Gandhi’s Women Warriors: M.S. Subbalakshmi

‘Warrior’ is a word far from the image of M.S., the doyen of Carnatic music, and the personification of spirituality, goodness and gentleness to people across the country and the world. The one who voiced the message of world peace at the UN on the occasion of its 50th anniversary through Kanchi Shankaracharya Shri Chandrasekarendra Saraswathi’s composition, which starts with ‘Maithreem Bhajatha Akila Hrith Jeththreem’—meaning,Serve with Friendship and Humility which will conquer the Hearts of Everyone; and ends with ‘Shreyo Bhooyaath Sakala Janaanaam’—meaning,  May All People of this World be Happy and Prosperous.

But she was indeed a warrior active in the Freedom Movement.  Along with her husband Sadasivam who participated in the first Satyagraha launched by Gandhiji in 1920, she was passionately committed to India’s Independence. She attended several Congress Sessions in the thirties and forties and sang at many of them. Her husband Sadasivam also used to sing at the start of local political meetings–usually songs by the fiery Tamil poet Bharatiyar–to enthuse the crowds and fill them with patriotic fervour. But after he got married to MS, he never sang publically!

MS Amma and Sadasivam were close to Gandhiji, Rajagopalachari, and many other freedom fighters, and were iconic in the South as symbols of the freedom movement.

Gandhiji recognized her ability to raise money for the freedom struggle through her music. She gave several concerts to do this. In 1944, she gave a series of five concerts to raise resources for the Kasturba Memorial Fund. Gandhiji wrote her a letter to thank her for this, signing it in Tamil.

Gandhi MS.Subbalakshmi
Gandhiji’s Letter to MS Subbalakshmi. Google Arts and Culture

In 1947, a few months prior to Independence, M.S Amma received a message from Gandhiji to record one of his favourite bhajans ‘Hari tum haro..’ and send it to him. In keeping with her characteristic humility, Amma did not feel she could do justice to the bhajan as she was unfamiliar with it, and suggested to Gandhiji that someone else should sing it. Gandhiji replied that he would rather have her recite it, than have anyone else sing it! So she did the recording and sent it on immediately. Not long afterwards, Gandhiji passed away. After the announcement of this news on All India Radio, they played her rendition of the bhajan. It is said that M.S. fainted at this point.

She was the first musician to be awarded the Bharat Ratna, and was the first Indian musician to get the Ramon Magsaysay award.

Her generosity and charity saw her support to many other causes through her lifetime.  The Tamil Isai movement—the movement to promote Tamil songs in Carnatic music–was one she was passionate about, and raised a lot of money for.  Her manifold awards included huge cash prizes, most of which she donated. She is said to have given over 200 concerts for charity, and raised over a crore of rupees  (in the sixties and seventies!). The royalties from her recording of Venkatesa Subrabhatam, which rings out every morning in every South India town and village, were written over to the Veda Patasala of the Tirupati Temple. Royalties from many other recordings were given to several other charities. In fact, so deep was her charitable instinct that it depleted her personal wealth considerably, necessitating considerable modification of her lifestyle.

But in the spirit of any of Gandhiji’s warriors, it was others before self for M.S. Amma!

–Meena

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