This week commences the birth centenary celebrations of Carnatic music’s most popular and iconic super diva, the late Bharat Ratna M S Subbulakshmi. Born on 16th September 1916 in Madurai, no other classical vocalist from south India captured the imagination of popular consensus in the 20th century like MSS did. Almost everything about her life and music has consistently made headlines in the Indian and international press. One needn’t go over her biographical details again. She has also been the only classical musician with the most number of biographies to her credit. Here is a look at the top five books about her.
The first is an exhaustive biography by TJS George. Titled ‘MS – A Life In Music’, this was published almost a decade ago. George, a renowned editor, columnist and print media veteran by then, had already written two excellent biographies, one of the political genius V K Krishna Menon and the other of editor Pothen Joseph. George’s life and upbringing was not directly connected to Carnatic music. He was not a trained musician or an organizer of cultural events. In that sense he did not ‘belong’ to the music scene. But that is probably what gave him a strong sense of objectivity in his writing about the iconic MSS. He looks at her as a public person with a life that was equally highlighted time and again in the public domain. George looks into her personal life and frankly writes how MSS, a girl from Devadasi background grew to immense fame and was embraced by the powerful Brahmin elite that rules the Carnatic world. He looks at how she successfully broke through the ‘all-male’ sphere with her music. Her involvement with early Tamil cinema in the 1930’s and 40’s, her love for her fellow actor and singer G N Balasubramaniam, her foray into the nationalist struggle and later life in music are well documented in George’s book.
Bharatanatyam dancer Lakshmi Vishwanathan wrote the first coffee table book on the life of MSS. With over a hundred wonderful images that document her life, the title ‘Kunjamma – Ode To A Nightingale’ makes for an excellent gift. The title takes its inspiration from what the politician-poet Sarojini Naidu called MSS “Nightingale of India”. Lakshmi, a dancer trained in the Thanjavur tradition of Bharatanatyam, looks into the life of MSS with the eyes and perception of an artiste. The journey MSS took from being a dancer to a record-celebrity and singing-actress on screen and finally a Carnatic diva is captured well in this book.
The third book is an extremely personal narrative. ‘MS and Radha – A Saga Of Steadfast Devotion’ by journalist and playwright Gowri Ramnarayan makes for a fascinating read. Gowri is a member of MSS’s family and has grown up seeing her at close quarters. Gowri also accompanied MSS on every other concert and gave her vocal support for several decades. The MSS Gowri knew is very different from the MSS the world in general knew. In her book, Gowri documents the life of a mother-daughter relationship against the backdrop of the history of Carnatic music in the 20th century. This sensitively crafted biography is a personal account of both their lives. Gowri, a trained musician and dancer, also gives an excellent lecture demonstration on the life and music of MSS.
Chennai based author Lakshmi Devnath wrote another book titled ‘M S Subbulakshmi – The Queen Of Song’. The famous Amar Chitra Kathak series brought out a title ‘M S Subbulakshmi – Queen of Carnatic Music’. Both these graphic biographies make excellent and easy reading for children. In addition to these five titles, MSS has been written about in over a dozen Indian and foreign language collections. One must not forget the superb coffee table book on Indian classical musicians compiled by the ace photographer Raghu Rai. The chapter on MSS has some of the finest images ever taken of her.
All these books are easily available in the market and can be ordered online. If you are a bibliophile or a music lover, these books must find their way to your shelves to know most, if not all, about the life of Carnatic’s most famous singing star.
(Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and a culture critic. He writes extensively on Indian performing arts, cultural history, food and philosophy. He lives in New Delhi and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Images: Subhash Kumar