The alarm rings at its usual time – 7 am, waking me up from a lucid and dreamless night. The soft smell of jasmine flowers wafts through the air, just as I hear amma hum a tune in the kitchen, brewing a fresh pot of strong coffee for the day.
My body yearns for the caffeine and a daily dose of news from The Hindu. But it’s paati and MS who make my morning, for they bear an everlasting influence on my life. While paati goes about her morning rituals and rhymes, MS’ mellifluous voice mellows in the background as she recites the Suprabhatham. The morning seems as serene as ever and I can’t help but wonder about the beauty that is life.
Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi, or MS, as she is fondly addressed, is the queen of Carnatic music. A child prodigy who performed at the famous Kumbakonam Mahamaham at the age of 16, MS hardly met the standards of brilliance or social acceptance. Her mother, Shanmugavadivu, was a proponent of the popular string instrument, the veena, and the not-so-popular Devadasi tradition.
MS was brought up in a house that valued art and wallowed in exploitation. But it was her extraordinary talent and silently persuasive demeanour that would create wonders in the realm of classical music. Slowly, yet steadily, MS proceeded to break apparent barriers of caste and gender. Her dasi roots hardly mattered when she challenged the likes of male stalwarts such as Karaikudi Sambasiva Iyer or Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar.
Her transformation from a famous film star to a quintessential Tamil housewife was a legitimisation of her identity. Her devotion to the Carnatic tradition was unparalleled and she became a sensation.
Far removed from the glamour of MS’ life, my paati grew up in a small town and with no care or concern for the world. Her childhood seemed fairly comforting and her parents, quite supportive. She thus spent her life in youthful naivety until she was married off prematurely at the age of 14. But who knew that marriage would spell doom? For her husband and in-laws proved to be uncaring.
Forced to leave her marital home, paati turned heads when she moved away to Bangalore and set up her own catering business. Not only did she break gender barriers, but also challenged prevailing attitudes towards Brahmin women. She did so through her steadfast resilience and staunch loyalty to her children. A sense of devotion dictated her life and her metamorphosis from a demure wife to a daring entrepreneur was a spectacle to behold. Paati was no less of a phenomenon in my eyes.
Saint Thyagaraja in his famous Pancharatna kriti (a set of songs in Carnatic classical music), ‘Enadaro Mahanubhavulu’, pays tribute to the great men who’ve made a glorious contribution to humanity. But he composed that song a century too early, for two marvellous women were to change the world – two women with varying destinies who were united in their quest for independence. While one achieved it through her music, another accomplished it through her mindfulness. Throughout their life, neither lost sight of their vision and grew to represent strong figures in their own families and communities. While MS fought to create a space for women in Indian classical traditions, paati helped normalise the notion of women at work.
Fearless and ardent, these women have had a profound impact on my life: they’ve taught me courage and culture like no other. But, above all, their raging conviction is a telling reminder of the beautiful lives we lead.