, we realise that there is no place for chauvinism.”

To this quote from Karanth let me append one by Rabindranath Tagore. Speaking of our inherited and shared diversity, Tagore once remarked: “No one knows at whose call so many streams of men flowed in restless tides from places unknown and were lost in one sea: here Aryan and non-Aryan, Dravidian, Chinese, the bands of Saka and the Hunas and Pathan and Mogul, have become combined in one body.”

The pluralism and cultural heterogeneity that Karanth and Tagore highlighted mark most spheres of Indian life. And perhaps (as they knew so well themselves) our classical music above all. Whether it be instrument or raga or genre or performer, we cannot say what is Hindu and what is Muslim, which part is native and which alien.  […]

For the act of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan singing Hamsadhvani at a Rama Navami concert in Bangalore’s Fort High School in 1956 brings and blends together many languages, religions, regions, political regimes, musical traditions, and architectural styles. It is a glorious tribute to the cultural diversity of our country and our civilization.

Source: The Telegraph (Calcutta)
URL: https://www.telegraphindia.com/opinion/indian-classical-music-may-be-the-best-antidote-to-chauvinism/cid/1778691
Date visited: 6 June 2020

Audio tip | JA Jayanth’s grandfather and guru TS Sankaran live at Kalakshetra >>

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Flute TS Sankaran – Kalakshetra 1988

  • 1. 0:0:00 kAmbhOdi aTa tALa varNam
  • 2. 0:11:11 gajAnanayutam – chkravAkam
  • 3. 0:20:16 sogasu jUDa – kannaDagowLam
  • 4. 0:26:50 nenaruncarA nApaini – simha vAhini
  • 5. 0:34:15 cinna nADE – kalAnidhi
  • 6. 0:45:35 rAgam + manasu swAdhInamaina – shankarAbharaNam
  • 7. 1:20:22 rAgam+ meevalla – kApi
  • 8. 1:35:38 rAgam + parama pAvana rAma – pUrvikalyANi + thani 9. 2:38:34 mariyAda telikanE – suraTi jAvaLi
  • 10. mangaLam

Vidwan TS Sankaran was Flute Mali’s favorite and most trusted disciple. Apart from imbibing many of his guru’s techniques, he has created several of his own. His music also sometimes reflects his passion for the other great genius piper of the 20th century, TN Rajaratnam Pillai, who hails from the same village as Shri Sankaran. His legacy, and that of his guru Mali, is fortunately being continued through his grandson, Flute Jayanth.

Live recording made on 31 December 1988 – shared by Ludwig Pesch under Creative Commons

TS Sankaran – biographical entry in Garland Vol. II by N. Rajagopalan
(Chennai 1992), p.264

Audio tip | JA Jayanth’s grandfather and guru TS Sankaran live at Kalakshetra >>

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“Drinking the ever tasteful essence of raaga, why don’t you rejoice, O mind!” – Tyagaraja’s Ragasudharasa rendered by Flute Jayanth

Yet another proof and a delightful one (if any were needed), that
“Music is the purest form of art, and therefore the most direct expression of beauty, with a form and spirit which is one, and simple, and least encumbered with anything extraneous. … No one of its notes is final, yet each reflects the infinite.” – Rabindranath Tagore (Sadhana, the Realisation of Life)

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Audio tip | JA Jayanth’s grandfather and guru TS Sankaran live at Kalakshetra >>

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Gudu Gudu for “Happy days ahead”: Carnatic music at its innovative best – KaraikudiVoyage

Gudu Gudu makes wonderful listening, time and again. A rendition by Sreevidhya Chandramouli along with her husband and son as part of their ongoing KaraikudiVoyage.

This song encapsulates the healing power of music waiting to be brought into practice on a more regular base for being rooted in tradition at its very best.

Translation on Archive.org

  1. NEW FORTUNE TELLER (PUDIYA KONANGI)*
    by Mahakavi Bharati

    Gudu gudu gudu gudu gudu gudu gudu gudu
    Happy days ahead for the people!
    Caste feelings are no more.
    No more are there any conflicts.
    Shakti ! Maha Kali! Speak up.
    Predict good times for the people of Vedapura !

    Poverty is gone.
    Prosperity is in.
    Knowledge is ushered in.
    Sins have vanished in the thin air.
    If the educated try to deceive
    the simple men, they will be ruined in no time.

    Commerce and industry are being learnt.
    Workers flourish.
    Shastras and skills are being learnt.
    Fear is gone. Justice prevails.
    The hour of awakening is come.
    The magic of incantations is working all around us.

Source: Full text of “Poems Subramania Bharati” (National Council of Educational Research and Training, 1982), pp. 147-151 in the text version provided by Archive.org; and from p. 160 in the embedded version displayed above.

* The fortune teller is traditionally depicted as shaking a small hourglass-shaped drum called kudukuduppai in Tamil, and as damaru across India. Two beads attached to it by strings produce the characteristic rattling “kudu kudu” sound evoked in this poem as harbinger of a bright future for all.

Carnatic Singer Manickam Yogeswaran
playing the kudukuduppai (damaru) during a family workshop
at Museum Rietberg (Zurich) in 2008

More about the poet Subramanya Bhaaratiyaar (1882-1921)

Bharati was determined to abolish the caste system in India. He selected an untouchable boy, to prove his principle of “equality” to the society.

Learn more from the Annotated Biography (with a National Historical Background) published by his granddaughter Dr. S. Vijaya Bharati >>

When Bharati’s vision as a poet went to work upon the sober knowledge of national and world affairs derived from his journalistic labors, the result was compelling political poetry of a kind that is rarely found in twentieth-century literature – with, fittingly enough, Russian literature being a notable exception.

Mira T. Sundara Rajan in “Subramania Bharati — The Eternal Revolutionary” (The Hindu, 12 September 2017)
https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/subramania-bharati-the-eternal-revolutionary/article19670435.ece
(The author is a great-granddaughter of Mahakavi Bharati. She holds a DPhil from Oxford University, where her research involved the study of Russian law and history. A wealth of information about the poet may be found on his granddaughter’s blog, https://subramaniabharati.com)

Subramanya Bharathiyar is a renowned poet from Southern India. … His poetry is known for its appeal to the liberty and strength of the people. … His national integration songs earned him the title “DEsiya Kavi” (National Poet). He composed Tamil keertanais on love, devotion, fearlessness, mysticism. | Learn more on karnatik.com >>

For background information on places like Karaikudi, Ettayapuram (the poet’s birthplace) and Chennai (where he died), explore the musical map created for this course. | Tips for using the interactive Carnaticstudent-map >>

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Video | Carnatic Wave: A journey into the Karaikudi tradition


Carnatic Wave is an aural journey into the Karaikudi Veena tradition, a centuries old practice of Southern Indian classical music being carried on by a group of musicians in Portland, Oregon. This short documentary offers a glimpse into their world of Carnatic music, highlighting the importance and challenge of teaching traditional art forms in our modern society. – Documentary maker David Van Auken

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