Suma Subramaniam’s, She Sang for India. How M.S. Subbulakshmi Used Her Voice for Change is a tribute to the legendary Indian classical singer, M.S. Subbulakshmi, and the impact of how she used her musical platform in bringing about social and political change in India.
M.S. Subbulakshmi’s rendition of the Suprabhatam is ubiquitous in most South Indian homes in India. The Suprabhatam is the Sanskrit collection of hymns recited early in the morning to awaken the deity in the Hindu tradition. One of my earliest memories is waking up to this prayer growing up in India. In an interesting parallel, the author had a similar upbringing, albeit halfway across the world in the U.S.A.
Kunjamma, (the young M.S.), is a naturally gifted singer whose home is filled with music; her grandmother, mother, and her siblings play musical instruments like the veena, the tambura, the violin, and the mridangam. Although Kunjamma loves to sing, she can only sing in temples because she belongs to the Devadasi community (performing artists who dedicated their lives to the service and worship of the deities in Hindu temples). As a devadasi girl in India in the early 1900s, she cannot sing in public or give public concerts. But her mother aspires that the world recognizes her daughter’s prodigious talent. When she is 10, Kunjamma’s voice gets recorded on a gramophone, stamped with the name she will forever be known as – Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi – M.S. Subbulakshmi.
She continues to learn Carnatic music (the Southern Indian sub-genre of Indian Classical music, the other being the Northern Indian tradition of Hindustani). She dreams of singing at the prestigious Madras Music Academy, the mecca for all Carnatic male musicians (because women were still not allowed to perform there). Though the path is hard, M.S. perseveres and starts singing in small concerts in villages and small towns, in religious and cultural festivals where she is the only female performer. She gradually starts gaining a loyal following and eventually, the Madras Music Academy breaks from tradition and invites her to sing. At sixteen, she becomes the first woman and the youngest musician ever to perform there.
The story continues to trace the trajectory of her remarkable musical career. Suma Subramaniam also highlights M. S. Subbulakshmi’s contributions to the Indian freedom struggle where, at the behest of Mahatma Gandhi, she gives charity concerts all over the country. She is determined to use her voice for the Indian independence movement to free India from the shackles of British Colonial rule.
Her voice heals a nation that mourns the partition of India, (to form the new nation of Pakistan in 1947), and the loss of one of its greatest leaders, Mahatma Gandhi. The book lists all her accolades, awards, and honors but recognizes that M.S. Subbulakshmi’s true love was Carnatic music, to use her voice for hope and peace.
Suma Subramaniam provides a short biography of M.S. Subbulakshmi’s life, (she skips over decades of the singer’s life in the main story), and a glossary with useful resources for further reading at the end of the book. Illustrations by Shreya Gupta are beautifully detailed, paying particular attention to imparting an intrinsic essence of South India in the clothes, the jewelry, flowers (jasmine in particular, a favorite of the singer), and the temple architecture with its intricately carved pillars.
The book is a notable account of M.S Subbulakshmi rebelling against gender bias, whose shoulders lifted women classical musicians and propelled them into the spotlight, on the stage, in front of the audience, ensuring that their musical talents are never erased, but applauded and celebrated.
Ages 5 – 8, 40 pages