In an exclusive interview with G20, author Keshav Desiraju talks about legendary M.S. Subbulakshmi and why her legacy will always remain unchallenged.

The moment she sat on stage and started to perform, she mesmerised the audience. And even today, there is no Carnatic musician who compares to her. The legendary M.S Subbulakshmi, known as M.S Amma by many, is revered not just by audiences but also seasoned Carnatic musicians who look upto her as a guru. Author Keshav Desiraju’s Of Gifted Voice: The Life and Art of M.S.Subbulakshmi chronicles her complex life and her unparalleled music. The biography delves beyond the public persona and reveals much more about MS, as she was popularly known. In this exclusive chat with G20, Keshav Desiraju talks about MS and why her legacy will always remain unchallenged. Excerpts:
Q. Despite the fact that M S Subbulakshmi broke many shackles that bound women during her time and was probably a feminist icon, her life was controlled by men in her life to a great extent, wasn’t it?
A. It may not be quite correct to say that Subbulakshmi ‘broke many shackles’. It is probably more accurate to say that she was a supremely successful professional at a time when women were not encouraged to have professions outside the home. It may again be inappropriate to see her as a a feminist icon. Certainly she did not see herself as such. But, yes, her life was controlled by the only man in her life, her husband. In this she was no different from thousands of Indian women of her age, whose lives were controlled entirely by their fathers, brothers, husbands and sons. Devadasi women were in an ambiguous situation, in that they enjoyed both considerably more freedom from male control than did women from caste society, and also substantially less.
Q. MS hailed from the Devadasi community but ultimately came to embody the ‘ideal Tamil Brahmin woman’ who attained a superior status in the art-music community. Given the times she lived in then, how easy or difficult was it for her to have made this remarkable transition? And how conscious was it for her?
A. Making the transition would not have been easy at all, and even given all her great gifts, the one single fact that made it possible was that T. Sadasivam married her. She probably understood this very clearly. She was certainly conscious of it, and she probably knew she did not have Balasaraswati’s fighting spirit. Having said that, it is also true that if she ‘came to embody the ideal Tamil Brahmin woman’, this is more to do with the general public than with her. It is clear to me that she was looking for security and ‘respectability’; she was not looking at becoming a great public figure and she was not seeking out acceptability as a Brahmin woman.  She only wanted the protection of a marital home, she only wanted to shed the slur of ‘dasi’.
Q. MS performed for a lot of charities and didn›t covet much in life. Does this have to do with her background and her roots? Or more to do with the spiritual connection she felt with the divine?
A. Subbulakshmi was born in the most humble circumstances and knew what it meant to be poor and live on the margins. This may well explain her readiness to perform for charity and to give away a lot of what she earned. But it is also true that she was a very good and kindly woman for whom giving away came naturally. She was indeed a very religious minded woman, but conventionally so. And obviously she had an intimate connection with religious texts of every sort, not least the songs she learnt and sang.
Q. Her brush with films was brief and yet significant. However, singing on stage seemed to be what she lived for. 
A. Yes, I would agree. Subbulakshmi was a master performer, a consummate concert artiste. I am glad the book has several concert photographs; this was the daily grind for years and years, and that is where she was in her own element. I suspect though that she quite enjoyed her film career.
Q. You write that MS established a grand tradition of performance. But over the years she changed her performance and singing styles to suit the audiences, isn›t it? There is a distinct career graph…
A. Yes, both these statements are correct. There was a grand tradition of performance, but she also changed her singing style, and the shape of her concerts over the years. There is some discussion of this in my book as well.
Q. As you did your research on MS, what were some of the discoveries you made that surprised you?
A. I cannot honestly say I discovered something that was a total surprise or which I had not already suspected. But I was struck by the humbleness of her background, and at quite how monstrous a Devadasi’s life could have been.
Q. One of the distinctive characteristics about MS was her simplicity in dressing and her classic style when it came to diamond ear-rings, nosepin and her Kanjivaram sarees (particularly, the ‹MS blue› saree shade). This was widely spoken about and added to her allure as a classical singer. A symbol of Brahminism too, perhaps?
A. MS almost never wore nine yards; it was always six yards but worn with a very long pallu which was twisted round to the front. I don›t think I have seen any other woman carry it off, but it was totally MS. The only photograph I have seen of her in nine yards is at the wedding of her step-daughters. Yes, she dressed in a very particular way, diamonds, Kanjivarams, and she probably knew very well that attractiveness on stage was an important part of the concert experience.  This was not necessarily a symbol of Brahminism.  All affluent Tamil, Hindu women at the time and of her age dressed like that.  She was more beautiful than most of them but that was the way they all dressed.
TSG: As you wrote, even today MS is the face and voice of Carnatic music. Why do you think it is tough for any Carnatic musician now to stand up to that legacy?
KD: It is very hard to describe the MS concert experience to someone who has not actually been there. How does one describe presence? The combination of voice and manner, of experience and training, was hard to beat. And underlying everything, the diligence and the learning. True, other musicians had some or most of these attributes but she radiated star quality. Why are only some musicians divas? And yes, despite claims to the contrary, I believe it is tough for a Carnatic musician to stand up to that legacy.