A renowned singer in South India's Carnatic music style, M.S., as she came to be called, was blessed with a voice that was tonally pure yet nimble enough to perform the operatic gyrations that are part of a Carnatic singer's repertoire. Yet what set M.S. apart from many of the talented singers of her day, and even today, was not her technical virtuosity, clear diction, or the astounding range of her voice. It was her ability to create spiritual transcendence through her music. Her voice could transport the listener to another plane and experience, if for a moment, a measure of bliss. The Sanskrit word for this is "bhava," which means emotion.
M.S.' voice was very evocative. It was said that when she sang "Rama O Rama," it was as if Lord Rama himself had come to sit in the first row of the concert hall. When she sang hymns to the Goddess Lakshmi, listeners could feel the presence of not only Lakshmi, but every other female goddess in the Hindu pantheon. Before his death, Mahatma Gandhi asked M.S. to sing his favorite bhajan (devotional song), "Hari Tuma Haro," whose haunting lyrics translate to "Oh Lord, take the pain away from mankind." M.S. demurred, saying that she didn't know the Hindi language and suggesting another singer. Gandhiji replied, "I would rather hear M.S. speak the words than have another singer sing them."
Being from South India, M.S. didn't speak Hindi. Yet, she still recorded the hymn, albeit many months later. When Gandhiji was assassinated years later, it was M.S.'s haunting voice singing "Hari tuma haro" that the nation heard again and again on national radio.
Carnatic music connoisseurs frequently call her voice "divine" and still recall--with goose pimples, they say--a favorite moment in a concert. After her performance in Carnegie Hall in 1977, then-New York Times music critic John Rockwell hailed her as "India's best woman singer." Few Indians, if any, would dispute that claim, and some may even remove the female moniker. Rockwell himself said later in his review "It would be interesting to hear any male singer who is better."
Born in 1916 in Madurai, a small but culturally rich town in South India, M.S. grew up surrounded by music. Her mother was a veena player (similar to a sitar), and her brother played the mridangam (Indian drum). M.S. herself would sit for hours strumming the tambura, which provides the tonal background for all Carnatic music, and practice matching her voice with the purity of the sound.
Beautiful and talented, M.S. had many suitors. But when her mother tried to arrange a marriage for her, M.S. rejected the match and left her home for Madras city. She arrived in the middle of the night in a horse-drawn carriage at the home of Thiagarajan Sadasivam, a maverick publisher and Congress party member. Recently separated from his wife and the father of two children, Sadasivam scandalized Madras society by taking M.S. into his house and later marrying her in 1940. They would remain married and intensely devoted to each other all their lives. M.S. sought direction and Sadasivam gave it. She desired nothing more than to sing, and he happily took on the role of managing her career.
The film established M.S. as a "religious star" throughout India. Every sari she wore was copied and her puffed sleeves were imitated by housewives of the day. The electric blue color she favored was called "M.S. Blue," and the diamond earrings, coiled bun, and jasmine flowers in her hair all added to the persona. A legend was born.
It was during this time--the 1960s--that M.S. began touring the world. She performed at the Edinburgh Festival, in London, at the United Nations, and gave a 22-city coast-to-coast concert tour in the U.S. She later returned to perform in Carnegie Hall to magnificent effect, and her "M.S. at Carnegie Hall" CD is one that thousands of her fans including me hoard and replay time and time again.
M.S. was a recipient of numerous awards and honorary doctorates, including the Magsaysay Award and the Bharat Ratna, India's highest honor. She also embarked on many philanthropic activities, collecting and donating, by some estimates, $3.5 million to various Hindu charities--a staggering amount when adjusted for inflation and the Indian currency. She was a lifelong follower of the Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi Shankaracharya, whom she called "divinity in flesh and blood," and ended her concerts with a song that he composed.
During her later years, M.S. led a simple, quiet life in Madras, giving the occasional charity concert, receiving visitors with her famous ginger-coffee, fanning her thick long, curly hair with fragrant incense, and leading a fastidious Brahman lifestyle. She epitomized the virtues of a good Hindu woman. Upon waking, she would draw kolam designs in the courtyard of her home with rice flour, following the Hindu dictum of feeding even the smallest ant and insect. She wore the jewelry considered auspicious for Hindu women: nose-ring, earrings, rings and bangles, toe-rings and anklets, which press acupressure points and release beneficial hormones. She wore a large red bindi on her forehead with a smear of sacred ash above it, something that most young women in India have abandoned.
M.S. was always courteous and respectful to her husband, and he, in turn, couldn't do enough for her. Their relationship baffled Indian feminists. How could she be so seemingly obsequious and still get her way? M.S. was above all, humble, the most prized Hindu virtue. When asked what her best quality was, she didn't mention her music or her divine voice. Instead, she made light of her talents. "Everyone is given a gift and how they use it is up to them," she said. "I guess what I am most proud of is the fact that I have never thought ill of any person."
Most Indians adore M.S.; a few even view her as a saint. Her Sanskrit chants welcome devotees in most Hindu temples. Her bhajans are taught to young brides who have to please their in-laws. Like legions of fans, I am deeply saddened by M.S.'s death. It is not her music that I will miss, for I have them preserved in tapes and CDs. It is not her person or concert persona that I will miss, having never met her. What I will miss is the knowledge that somewhere in this world, there exists a woman who epitomizes the unwavering grace and tradition of a Hindu woman.
Losing M.S. is more than losing a person, a singer. It is the end of a certain lifestyle and milieu that she embodied; the end of the attitudes and values that are part of a certain time and place. She was a person that generations of Indian women aspired to become. In that sense, she defined an era.