The sun was beating down with full gusto. It was a bright day in Chennai and the mood was upbeat in the hotel room where I was staying. I had for company the Secretary of Sri Lalithakala Academy, Mysore. The then Minister for Kannada and Culture Smt. Rani Sathish (who later acted in TN Seetharam‘s ‘Muktha‘ as a judge) was to join us in a few minutes. All of us were excited as we were to present an award. I repeat. We were to present an award and not receive. And we were EXCITED.
We reached the peaceful locality of Kotturpuram and searched for the house which had ‘Sivam’ and ‘Shubham’ on either side of the gate. We found the house and as we entered I could hear the sound of a thousand Tamburas. As soon as we stepped inside the drawing room, I was thrilled to see a legend in flesh and blood, whom I had admired since childhood, in front of me with folded hands and welcoming us. I was seated in front of none other than MS.(I have purposely not used any of the titles her fans have showered her with because she was simply ‘MS’ to both connoisseur and lay man alike). I couldn’t believe that the voice that awakened millions of Indians in India and abroad, in temples and tea stalls, in all seasons, was enquiring about my well being. I was still pinching myself to believe this was happening. She looked like any of our Ajjis, clad in a cotton saree, reclining on a bamboo chair with a pocket-sized Vishnu-Sahasranama book, with oily pages. The initial pleasantries over, a cook got us hot steaming coffee.
In a corner of the room, a Tambura and a Veena stood silently. I wondered the glorious times MS might have sung playing them during her rehearsals and Kutcheris. Today they were just mute spectators. Furniture had been kept to a minimum, comfort never transcending into luxury. The alcove of the living room where she used to practice had portraits of Lord Venkateshwara and Satya Sai Baba.The walls of the room were adorned with pictures of famous personalities. I saw Kanchi Seer Sri Chandrashekara Saraswati, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, RK Narayan, Rajaji, Gandhi, KM Munshi and many more next to each other. All of these personalities were very close to MS and Sadasivam. MS narrated how she got to learn from the maestros like Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Papansam Sivam, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Alladiya Khan and others. At that instance, I mentioned that Bade Ghulam Ali Khan addressed MS as ‘Suswaralakshmi-Subbulakshmi’. She just folded her hands and told “Periyavar”(Elderly person).
After her husband’s death, MS had stopped performing. Her health was deteriorating too. But I still found that she had the Tejas (Radiance) in her face and was as excited as a child. She was all eager to hear me when she got to know that I could sing. I felt really shy to sing in front of a person who breathed music. She particularly asked me to sing a Purandaradasa Devaranama. As I sang, tears rolled down her eyes. I prostraterd before her and sought her blessings. She insisted I sing another song. I sang a Thyagaraja krithi. She seemed very happy and told me not to lose touch with music. She told me, “Atmartha Sangeetha is the supreme form of singing. First you should love your music, only then will others love it.”
The Sangeetha Rathna award was presented to MS by the Academy. And it was farewell time. As we were about to leave, she rose and told she was very happy to have met us. And we couldn’t stop taking our eyes off her ever-glowing smiling face.
It is a different experience to see a performer on stage and off stage. Most of them are inaccessible. But there are few exceptions like MS. I had read umpteen articles where she was described as a very humble and down to earth person. I was fortunate to have seen her off stage at such close distance.
As we were driving back, the feeling was yet to sink in that I had spent priceless moments with a legend. Listening to the stereo which was playing MS’s Bhavayami Gopalabalam…. I realized that because MS conveyed the meaning of devotion that the audience came to her. And came in millions.
MS, we miss you