The United Nations is set to honour legendary Carnatic singer MS Subbulakshmi. The UN Postal Administration will issue a stamp to mark Subbulakshmi’s 100th birth anniversary. But this commemoration also falls on the 50th anniversary of her memorable performance at the General Assembly in October 1966.
By the mid-1960s MS Subbulakshmi was already an iconic Carnatic star. In 1962, Lord Harewood who was the director of the famous Edinburgh festival had heard MS singing on the All India Radio in Delhi. Taken by her voice he flew to Madras to experience a live concert. He invited MS the following year to perform at the Edinburgh festival. He also invited the legendary Bharatanatyam dancer Balasaraswati along with MS for the same festival. Both their concerts received rave reviews across the press in London in 1963.
U Thant, the then UN Secretary General and Chef De Cabinet CV Narasimhan invited MS to sing at the UN which was commemorating the International Co-operation year dedicated to Pt Jawaharlal Nehru in 1965. But that year the Indo-Pakistan war broke out and MS was unable to go. The following year U Thant sent an invite to the MS, this time requesting her to sing for the delegates at the General Assembly hall in New York on United Nations Day which falls on October 23. Subbulakshmi and her husband Sadasivam gladly accepted this invite.
MS Subbulakshmi at the UN General Assembly in 1966
Sadasivam was a master of ceremonies. He made sure everything went smoothly. In planning the entire concert, minute-by-minute, he made a selection of songs that balanced both the pure Carnatic numbers and lighter pieces like Bhajans and so forth. Meanwhile Muthu Chetty in Kanchipuram got special sarees woven for MS and her two daughters Radha and Vijaya. There were rehearsed photo sessions and much more.
The deeply religious Sadasivams never took any major decisions without consulting the two godmen they worshipped all their lives. One was the Kanchi Paramacharya Sri Chandrashekharendra Saraswati (1894-1994), the 68th Jagadguru of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham and the other was Satya Sai Baba (1926 -2011) of Puttaparthi in Andhra. They promptly made a trip to Kanchipuram to take his blessings. The Paramacharya, a great scholar in Sanskrit and a polyglot had a prayer which he referred to as an anthem for universal friendship. The prayer goes:
“Maithreem Bhajatha , Akhila Hrujjethreem,
Atmavadeva paraanapi pashyatha
Yuddham thyajatha , Spardhaam Tyajata , thyajatha Pareshu akramamaakramanam
Jananee Pruthivee Kaamadughaastey
JanakO Devah Sakala Dayaaluh
Daamyata Datta Dayadhvam Janathaah
Sreyo Bhooyaath Sakala Janaanaam”
Listen to Subbulakshmi perform it here:
The meaning of which is:
“Cultivate friendship to conquer all hearts
Look upon others as yourself
Renounce war, forswear competition
Give up wrongful aggression on others
Mother earth is ready to grant all our desires
The lord, our father, is merciful to all
People of the world! Be restrained, generous and compassionate,
May everyone be happy and prosperous!”
The words ‘Daamyata Datta Dayadhvam’ were taken from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.
Taking this blessing of a prayer the Sadasivams approached music director Vasant Desai (1912 -1975) to set it to tune in a medley of Ragas. He was paid a cheque of Rs 501 for this service. He was so moved by the whole experience that he didn’t cash the cheque. He framed it and preserved it for the rest of his life.
MS debuted this song in her concert at the UN on October 23, 1966. Not just that, she made it a regular feature in almost all her subsequent concerts for the rest of her life. You can watch her preforming the same for the Sai Baba of Puttaparthi in the famous ‘Spirit of Unity’ concert series.
This year commemorates three major dates. First is the birth centenary of MS Subbulakshmi herself. The second is the Golden Jubilee of her UN concert! It is also the 70th year of India’s independence! The United Nations is celebrating all these occasions. In connection with this the United Nations has invited several artistes from India to perform on India’s Independence Day. Music director A R Rahman is set to pay his tribute to MS. The other star debuting at this festival is India’s most popular speed-painter Vilas Nayak of Bengaluru. From former president Abdul Kalam to sportsmen like Sachin Tendulkar and football legend Pele to Bollywood superstars like Shah Rukh Khan, Vilas has captured everyone on his canvas in minutes! He quit a well-paying job in IBM to take to his passion for painting. He has traveled over two dozen countries and painted over five thousand portraits till date! This time around Vilas Nayak will create magic on his canvas to the music of MS at the United Nations.
Music lovers, art lovers and MS fans are looking forward to this grand spectacle. The United Nations celebrating a Carnatic superstar speaks volumes for what the legendary MS Subbulakshmi stood for! A true Bharat Ratna!
Images courtesy : Krishnamurthy, Ruchir Desai collection, Shravan
(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 email@example.com)