M. S. Subbulakshmi
ம. ச. சுப்புலட்சுமி
Background information
Birth nameMadurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi
Born(1916-09-16)16 September 1916
Madurai, Madras Presidency, British India
Died11 December 2004(2004-12-11) (aged 88)
Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
GenresIndian classical music
Occupation(s)Classical vocalist
Years active1930–1997
Spouse(s)Kalki Sadasivam

Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi (Tamil: மதுரை சண்முகவடிவு சுப்புலட்சுமி; 16 September 1916 – 11 December 2004) was an Indian Carnatic singer from Madurai, Tamil Nadu. She was the first musician ever to be awarded the Bharat Ratna, India's highest civilian honour and the first Indian musician to receive the Ramon Magsaysay award.[1][2][3][4]


Early years

Subbulakshmi (Kunjamma to her family) was born on 16 September 1916 in Madurai, Madras Presidency, to veena player Shanmukavadiver Ammal and Subramania Iyer. Her grandmother Akkammal was a violinist.

She started learning Carnatic music at an early age and trained in Carnatic music under the tutelage of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and subsequently in Hindustani music under Pandit Narayanrao Vyas.

Her mother, from the devadasi community, was a music exponent and a regular stage performer, and Subbulakshmi grew up in an environment very conducive to musical learning. Her musical interests were also shaped by regular interactions with Karaikudi Sambasiva Iyer, Mazhavarayanendal Subbarama Bhagavathar and Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar.[5]

Subbulakshmi gave her first public performance, at the age of eleven, in the year 1927, in the 100 pillar hall inside the Rockfort Temple, Tiruchirappalli; with Mysore Chowdiah on the violin and Dakshinamurthy Pillai on the mridangam. This was organised by the Tiruchirappalli-based Indian National Congress leader F. G. Natesa Iyer.[6]

Move to Madras

In 1936 Subbulakshmi moved to Madras (now Chennai).[7] She also made her film debut in Sevasadan in 1938.[8] Her debut to the world of cinema was again opposite F. G. Natesa Iyer.

Musical style and performance

M.S. Subbulakshmi (left) with S. Varalakshmi in Sevasadhanam (1938)

Singing career

M. S. Subbulakshmi

M.S. Subbulakshmi began her Carnatic classical music training under her mother Shanmukhavadivu; and later in Hindustani classical training under Pandit Narayan Rao Vyas. Subbulakshmi first recording was released when she was 10 years old.

Subbulakshmi gave her first performance at the prestigious Madras Music Academy in 1929, when she was 13 years old. The performance consisted of singing bhajans (Hindu hymns).[9] The academy was known for its discriminating selection process, and they broke tradition by inviting a young girl as a key performer. Her performance was described as spellbinding and earned her many admirers and the moniker of musical genius from critics. Soon after her debut performances, Subbulakshmi became one of the leading Carnatic vocalists.[7][10]

By the age of seventeen, Subbulakshmi was giving concerts on her own, including major performances at the Madras Music Academy.

She travelled to London, New York, Canada, the Far East, and other places as India's cultural ambassador. Her concerts at Edinburgh International Festival of Music and Drama in 1963; Carnegie Hall, New York; the UN General Assembly on UN day in 1966; Royal Albert Hall, London in 1982; and Festival of India in Moscow in 1987 were significant landmarks in her career.[11]

In 1969 she was accompanied by Indian Railways Advisor SN Venkata Rao to Rameswaram, where she sang several songs in front of each idol in the Ramanathaswamy Temple. She shared a very cordial relation with Sree Ramaseva Mandali Bengaluru for whom she performed 36 concerts.

After the death of her husband Kalki Sadasivam in 1997, she stopped all her public performances. Her last performance was in 1997, before her retirement from public concerts.

M. S. Subbulakshmi died on 11 December 2004, at her home in Kotturpuram, Chennai.


M.S. also acted in a few Tamil films in her youth. Her first movie, Sevasadanam, was released on 2 May 1938. F.G. Natesa Iyer was the lead actor, opposite Subbulakshmi, in this film, directed by K. Subramanyam. It was a critical and commercial success.[12] Ananda Vikatan favourably reviewed the film on 8 May 1938:

We should always expect something from Subramaniam's direction – for instance depiction of social ills. If we have to say only two words about this talkie based on Premchand's story it is – Go see (it).[13]

Sevasadanam is one of the early Tamil films to be set in a contemporary social setting and to advocate reformist social policies. The film is an adapted version of Premchand's novel Bazaar-e-Husn. The veteran Marxist leader N. Sankaraiah, has described Sevasadanam as an "unusual film" for choosing the subject of marriages between young girls and old men (which had social sanction). According to him, the film successfully broughtout the "sufferings of the girl" (acted by M.S.) and the "mental agony of the aged husband".(acted by F.G.Natesa Iyer).Tamil film critic and historian Aranthai Narayanan observes in his bookThamizh Cinemavin Kathai (The Story of Tamil Cinema) that "Seva Sadhanam proved a turning point in the history of Tamil cinema. In the climax, the aged husband, now a totally changed man, was shown as casting aside with utter contempt his 'sacred thread', which symbolises his Brahmin superiority. It came as a stunning blow to the then Brahmin orthodoxy."[14]

MS Subbulakshmi also played the male role of Narada in Savitri (1941) to raise money for launching Kalki, her husband's nationalist Tamil weekly. Her title role of the Rajasthani saint-poetess Meera in the eponymous 1945 film gave her national prominence. This movie was re-made in Hindi in 1947.

Year Film Language Role Co-Star Director Music Banner
1938 Sevasadanam Tamil Sumathi F. G. Natesa Iyer K. Subramanyam Papanasam Sivan Madras United Artists Corporation
1940 Sakuntalai Tamil Shakunthala G. N. Balasubramaniam, Radha Viswanathan Ellis R. Dungan Thuraiyur Rajagopala Sarma & Kamal Dasgupta
1941 Savithiri Tamil Saint Narada Y. V. Rao, Shanta Apte Y. V. Rao Papanasam Sivan Royal Talkie Distributors
1945 Meera Tamil Meerabai V. Nagayya Ellis R. Dungan S. V. Venkatraman Chandraprabha Cinetone
1947 Meerabai Hindi Meerabai V. Nagayya Ellis R. Dungan Dilip Kumar Roy Chandraprabha Cinetone
1947 1000 Thalai Vaangi Apoorva Chinthamani Tamil Dancer V. N. Janaki T. R. Sundaram G. Ramanathan Modern Theatres

Awards and honours

M. S. Subbulakshmi wearing saree of a colour which has become synonymous to her name – MS Blue
Subbulakshmi on a 2005 stamp of India

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru had this to say about M.S. Subbulakshmi- "Who am I, a mere Prime Minister before a Queen, a Queen of Music". While Lata Mangeshkar called her Tapaswini (the Renunciate), Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan termed her Suswaralakshmi (the goddess of the perfect note), and Kishori Amonkar labelled her the ultimate eighth note or Aathuvaan Sur, which is above the seven notes basic to all music. The great national leader and poet Sarojini Naidu called her "Nightingale of India". Her many famous renditions of bhajans include the chanting of Meenakshi Pancharatnam, Bhaja Govindam, Vishnu sahasranama (1000 names of Vishnu), Hari Tuma Haro and the Venkateswara Suprabhatam (musical hymns to awaken Lord Balaji early in the morning).

She was widely honoured, praised and awarded. Some of the popular ones include:[15]

She was honoured as a resident artist Asthana Vidhwan of Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams.[17] Tirupati Urban Development Authority (TUDA) has installed a bronze statue of M.S. Subbulakshmi at the Poornakumbham circle in the temple town. It was unveiled by Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y. S. Rajasekhara Reddy on 28 May 2006.[18]

The Kancheepuram Saree shade known as MS Blue was named after her[19] by the well known Congress party member and philanthropist, Sri Muthu Chettiyar when they met at the residence of Sri R. Aiyadurai and Smt. Thangam Aiyadurai at Lady Desikachari Road, Madras, who were close friends of MS and Sadasivam.

A commemorative postage stamp on her was issued on 18-December-2005.[20] United Nations decided to issue stamp to mark birth centenary M.S. Subbulakshmi,[21] She was bestowed with enormous prize moneys with these awards, most of which she donated to charity. She has given more than 200 charity concerts and raised well over Rs. 10,000,000. She was awarded honorary degrees from several Universities. She was an ardent devotee of Kanchi Mahaswamigal and she rendered his composition "Maithreem Bhajatha" (O World! Cultivate peace) in her concert at the UN in 1966. She made a 20-minute recording of "Venkatesa Suprabhatam" for HMV, the royalty from which goes to the Veda Patasala run by the Tirupati Tirumala Devasthanam.[22] She donated many of the royalties on several best sold records to many charity organisations.


  1. ^ "M S Subbulakshmi: 'Nightingale' of Carnatic music". Rediff. India. 12 December 2004. Archived from the original on 8 July 2015.
  2. ^ Clare Arthurs (25 July 2000). "Activists share 'Asian Nobel Prize'". BBC News. Archived from the original on 25 December 2018. Retrieved 20 February 2008.
  3. ^ "Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation". Rmaf.org.ph. Archived from the original on 1 September 2010. Retrieved 22 September 2013.
  4. ^ The Ramon Magsaysay awards, Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, 1982, p. 141
  5. ^ Srivastava, Gauri (2006). Women role models: some eminent women of contemporary India. Concept Publishing Company. pp. 55–57. ISBN 978-81-8069-336-6. OCLC 74991412.
  6. ^ SRUTI magazine cover story on F.G.Natesa Iyer, page 25, issue number 330, March 2012
  7. ^ a b "M.S. subbulakshmi passes away, aged 88". The Hindu. 12 December 2004. Archived from the original on 19 October 2009. Retrieved 19 October 2009.((cite news)): CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  8. ^ "M. S. Subbulakshmi (1916–2004)" (PDF). National Resource Center for Women, Government of India. Retrieved 19 October 2009.
  9. ^ "Popular Indian classical singer M.S. Subbulakshmi dead". Pakistan Times. 13 December 2004. Archived from the original on 11 June 2008. Retrieved 16 October 2009.
  10. ^ Murthi, R. K. Encyclopedia of Bharat Ratnas. Pitambar Publishing. pp. 176–179. ISBN 978-81-209-1307-3.
  11. ^ K.S. Mahadevan. "M.S.SUBBULAKSHMI – A DIVINE MAESTRO". Press Information Bureau, Government of India. Retrieved 6 January 2012.
  12. ^ "The stamp of honour". The Hindu. Hinduonnet.com. 10 July 2000. Archived from the original on 6 August 2016. Retrieved 22 September 2013.((cite web)): CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  13. ^ Arandhai Narayanan (2008). Arambakala Tamil Cinema (1931–41) (in Tamil). Chennai: Vijaya Publications. p. 26.
  14. ^ "Vishwanathan S. "A progressive film maker; Tribute to K.Subramanian, Volume 21 – Issue 14, Jul. 03 – 16, 2004 of Frontline magazine ,(brought out by Hindu publications), Chennai, Tamilnadu". Frontlineonnet.com. Retrieved 22 September 2013.
  15. ^ "MS Subbulakshmi's music is relevant even today". IBN Live. India. 16 September 2011. Archived from the original on 3 October 2011.
  16. ^ a b "Padma Awards" (PDF). Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India. 2015. Archived from the original (PDF) on 15 October 2015. Retrieved 21 July 2015.
  17. ^ "Humility personified". The Hindu. India. 17 December 2004. Archived from the original on 24 January 2005.
  18. ^ "Statue of M.S. unveiled at Tirupati". The Hindu. Tirupati, India. 29 May 2006. Archived from the original on 29 December 2007.
  19. ^ "The lure of the Kanchi silk". The Hindu. India. 5 November 2004. Archived from the original on 7 November 2004.
  20. ^ "Stamps – 2005". Department of Posts, Indian government. Archived from the original on 30 July 2013. Retrieved 2 August 2013.
  21. ^ "U.N. to issue stamp to mark M.S. Subbulakshmi's birth centenary". The Hindu. 12 August 2016. Retrieved 13 November 2016.
  22. ^ "Pages ago – Singing for Bapu, Jawaharlal and Paramacharya". The Hindu. India. 22 December 2010.

Further reading