MS is pretty much a household name in India, especially in South India. If you are a Hindu and live with your parents chances are you wake up to the sound of her Suprabatham and have been your entire life. I definitely did and I am a huge admirer of this woman who came from humble beginnings and went on to be called Queen Of Music and receive a PadmaSree. (Didn’t hurt that my grandma looked like her and also loved singing the MS versions of everything, right from Vishnu Sahasranamam to Bhajans).
Naturally, the story I was told about MS was half baked at best making her appear as though Goddess Saraswathi herself had come down in the form of MS to make the masses fall in love with Carnatic music but this biography by T.J.S. George sheds a different light on her life, one that is complimentary but not all rainbows and sunshine.
At first I was terribly bored by the rambling on about Carnatic music. He goes on for about 50 pages about the origin and the politics of Carnatic music and how it came to take on the form it did; how it wasn’t pleasant sounding and too technical and how Ariyakudi saved it and brought it to the masses. While this was informative, he does delve into caste and gender politics a lot and for someone who has learned Carnatic, it wasn’t really useful information. I’d assume that someone who is choosing to read MS’ biography will have a working knowledge of Carnatic music or at the very least basic history and information. So this was maybe a bit unnecessary and could have been edited out? But this would be very interesting for those who have no clue about what Carnatic music is and want to learn about it for the first time.
But as you read on you discover that, unlike other biographies, he delves into the nitty gritty details that not many other people would have the inclination to do. While he does paint MS in a positive light he doesn’t shower her with blind adulations. He certainly doesn’t cover up the not so shiny parts of her life and if you can read between the lines, you can get a lot more than you bargained for.
The book is divided into sections (eg : marriage, film life, Kalki Gardens) and isn’t necessarily in the right order of events. He adds hints here and there of what is to come in the future and refers to the past while talking about the later parts of her life. He also doesn’t shy away from sharing the negative reviews he had all the while making sure he doesn’t share his own opinion of the same. Whether it be a bad review on her acting or rumours about her he always makes sure he mentions who said what so the book can’t necessarily be offensive to people who may have bought it because they love her.
One can certainly learn a lot about MS’ life from this. Be it her musical talents, her skills as a
step mother, how Sadasivam planned and plotted to make her successful or how everything just worked out at the right time to make her who she is. This is not to say she isn’t talented, I would be among the last people to say that considering my playlists are filled with her songs, but he clearly points out how she would have just been an ordinary female singer known only as the girl managed to break into the male dominated field of vocals if not for Sadasivam and how he would have just been an employee of a magazine if not for the money she earned to start Kalki.
I will say that this is written in a very impersonal way, so much so that it reads more like a historical examination of Carnatic music and life at the time with focus on MS rather than an MS biography. So if you want to feel close to MS and like you’ve been speaking to her, avoid this. If, on the other hand, you wish to know things that are painstakingly researchd without any favouritism blinding the author, read this immediately. Since I did want a bit of the former, I’m still on the hunt for a book that makes me feel like I knew her personally. Nevertheless I enjoyed this and it will occupy pride of place in my shelves.
Thank you to Aleph Books who very generously offered me a copy of the book for review. Opinions expressed are always honest.
M. S. Subbulakshmi (1916-2004), who was popularly known as MS, was one of India’s greatest classical musicians. Born into a humble devadasi home, her talent and dedication to her art made her one of India’s most critically acclaimed classical singers. She was the first Indian musician to receive the Bharat Ratna, the country’s highest civilian honour, in addition to numerous other awards. Jawaharlal Nehru called her ‘a Queen of Music’ and Sarojini Naidu dubbed her ‘the Nightingale of India’. Her fellow musicians were no less generous in their praise. Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan said she was Suswaralakshmi (the Goddess of the Perfect Note) while Kishori Amonkar said she was Aathuvansur or music’s ‘Eighth Note’ (there are only seven notes that are basic to all musical forms). MS’s genius had principally to do with her exquisite voice, her extraordinary range and her unequalled command of all the material she worked with, whether it was Carnatic music, Hindustani music or devotional music such as bhajans.