MS Subbulakshmi: The legend of Carnatic Music


By Nithin Sridhar

Most households in South India, especially those belonging to traditional families or are music lovers, wake up every morning listening to the divine rendition of Suprabhatam (early morning hymns) sung by MS Subbulakshmi.

Subbulakshmi is one of the most celebrated singers and musicians of Carnatic music in the last century who made immeasurable contributions to the cause of Indian music, its survival, and its propagation. She mesmerized generation after generation of Indian music lovers with her divine voice and a flawless singing for over eight decades.

Young M S Subbulakshmi. Photo:

Subbulakshmi was born in 1916 in the city of Madurai, in the present day state of Tamil Nadu, to Subramania Iyer and Shanmukavadiver Ammal. Her mother was a Veena player and her grandmother was a violinist. Music was ingrained in her entire family.

She started learning Carnatic music very early and recorded very first album at the age of 10. She gave her first public performance in Rockfort Temple, Tiruchirappalli in 1927, at the age of 11. She received Carnatic classical music training under the famous Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and later she even learnt Hindustani classical music under Pandit Narayan Rao Vyas.

Subbulakshmi was a lifelong devotee of Kanchi Shankaracharya Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati, and she made music her life and her Sadhana (spiritual quest). After hearing her sing the famous bhajan (devotional song): “Vaisnava janato tene kahiye, jo pir paray, jane re” (Only those who understand the pain of others are called as devotees of God), Mahatma Gandhi had remarked: “To sing a bhajan is one thing, but to sing it by losing oneself in god is another.” Similarly, Jawaharlal Nehru had stated: “who am I, a mere prime minister, before a queen of song?

She gave public performances and mesmerized the audiences across the world. She performed at UN General Assembly, New York in 1966, at Royal Albert Hall, London in 1982, and at Festival of India in Moscow in 1987.

MS Subbulakshmi In "Meera". Photo:
M S Subbulakshmi In “Meera”. Photo:

She also involved herself in the film industry for a brief period. She acted in a handful of movies like Sevasadanam, Savitiri and Meera. She recorded numerous albums and gave hundreds of public performances. But, she stopped giving public performances after her husband Kalki Sadasivam’s death in 1997.

Subbulakshmi received numerous awards and honorary doctorates in recognition of her music talent and her innumerable contribution of Indian music and culture. She was awarded the Bharat Ratna in 1998. Before that, she had received Padma Bhushan, Padma Vibhushan, Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, Sangeetha Kalasikhamani, and Ramon Magsaysay award. She was also honored as an ‘Asthana Vidhwan’ (resident scholar/artist) by the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams.

On this day, eleven years ago in 2004, Indian Music lost this nightingale of Carnatic music. Some of the most famous sons sung by her include: Suprabhatam, Bhajagovindam, Kurai Onrum Illai, and Vishnu Sahasranamam.

Here is a video of M S Subbulakshmi singing ‘Bhajagovindam‘ taken from Youtube: