BANGALORE: Well over 90 years old, S Krishnamurthy, a noted musician and writer who spent a large part of his life working at AIR, has now launched Sunada Vinodini M S Subbulakshmi, a biography in Kannada on one of India's most noted and respected classical vocalists. As we sit across each other in his apartment to discuss his new book, Krishnamurthy smiles delicately at the memories that come rushing forth.
"My contact with Subbulakshmi and Kalki Sadasivam dates back to about 60 years. Two factors contribute towards this — one, my grandfather (the renowned musician, Mysore Vasudevacharya) and the other, my time spent working at AIR," begins Krishnamurthy.
M S Subbulakshmi, one of the most devoted students of music back then, would visit Mysore Vasudevacharya whenever she was visiting Mysore for a concert. "I remember stealthily watching their exchanges, as he taught her music or they sang together," he reminisces.
Around this time, Krishnamurthy remembers, BVK Sastry (a veteran music critic) brought Subbulakshmi to Vasudevacharya's home, so she may take his permission and blessings before she rendered his composition Brochevarevaru ra. When he heard her sing, he was taken aback. "I didn't know my compositions were so delightful," Krishnamurthy recalls his grandfather exclaiming.
BVK spoke at length about some of his other compositions and Subbulakshmi, who was itching for more, wanted to learn those as well, but she wasn't sure how to ask him. Vasudevacharya read her mind, however, and sang for her snatches of two other songs.
The following day, she had a concert at Mysore and that was the first time Krishnamurthy finally saw her on stage. "She was the picture of serenity and she sat like a marble statue at her concerts. On stage, no one could look more attractive than her. But the first thing you noticed about her always was the quality of her voice. She had perfect shruti awareness. She believed that music was an offering to God. I always thought she never sought to please her audience, but only God," explains Krishnamurthy.
He also comments on how she was always quite modest. "She was very simple and approachable as a person. It was actually her husband Sadasivam who drew boundaries for her. But the few of us who were part of the inner circle of the couple, we could interact with her quite intimately and we've had many lengthy conversations," he explains.
Krishnamurthy also remembers asking Subbulakshmi if it ever got suffocating to live within the confines of Sadasivam's rules for her, both on stage and off and she assured him that it was quite the opposite. She said, "Like the mother tiger who holds her cub by the neck with her teeth as she leaps and bounds over great terrains, without hurting the cub; similarly, Sadasivam guides my work and my life. Without his direction, I would be lost. My best interests lie in his hands." Krishnamurthy too acknowledges Sadasivam's hand in shaping Subbulakshmi's great career. "He wanted to make her the nightingale of the world and he succeeded. He was the architect behind her concerts — what songs were going to be performed, in what order, etc. He made sure that the concerts appealed to both connoisseurs and the lay-man, and there lay the genius of Sadasivam. The concerts were always so balanced," says Krishnamurthy.
His favourite memory of her however was this one time when she arrived at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, where he was conducting a workshop for a group of amateur musicians, and he requested her to address them. "She made the most beautiful speech and I'll never be able to forget it. She told the musicians how anyone who ever wants to learn music should learn the Veena first. She spoke about her childhood, her circumstances. She asked them to become conversant with the texts of the music they're learning because unless they learn the swara, they will not be able to achieve the right bhava. Otherwise, the song will sound like a skeleton without flesh. She also spoke of the decorum of the platform. The speech is the last chapter of the book and goes as an advice to all young musicians," he says.
Krishnamurthy explains that he doesn't go into Subbulakshmi's private life in the book. A musician himself, his interest lay solely in her music. "Although her life was as great as her music, I felt it was necessary to write a book that spoke about her work. She has given so many concerts all over the world for so many years and it needs to be immortalised," he says. "She reached the heights of her art only because of the purity of her heart. I've always believed that great works of art come from a place of purity, otherwise the art itself becomes spoilt," he concludes.