Why M.S.Subbulakshmi was the most Iconic Carnatic Singer ever?

Year 2016, will be the centenary year of this Music Legend, a time to look back and see what made M.S, the Iconic Legend that she is.

Nehru on M.S Subbulakshmi
Nehru on M.S Subbulakshmi

In South, it is very uncommon to have any pictures in the wall, even of the families themselves. No wedding pics, no pictures of children. The only pictures that ever adorned the walls were that of Gods, Dead Great Grandparents and that of M.S.Subbulakshmi fondly called as M.S. I remember going to a friend’s place where every wall had a picture of M.S, every album ever released of M.S.Subulakshmi was in their music collection in every conceivable form of audio recording that had existed till then from Gramaphone records, audio Cassettes, Compact Discs and Mp3.

Hari (My husband) had to often field questions on ‘If the pictures in the Hall (M.S.Subbulakshmi) were that of his grandmother?’. They were unable to explain why anybody would hang the picture of an unrelated singer in their home. As for me, the name starts off in my head a set of melodious music, most of which I do not even understand the lyrics of.

I am not a music expert or critic or even a singer outside of my bathroom. I do not understand the many nuances of the music and like most young people, Carnatic is not even my favorite genre of music. While I certainly lack the talent or the ear to appreciate good talent, my incompetence had never stood in the way of enjoying the music of M.S. Infact, it is my very incompetence that makes me competent to analyze and take lessons from the life of this iconic singer.

Let’s listen to an amazing rendition of ‘Kurai Ondrum Illai’ by M.S before we analyze the genius behind it.

Blend of Karma Yoga and Bhakti Yoga:

Karma Yoga, is the path of action to the attainment of God. It is by doing one’s duty with utmost sincerity that one can lose the sense of self, focus only on what needs to be done and do it, not for the accolades it will bring, not for the monetary benefits, but simply because the doer believes it was an action for which they were chosen to do.

Bhakti Yoga, is the path of Surrender to the ultimate, to God through love and blind devotion.

M.S Subbulakshmi was an embodiment of both. M.S.Subbulakshmi started singing as she had the gift of music and in her dedication to the art, she herself became the gift. You and I may not have the gift of music, but we definitely have the opportunity to pursue our work with utmost dedication and sincerity, as it is our offering to God/World/Future. We all have the opportunity to pursue Karma Yoga even if we are devoid of faith in God. We can all choose to be Karma Yogis.

Born to Sing: Work is a Reward:

Most iconic players like Sachin Tendulkar, Pele played their respective games for the love of it. These are the players, who showed up for practice on time every time, played a practice shot as they would play in the tournament.

When M.S.Subbulakshmi sang, she sang for the joy of singing. Be it in her Pooja room, practice session or a packed auditorium of United Nations, or to the Prime Minister of the country, in her mind she only sang for one person, the divine within herself. There was no pressure to prove her greatness or give a special performance for the special guests. She sang for she found joy in it and did not let any external pressure get to her.

M.S renendering of ‘Kurai Ondrum Illai’ has rendered her and her audience in tears every time, be it the great music critic , music lover or an absolute novice like me.

Practice makes perfect: Effort behind the Effortlessness

When M.S Subbulakshmi sang, she ceased to exist, there was only the song. There was no worries about getting the high pitch without losing tonality, no concerns on the right gap to inhale/exhale, getting the words right and a million other things that go with the music. The audience ceased to exist too. They became one with her song.

But to deliver that one magical song that flowed so effortlessly through her vocal cords, she practiced every single day without fail whether it was between her house hold chores or dedicated practice every afternoon with the tampura. The “Venkateswara Suprabatham” and the “Vishnu Sahasranamam” were practiced for six months in front of Vedic scholars including Agnihotram Thathachariar and Swami Ranganathananda of Sri Ramakrishna Mutt to ensure she got every diction right. M.S insisted on practicing with the same team she will be doing the concerts with to ensure the team is completely in sync.

Even when M.S was identified as a child prodigy and a person with unique gift, she left nothing to chance. She dedicated her time and efforts in constantly improving her skills.

Nurture: Mentors and Supportive Spouse

M.S lived in the days where it was rare for women to attend concerts, and even when they did, did so under a veil. Such privilege was available only to women of upper echelons of the society accompanied by their husbands. Women were married prior to puberty and the class divide was unmissable. M.S came from a devdasi family in Madurai, which while gave her early exposure to arts, there were too much odds stacked against her that would let her talent be showcased to the world.

In the Initial years, M.S.Subbulakshmi’s mother not only ensured M.S was educated in Music, but was successful in getting her daughter good opportunity to showcase talent both in her concerts as well as through the influential patrons. They even moved from Madurai to Madras to help in her career. M.S even acted and sang in movies which was not looked upon during those days.

M.S married Kalki Sadasivam in 1940. Women pursuing any career in any form especially performing on stage was unheard of. But Sadasivam, was completely committed to M.S’s Career and served as her manager, subservient of his own career. M.S was equally supportive in playing mother to Sadasivam’s children after his first wife passed away or financially where much of her earnings went into funding of the Kalki Magazine which Sadasivam co-founded with Kalki Krishnamurthy.

Every talent requires the right environment to be nurtured and encouraged. Strong level-headed women like M.S, Sarojini Naidu, Dr. Muthulakshmi had fought tremendous odds to break the barriers and stand up and were well supported by a family who believed in them. But thousands of equally talented people may not have been as lucky as they were, and this sadly continues to be the story of a nation where equal opportunities continues to be a privilege of the chosen few.

Humility and Love:

Talent attracts praise and fan following. But when does fame become legendary?According to me, it is the extreme humility in success. The same humility that has made Rajini Kanth an icon beyond geographical and language boundaries made M.S a legend that she became in Music.

Once after a concert, an old couple came to her and said “We walked 30 miles to hear you today but arrived only at the very end. We waited in the hope of offering our respects to you before returning to our village.” 70- year old M.S was drained after the 2.5 hour concert and the adulation of her followers that kept her there past midnight. Nevertheless, M.S did not want to send them empty handed and persuaded her accompanist to sing along and sang with same dedication and involvement that she had sung earlier in the day on the stage.

Is it any surprise that her fans worshiped her !!

Giving Back: Charity

M.S felt that they should not monetize the God given gift bestowed upon her.

M.S was grateful for the opportunities that she was bestowed with and was keen on giving back to the society. Royalties from her numerous performances and music sales were given to various charities. She conducted more than 200 shows for charity and have collected several lakhs for various good causes.


100 years on, her divine voice is still a part of every day routine for many of us and will probably continue to be for atleast another 100 years.

M.S was an embodiment of many things – dedication to music, devotion to God, humility, grace. She was truly lived up to the image of a Bharat Ratna. But more than that, to our generation she was a grandmother who we all had and her life is a lesson that we hope to emulate.

Published by

Priya Krishnamoorthy

Exploring the Journey of life everyday with a new outlook

29 thoughts on “Why M.S.Subbulakshmi was the most Iconic Carnatic Singer ever?”

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  2. She made singing so flawless & made it seem effortless. There was nothing her audience could do, but listen in awe. This post is an excellent ode to M.S. and her magical voice.

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