Thursday, January 28, 2021

The woman behind the voice

Reading Time: 3 minutes

A ‘talking dance’ tribute to music legend MS Subbulakshmi

Hers is the voice that wakes the gods. The suprabhatam voice. The voice of Meera, that calls out for giridhar nagar. The voice of peace and unity, in Maitreem Bhajata. The voice of renunciation, in Bhaja Govindam.

Priya Srinivasan.Indian Link
Priya Srinivasan

I am, of course, speaking of Bharat Ratna M.S. Subbulakshmi (1916-2004), a living goddess of music in her own time, and a legend in ours.
Subbulakshmi’s musical voice is known all over India and beyond: sublime, perfectly aligned to shruthi, and deeply devotional.
But what was her inner voice? What guided her as she grew up in a Devadasi family behind the Meenakshi Amman temple in Madhurai, ran away to Chennai at age 17, and married a Brahmin man 14 years her senior?
My father, a Brahmin, lived on the other side with his wife and children. You see, my mother was a single parent… She never married my father. She couldn’t.
As part of the MS Subbulakshmi birth centenary concert hosted by Sridhar Chari’s Laya Vidhya Centre on 18-19 June – which saw performances by both local and international artists, including OS Tyagarajan and OS Arun – dancer and academic Dr.Priya Srinivasan performed an innovative ‘talking dance’ piece that explored and reflected on Subbulakshmi’s life in the musician’s own ‘voice’.
“We don’t need to lose our culture in order to tell alternate stories,” Srinivasan tells me.
Dancing from the age of five, her family migrated to Australia from India when she was eight. She then trained with Dr Chandrabhanu and eventually performed with his trailblazing Bharatam Dance Company, before heading to the States to pursue a Masters in Dance Ethnography at University of California Los Angeles and then a PhD at Northwestern University. Her PhD dissertation became her first book, Sweating Saris: Indian Dance as Transnational Labour, which explores dancers as labourers and transnational workers who face challenges of gender, race and citizenship. After years of research and performance abroad, Srinivasan is keen to revitalise the Melbourne South Asian performing arts scene.
“I’m interested in what is possible as a pathway for the next generation of artists, and how we can be both classical and contemporary.”

Thus, in her performance, she wore a nine-yard sari and a circlet of flowers in her bun à la Subbulakshmi, but incorporated spoken word, abstract movements, and images into her performance to illuminate more contemporary ideas of the singer’s life.

- Advertisement -

You see, women were no longer permitted to sing on stages. My mother and her arts had been taken over by Brahmins, Brahmin men to be precise.
Srinivasan’s use of Subbulakshmi’s musical voice  – rich compositions such as ‘Srimannarayana’ and ‘Hari Tum Haro’ – was a graceful way to incorporate her imagined ‘real voice’, and speak frankly of realities that shaped the singer, as the daughter of a Devadasi in a time of damaging change for the community. Subbulakshmi’s mother, a veena player who was left to fend for herself, raised her family in poverty.
“Usually Devadasis and Brahmins worked together… they were often in intense relationships and supported one another,” Srinivasan says. With the decline in patronage and support of the Devadasi community however, came an appropriation of their art forms by, undeniably, Brahmin men.
In 1940, Subbulakshmi married the widowed Brahmin T.Sadasivam. It was a worthwhile partnership, Sadasivam was instrumental in the rise of the singer’s star.
I embraced the Brahminical way of life… he never asked me to cook or clean… He let me focus on sound. So I did.
Despite this compromise, however, the Devadasi’s daughter has the last laugh in Srinivasan’s interpretation: she was always known as MS Subbulakshmi, Madurai Shanmukhavadivu, her mother’s name.
Whenever any of you utter my name you will be uttering the name of a Devadasi… always she will continue.
Photo: Arun Munoz

- Advertisement -
Aparna Ananthuni
Aparna is an aspiring writer of historical fiction and fantasy for young adults and children. She also loves reading, drawing and Indian classical music, and often develops strange obsessions like typewriter-collecting.

Related Articles



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here


Ep8: Indian links in Indigenous Australian poet Ali Cobby Eckermann’s life

To celebrate NAIDOC week 2020 (between 8-15 November) I spoke to Yakunytjatjara poet Ali Cobby Eckermann about her time in India where she taught...

Ep 7: In the case of Sushant Singh Rajput

  The torrid and high-octane Sushant Singh Rajput case has been fodder for Indian people and press for the last few months. The actor’s tragic...

Ep 6: The Indian LGBTQ+ community in 2020

  It’s been two years since the world’s largest democracy repealed the draconian Section 377 which used to allow discrimination against homosexual people. Only this...

Latest News

wagah border ceremony

WATCH: Attari-Wagah Border Ceremony on India’s 72nd Republic Day

  It's always a sight to behold - watching the daily military practice between Indian and Pakistani forces at the Attari-Wagah border, made special on...
President Joe Biden

Huge relief for spouses of H1B workers in the US

  "Withdrawn". A single word on a thick bureaucratic file on the seventh day of the Biden administration delivered a huge win for spouses of...
kamala's way biography by dan moraine

Book Review: ‘Kamala’s Way’ by Dan Morain

  Just how did the daughter of two immigrants in segregated California became one of this countrys most effective power players? Through the human touch,...
farmers protest, delhi, red fort, flags

Farmers rage in Delhi on Republic Day

  On the morning of Republic Day, farmers were warmly welcomed in Delhi. As pictured below, tractors and cars carrying groups of protesters were showered...
Jeet Ki Zid movie poster

Review: Jeet Ki Zid (Zee5)

  It's easy to like Jeet Ki Zid. The show talks of patriotism and valour, it celebrates will power to triumph against all odds. Importantly,...