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M. S. Subbalakshmi – the nightingale


Born on September 16, 1916, in Madurai to Subramania Iyer and Shanmukhavadivu, Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi, her brother Saktivel, and her sister Vadivambal grew up surrounded by classical music. Her grandmother Akkammal was a violinist, and her mother was a veena artist. M.S., as she became known, was introduced to music at a young age, learning her first lessons from her mother. She made her stage debut when she was only 13 years old.


She was already a well-known Carnatic vocalist when she relocated to Chennai in 1936. Then, she met T. Sadasivam, a senior executive at Ananda Vikatan, a Tamil weekly. They married in 1940. During her more than 50-year career, M.S. received numerous awards. In 1998, she was awarded India’s highest civilian honor, the Bharat Ratna.


M.S. was the first woman musician to be awarded the Sangita Kalanidhi title by the Music Academy in Chennai in 1968. She returned to music after a brief stint in film. M.S. also received the Padma Bhushan (1954), Padma Vibhushan (1975), Kaalidas Samman (1988), and Ramon Magsaysay Award (1974). She performed at the inaugural India Festival in London in 1982 and in Tokyo, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Manila, Singapore, and Malaysia. She introduced Carnatic music to the West at the Edinburgh Festival in 1963 and the United Nations in 1964. (1966). Many universities awarded her the Doctor of Letters degree, including Sri Venkateswara University (1971), Delhi University (1973), Benaras Hindu University (1980), and the University of Madras (1987). The Viswa-Bharati University, Santiniketan, bestowed her with the Desihothama (doctoral degree).


MS donated the proceeds from his recordings and concerts to various charities. M.S. raised crores of rupees for charity through her shows, with the help of her husband. In 1944, the first charity concert was held for the Kasturba Memorial Fund. The other beneficiaries were

  • The Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams
  • The Ramakrishna Math
  • The Nanak Foundation
  • The Subramanya Bharati memorial at Ettayapuram
  • The Hindu Temple in Flushing, New York
  • Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan
  • The Kamakshi temple in Kancheepuram
  • Sankara Nethralaya 
  • Cancer Institute
  • Voluntary Health Services
  • The Music Academy


Subbulakshmi appeared in four films directed by Ellis Dungan: Sevasadanam, Sakuntalai, Savithri (1941), and Meera (1945), two of which were successful. Sevasadanam, directed by C. Subramaniam and based on Premchand’s novel Bazar-e-Husn, was released in 1938. Meera, which first appeared in Tamil cinema in 1945, established Subbulakshmi as a national icon.

Following the film’s success, Indian classical singer MS Subbulakshmi left the industry to pursue live music full-time.


Subbulakshmi dedicated herself completely to her chosen field, film or music, and her progress was meteoric. Movies did not interest her but her husband persuaded her to do some, keeping the concrete financial objectives, ensuring idealistic, saccharine themes, and emphasizing music. Subbulakshmi had reigned supreme for nearly ten years and five films.

She has sung bhajans in ten languages, each setting high standards for diction, purity and emotional content. Many leaders and political giants of the time, including Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Rajaji, praised her vocal abilities. M.S. was a devout follower of Kanchi Paramacharya. The Paramacharya wrote the benediction “Maitreem Bhajata,” which M.S. sang at the end of her concerts at the United Nations and Carnegie Hall. She recorded Venkatesa Suprabhatam for HMV, and the royalties go to the Tirupati Tirumala.

Devasthanam’s Veda Patasala (school).  Another of her recordings was Bhaja Govindam, a hymn by Adi Shankaracharya and Vishnu Sahasranamam, which contains 1000 names of Vishnu. I grew up listening to this particular vinyl since my parents would play this record every day, early morning!


ACCORDING TO HOSPITAL AND FAMILY SOURCES, M S Subbulakshmi died in Chennai on Saturday night, December 11, 2004, due to complications. She was 88 years old.

Sadasivam, her husband, died in 1997.

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