HONORING A KARMA YOGI – BHARATA RATNA M. S. SUBBULAKSHMI
Speech By Dr. Ram Sriram at the Chinmaya Mission, Atlanta
Recently, two reputed Atlanta organizations – the Chinmaya Mission Atlanta and the Sankara Nethralaya-OM Trust (USA) celebrated the birth centenary of the renowned musician, Bharat Ratna Smt. M. S. Subbalakshmi. The two events, however, differed in their focus.
The Chinmaya Mission Atlanta event was held to honor, together, the memory of three great individuals, born in the year 1916, and who have contributed immensely to Indian culture, heritage, and philosophy: Swami Chinmayananda, founder of the Chinmaya Mission, Swami Chidananda Saraswati, head of the Divine Life Society, Rishikesh, and Smt. M. S. Subbalakshmi, musician and philanthropist. While Swami Chinmayananda and Swami Chidananda were known for their contribution to Hindu philosophy and values, Smt. M. S. Subbalakshmi was known for her accomplishments in Indian classical music. Regardless, the three individuals, in their own ways, lived as Karma Yogis – refraining from the fruits of their actions and detached from fame, riches, and glory.
Smt. M. S. Subbalakshmi was born in the year 1916 as Madurai Shanmugavadivu Subbalakshmi in a middle class family of musicians: her mother was a ‘Veena player and her grandmother, a violinist. Smt. M. S. Subbalakshmi, growing in the midst such musical talent, became proficient in both vocal music and performing on the Veena even at a young age. She gave her first vocal music concert at the age of 11, Trichy accompanied by two musical stalwarts, Mysore Chowdiah on the violin and Pudukottai Dakshinamurthi Pillay on the Mridangam. At the age of 13, she was invited to perform at the prestigious Music Academy, Chennai. After relocating to Madras, she continued her musical learning from two stalwart musicians: Sangeetha Kalanidhi Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and Pandit Naryanrao Vyas.
Within a few years of launching her career as a musician, Smt. M. S. Subbalakshmi, became the most admired and popular Carnatic musician. The awards and recognition she received from all over the world is a testimony to her musical caliber and, consequently, her popularity. She performed in the most prestigious venues, not only in India but also abroad. On the U. N. Day, she was invited to the perform to its audience of dignitaries. Over the years, she performed in esteemed venues such as the Carnegie Hall, New York, Royal Albert Hall, London, and Festival of India, Moscow. In recognition of her contribution to peace and bringing together cultures and people, she was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay award, often call the Asian Nobel Prize. At the age of 42, as one of the youngest musicians, she was awarded the Sangeetha Kalanidhi (the Treasure of Music) by the Music Academy. She later received the Indira Gandhi award for national integration – an award presented to individuals who have contributed to fellowship among religious groups, communities, and cultures. In the year 1998, the President of India bestowed her with the highest civilian award, the Bharata Ratna (the Crown Jewel of India).
The life of M. S. Subbalakshmi is more than her music, awards and recognitions. Her life showed that regardless of one’s origins – she was born in lower middle class family – one can rise to be the best, if one is sincere and devoted. In this regard, Mrs. Gowri Ramanathan, her grand-daughter, shared two anecdotes about Smt. M. S. Subbalakshmi. When she was asked to record the Venkatesa Suprabhatham slokas for the Thirupathi Devasthanam, Mrs. Subbalakshmi requested a year’s time to do so. She, then, approached a Sanskrit scholar to guide her and correct her pronunciation of each sloka until she was confident that it was perfect. Similarly, when she learnt a new composition, Mrs. Subbalakshmi would practice it innumerable times, sing the composition a few times in informal settings before she would venture to sing the composition in a public concert. These anecdotes illustrate, nor just her approach to musical learning but of her personal discipline, perseverance, and sincerity – qualities that eventually made her the prima donna of Carnatic music.
While rising to the pinnacle of musical achievements, Mrs. Subbalakshmi did not let her reputation, glory, or wealth affect her. She remained simple and modest. She believed that musical scholarship is not just a personal achievement but a gift from God that, as Saint-Composer Thyagaraja Swami expressed, must be practiced with humility. For example, during events honoring her, she would always remain at backstage until she was called to appear on stage. To her, rendering the music with devotion is more important than the limelight or recognition. Similarly, she believed that the money she earned from her music should be shared with those who are in need. She donated most of her earnings to charitable causes. Citing another anecdote from Mrs. Gowri Ramanathan, after out-station concerts and when driving back home, she would stop in small villages and hand over all the fruits and flowers to women and children living in those villages, without even retaining a few for her consumption. To her, the smiling faces of the women and children was more important than her personal needs. A true karma yogi, indeed.
(Dr. Ram Sriram retired as Distinguished Professor and is currently Professor Emeritus at the College of Business, Georgia State University, Atlanta. He is the founder and President of the Carnatic Music Association of Georgia (CAMAGA). He is the recipient of the Kala Seva Mani award from the Cleveland Aradhana committee for his life time service to promoting Carnatic music and the arts. He is also a well-known Mridangist, who routinely accompanies senior Carnatic musicians visiting the US during their concerts.)
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