It was a spring a decade ago and I was at the house in Salzburg, Austria, where Mozart was born. I was moving around the grand structure like the third movement in Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata when I stopped in my tracks to observe something in a protective case — the violin Mozart played. As I closed my eyes and tried to time-travel to the days of the master composer, a voice interrupted me. A middle-aged man by my side was asking me something to which I gave the customary response: ‘Apologies, I don’t speak German, in English, please’.
“Are you a musician?,” he asked. I was startled at the question. We then exchanged some notes and I realised that he spoke to me with so much awe as I was a classical musician from India since he knew about the legend MS Subbulakshmi. I was seven months pregnant then and whispered to the life inside me: “Baby, how blessed we are.”
I kept thinking about the imaginary strings of music connecting people. As a kid, I had the opportunity to sing before the great Subbulakshmi during her visits to an ashram in Chengannur, Kerala. My grandmother, who was a constant source of inspiration for my music, was a devotee of this ashram. The reminiscence of MS Amma’s slender arms adorned with glass bangles and her warmth and cherubic smile will guide my music forever. This Women’s Day, I would love to tell readers why certain musicians became my godmothers and soul sisters.
Indeed, the music of MS, T Brinda, DK Pattammal, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Kishori Amonkar et al touched my soul. But beyond the rendition, it was the purpose of their music that has influenced me more. Through their music from different continents, these women fought and built a path for the next generation of musicians. Their musical journey was gruelling and they faced opposition at each footstep they took. Social stigma in India attempted to prevent women from participation in art. Brave women who publicly presented their art were branded characterless and society even questioned their identity.
However, once they established themselves as formidable musicians, it was the monopoly of men that they were challenged with. It was claimed that male doyens alone presented complex musical aspects like ragam, tanam, pallavi. Their woman counterparts were mercilessly mocked at – “Why pallavis? You all ought to sing padams alone!” K Pattammal responded brilliantly with her choice of pallavis. She presented RTPs in rare ragas such as Jaganmohini in complex talas. Her complete mastery over laya triumphed and soon she was joined by Subbulakshmi and her contemporaries in singing pallavis. “Is there any difference how the brain is wired?” DK Pattammal was witty and intelligent to respond to male supremacy by showcasing her virtuosity and immense talent.
Subbulakshmi’s music is an appropriate case study to analyse the aesthetics of Carnatic music. Dimensions of music such as tone, melody and rhythm are highly distinguishable in her music, which is complete on account of her imbibing qualities such as the significance of literature, emotions, voice modulation, pitch alignment etc. Be it a bhajan soaked in bhakti or chanting of a mantra, Subbulakshmi delivered them with impeccable elegance.
Throughout her career that spanned many decades, she adhered to the sampradaya (tradition). Concurrently, she also innovated incredibly. She is a textbook for any aspiring musician on concert presentation as she could present an eclectic mix of kritis in her concerts, which satisfied both virtuosos and laymen.
Meanwhile, women singers in the west were also fighting through their music. They wrote and sang songs against racism, slavery, politics, lynching, domestic abuse and every kind of injustice. Once, Ella Fitzgerald’s manager, Norman Granz, took off boards that said ‘Negros’ and ‘Whites’ placed in front of rest-rooms at a live show. Police arrested everyone, including Ella, for this ‘offence’. But one police officer requested Ella for her autograph.
Women musicians were phenomenal in utilising their talent for the American Civil Rights Movement too. However, their story is now history and many woman musicians who came after them are respected worldwide.
Music is now a noble profession for many. The universal language of music is about the emotions it conveys – ecstasy, love, lust, disappointment, hope and the like. Subbulakshmi’s ‘Kaatinile varum geetham’ can evoke in me the same emotion I feel while listening to Nina Simone’s ‘Wild is the Wind’. Simone’s soulful cry in the line ‘Just give me my equality’ in her song ‘Mississippi Goddam’ is identical to Pattammal’s national integration song ‘Viduthalai’. Aretha Franklin’s ethereal voice modulation is evident in her rendition of ‘You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman.’
Subbulakshmi’s skills at voice modulation are obvious in every song of hers. It is said that the great Yehudi Menuhin couldn’t control his tears when he listened to MS Amma’s ‘Bhavayami Gopalabalam’. And her repertoire spanned songs in every Indian language.
The advent of microphones changed the system of concerts. Apparently, many male musicians were reluctant to accept the transition. But women musicians, who were considered secondary, calmly adopted to microphones. Already, they were revolutionising the scene with their public performances and the microphone lifted their morale. They were literally heard then!
The Gramophone Company of India was ardently searching for woman singers for recordings. It was brave and feisty women singers who were initially willing to lent their voices for Gramophone Company.
The great singer Barbra Streisand named her latest album Walls. The 72-year-old still astonishes us with her enchanting voice. She talks about ‘emotional walls’ between people, about walls of the society, walls of injustice. She proclaims: Let’s build bridges and not walls. As a musician myself, I wish that I could be a bridge connecting my predecessors and future generations.