Jawahar Lal Nehru called her the Queen of Music, Sarojini Naidu called her the Nightingale of India, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan called her Suswaralakshmi, and Lata Mangeshkar called her Tapaswini. The legendary Carnatic singer, M S Subbulakshmi, was all this and more.
Born in Madurai on September 16, 1916, in a family of traditional performing artistes, M S Subbulakshmi grew up to become the face of Carnatic vocal music in the 20th century.
The first musician to be awarded India’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, Subbulakshmi was a cultural ambassador who took Carnatic music to the world.
Besides being a globally renowned vocalist, she acted in a few Tamil films and was a philanthropist too. In fact, the singer was the first Asian musician to receive the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay award for charity work – she would frequently donate a major chunk of her earnings from concerts and royalties on records.
Subbulakshmi’s was a life of many towering achievements and among them was her concert at the United Nations in New York, the first ever by an Indian. As her birth centenary is being celebrated today, there is no better way of remembering her than through her music – the historic song of peace and hope she sang at the 1966 UN General Assembly.
By the mid-1960s, MS Subbulakshmi had already become an iconic Carnatic star. Having heard Subbulakshmi sing on All India Radio and later, at a live concert in Madras, Lord Harewood (the director of the famous Edinburgh festival) invited her to perform at the 1963 Edinburgh festival. Her mellifluous music at the concert received rave reviews from the London press, contributing to her rising global popularity.
The next year, the singer was invited by the then UN Secretary General, U Thant, to perform at the General Assembly in New York on United Nations Day, which falls on October 23. Subbulakshmi and her husband, Kalki Sadasivam, gladly accepted this invite. They would be accompanied on the seven-week concert tour by her talented team of accompanists, comprising V.V. Subramaniam (violin), T.K. Murthy (mridangam), T.H. Vinayakaram (ghatam), and her daughters Radha Viswanathan (vocal) and Vijaya Rajendran (tanpura).
The high profile overseas tour and the media interest it generated were unparalleled. Every halt of Subbulakshmi”s concert tour was reported in detail. Reaching Europe on September 19, Subbulakshmi sang in Geneva, at the Redoute Villa in Bonn where Beethoven had once performed, and then in Paris at the Guimet Museum, before arriving in London on September 30. At the Gandhi Jayanti celebrations at India House on October 2, she sang bhajans in the presence of the Indian Ambassador. The next day, she left for New York to begin her US tour.
Subbulakshmi’s husband Sadasivam was the master of ceremonies at her concerts and he made sure everything went smoothly. On the afternoon of October 23, 1966, M S Subbulakshmi, wearing yet another unique silk sari from the looms of Kanchi Muthu Chettiar, dazzling diamonds and the usual circlet of jasmine and roses in her hair, mounted the stage to tumultuous applause.
The sight of the singer standing on stage and being cheered by the audience was captured on film and in photographs, and was a moment of pride for all Indians.
Introduced to the audience by C V Narasimhan (the then Under Secretary-General of UN) as the ‘First Lady of Carnatic Music’, Subbulakshmi began with a Sanskrit ‘Guru Vandana’ in praise of Dakshinamurthy (Lord Shiva as the supreme cosmic teacher). From thereon, she held her audience in thrall, taking it on a grand journey of various songs in every South Indian language.
Deeply religious, Subbulaksmi never left for any important concert without taking the blessings of her revered spiritual leader, Acharya Sri Chandrashekharendra Saraswati of Kanchipuram. It was the Acharya who composed the lyrics of the hymn ‘Maitreem Bhajata’, which Subbulakshmi sang at the conclusion of her UN concert, ending with the ringing words Srey o bhooyat sakala jananam (Let grace and happiness abound for all mankind).
An anthem for universal friendship and world peace, the singer made this song a regular feature in almost all her subsequent concerts for the rest of her life. This is how the beautiful song goes:
Maitreem 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
While translations do not do justice to the grandeur of the occasion, the greatness of the music, or the sublimity of the message, here is the meaning of this song:
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
Let grace and happiness abound for all mankind.
Here is M S Subbulakhsmi’s rendition of ‘Maitreem Bhajata’ at the UN General Assembly of 1966.
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This was the first time that any Indian classical musician was performing at the UN and, thanks to M S Subbulakshmi, the performance received stupendous reviews.
The Secretary General of United Nations, U Thant, described it as “extraordinarily good music,” while Harold Schornberg, the famed music critic of The New York Times, praised Subbulakshmi’s performance sky high and declared that “it would live in his memory forever”.
On December 4, Subbulakshmi returned to a warm welcome in Bombay, having halted in Rome on the way for a private audience with Pope Paul.
“I am glad you are back home. Tell MSS we are proud of her achievement,” said Dr S. Radhakrishnan, President of India, in a telegram to Sadasivam.
Her huge success at UN was a landmark event, an achievement that invokes awe even today, but Subbulakshmi remained untouched by all the fame. She knew only her music and perhaps this is what gave her art the pristine quality that made it immortal.
Other than it being Subbulakshmi’s birth centenary, the year 2016 also marks the 50th anniversary of her memorable performance at the UN General Assembly in October 1966. The United Nations Postal Administration is all set to issue a stamp to mark these memorable occasions and honour the legendary singer for her contribution to the world of music.