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Vol. XXVI No. 11, September 16-31, 2016

Recalling MS and Tamil Isai

by Gowri Ramnarayan

During her Centenary…

M.S. Subbu­lakshmi’s crusade for Tamil Isai is a near forgotten chapter in her life. MS is ­remembered as the upholder of tradition, as a meek, unassuming, modest, super-conservative Indian woman of the old school. How interesting then to see MS in the role of a rebel! In the 1930s and 1940s, she found herself in the midst of an aggressive, no-holds-barred, controversy. Mind you, not on the side of Authority and Status Quo, but on the other side of the fence! In doing this, she even dared to oppose her own revered gurus and seniors.

Yes, M.S. Subbulakshmi joined the Tamil Isai Movement. Without her leading voice, the movement would have toppled quickly. Her musical satyagraha made a singular contribution, not to a language-driven agitation, but to Carna­tic music itself, in a lasting and remarkable way.

MS was banned by the Madras Music Academy for five years, for singing Tamil songs in the major, first section of a concert. The Academy opposed the movement tooth and nail, even passing resolutions against Tamil Isai. After those five years, MS returned to the Academy on her own terms – she would not accept any restrictions of language or content. And the Academy mandarins accepted her on her terms, only because they feared competition from the rival sangeeta sabha that her husband Sadasivam was planning to launch. Moreover, they needed her benefit concerts to raise funds to build their own auditorium which now stands on Cathedral Road.

What was this Tamil Isai movement?


In the 1930s and 1940s, Carnatic music concerts consisted almost entirely of Telugu and Sanskrit compositions, and no Tamil song was ever heard in the first and serious half of a concert. In the post-tani tukkada segment, a tevaram or a tirup­pugazh might make a reluctant appearance, quickly smothered by songs from other languages.
A group of people in the Madras Presidency, many of them Tamil litterateurs like T.K. Chidambaranatha Muda­liar, along with wealthy music patrons from the Tamil-loving Nagarathar community of ­music patrons, thought that their enjoyment of Carnatic music would be enhanced if some songs in the concerts were rendered in their mother tongue. They argued that Tya­ga­raja who lived in Tamil Nadu, composed in Telugu only because it came naturally to him as his mother tongue. So was it not equally natural to understand the desire in Tamil-born listeners for songs in their own language?

Incredibly, this simple request unleashed a frenzy of objections, acrimonious, even venomous. Their opponents denounced the singing of Tamil songs in the pre-tani stage as a sacrilege. Why? Some saw Tamil as a harsh, kaattumirandi (barbaric) language. Secondly, they argued that the poor quality of Tamil compositions would demean Carnatic music.

The Tamils faction did not begin their fight demanding “Tamil only” in concerts. All they wanted was the inclusion of more serious Tamil songs, and only in concerts held in Tamil Nadu. But the Telugu faction feared that giving importance to Tamil songs posed a threat to the Mummoorti, The Trinity. If allowed entry, Tamil kriti-s would replace the gems of Tyagaraja, Dikshitar and Syama Sastry. “Down with Tamil!” ­became their slogan.

It is hilarious to note that the majority of the Tamil song “haters” were not Andhravadus or Kannada folk, but were themselves Tamil born. Many of these listeners knew no Telugu and less Sanskrit, but opposed their mother tongue Tamil on the Carnatic concert platform. The vidwan-s would say in robust Thanjavur dialect: “Sing Tyagaraja and you grip every ear. Try Tamil and the concert sags….”

But this myth was easily dispelled. All you had to do was to go to the Devakottai Tamil Isai conference (1941) and hear MS – in midnight blue vairaoosi sari with an arakku border, her blue jagger diamonds twinkling on ear and nose, jasmine crescent on her bichoda coiffure as fragrant as her brigas and gamakas – in the Hamsadhwani opener Arul purivai karunai kadale, by Suddhananda Bharati, the nationalist poet and yogi. Listeners went into a trance when MS sang a rousing viruttam by Subramania Bharati which asked, “Is there a language as sweet as our Tamil in the entire world?”

MS knew of Subramania Bharati’s warning that singing exclusively in a language that the listener did not understand would make Carnatic music lose ground in Tamil Nadu. She ­often heard Rasikamani T.K. Chidambaranatha Mudaliar ­insist that neither singer nor listener could experience rasa without understanding the lyric.

It was one thing to demand Tamil Isai, but quite another to supply it. There were very few Tamil compositions going around with the finish of a Tyaga­raja kriti or Syama Sastry swarajati.

The only Tamil compositions in rakti ragas which had azhuttam, depth, and ghanam, weight, belonged to a genre that was then confined to women singers. And though vidwan-s trekked to Georgetown to hear Veena Dhanammal and were awed by the musicianship of her daughters and grand-daughters, few men could rise to the challenge of singing a ripe padam. Also, few men wanted to give it a try as they disdained their sringara content and devadasi ­associations.
It must also be admitted that, unlike Kshetrayya’s lyrical verses, Tamil padam-s mostly had pedestrian sahitya, often downright kocchai – vulgar, the lyric often absurdly out of sync with the noble music.

So MS found that opting for Tamil Isai also meant exploration and discovery. She had to develop a brand new repertoire of compositions with dignity in thought, emotion, language and raga. She began to spend whole days in searching, learning, polishing, fine-tuning a wide range of concert-worthy composit­ions. After all Tamil Isai’s goal was to prove that Tamil could go beyond mere bhajanai, it could be as euphonious as sundara Telugu, its content as uplifting as a Tyagaraja kriti.

Not easy! But since her partnership with Sadasivam had widened her world, she had writers and connoisseurs to suggest new lyrics. Kalki quickly wrote a song for her with niraval possibilities – Vandadum solai tanile. With TKC’s advice, some very special songs were brought to the Bharata Natyam stage for the first time.

Why did so many experts and heavyweights see the demand for Tamil sahitya as a death knell for Carnatic music? The Music Academy stalwarts even tried to pass rules to stop the new disease – “Tamil vyadhi”. The Hindu wrote leaders condemning the Tamil demand. You wonder how all these people could have been so deaf and blind to Papanasam Sivan, lovingly called Tamil Tyagayya. Sivan’s compositions strengthened Tamil Isai immeasurably, especially as he was so prolific and offered such a fantastic choice of raga and theme.

Sivan composed enchanting songs for the only four films in which M.S. Subbulakshmi acted between 1939 and 1947. Some of them have become part of the Carnatic music treasury.

Funnily enough, in espousing the Tamil Isai cause Sadasivam, Kalki and MS found themselves in an unexpected political dilemma. Affiliated to the Indian National Congress and devoted to the Mahatma’s ideals, on the Tamil Isai cause alone they found themselves on the same side as Justice Party stalwarts like Raja Sir Anna­malai Chettiar and Shanmugam Chetty who favoured British rule in India. Worse, the ­pro-Telugu faction was mostly ­sympathetic to the Congress.

Even more strangely, no one found this alliance-switch in and for a cultural cause, strange  or unethical. Can India today boast of such ruthless honesty?

Tamil Isai, however, ­continued to suffer from ­scarcity of songs. Kalki attends Annamalai University’s three-day Tamil Isai conference ­hoping that Tamil only ­concerts would have ­unearthed a huge variety of Tamil compositions. But his glum guide tells him that he heard the same songs in every concert; moreover, most vidwan-s mangled the words beyond linguistic identi­fication!

An opponent taunts Kalki, “Why do you need new kriti-s? Why not simply chant Tevaram and Tiruvachakam?” The contempt is evident as these songs were innocent of classical kriti ornamentations. Almost as a reply, the MS concert at the Tamil Isai Vizha featured Manickavachakar’s exquisite devotional verse as the main piece. The question was, could this short lyric accommodate panoramic classicism?

Despite his misgivings about Tamil Isai, guru Semmangudi came to the rescue and set the piece in a Sankarabharanam –rivalling Saroja dala netri or Swararaga sudha in grandeur. And in this piece MS absolutely outdid herself.
(Courtesy: Sruti)

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  1. janakimurty says:

    why were oothukkadu’s compositions not popularised by anyone in tamil nadu at that time? any reasons etc. evident from history?

  2. blackbiz says:

    Centenary celebrations of the Rasika Ranjana Sabha, a premier music sabha in the city, commenced on Saturday. The sabha was established in 1914 by late F.G. Natesa Iyer, a renowned dramatist. Speakers at a function organised to mark the release of the special postmark and special envelope on the centenary celebrations of Rasika Ranjana Sabha here on Saturday, paid rich tributes to Natesa Iyer for his outstanding contribution to the promotion of drama, art, and culture. They recalled the efforts made by the late Natesa Iyer in providing opportunities to the young drama artists and musicians, realising the impact of fine arts on the mind and soul of the masses. G. Natarajan, Director of Postal Services, Central Region, Tamil Nadu, released the special postmark on special envelope. It carries an image of the sabha on the left with a postal stamp on D.K. Pattammal for Rs. 5 denomination on the right. He said that the Natesa Iyer had groomed great artists, including S.G. Kittappa, M.K. Thiyagaraja Bhagavathar, and T.R. Mahalingam. Receiving the envelope, R.A. Krishnakumar, Executive Director, Dalmia Cement (Bharat), said the late Natesa Iyer had taken a long term vision by founding the sabha. The sabha had groomed a number of artists in their early career to such an extent that they turned to be popular artists later. The sabha formed part of the history of Tiruchi, he said.

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