The Tribune - Spectrum

, March 17, 2002

Melody that stems from mysticism
K.R.N. Swamy

M.S. Subbulakshmi, the queen of Carnatic music
M.S. Subbulakshmi, the queen of Carnatic music

IT was October 22, 1966, just a day prior to the most important concert in the life of Bharat Ratna M.S. Subbalakshmi, the queen of Carnatic music. She was to sing the next day in the United Nations, the first-ever Indian musician to do so. On waking up that morning, in her hotel in New York, she found that her voice had "gone" and she was not able to even call her daughter and accompanist Radha Viswanathan, affectionately known as Radha. When Radha eventually woke up, she was horrified! "Amma! what has happened to your voice?" she exclaimed and the calm M.S. signalled her to be quiet, so that her septuagenarian husband Sadasivan would not hear of problem and get worried. Radha could hardly control her sobs. The United Nations concert was to be the pinnacle of the thousands of concerts her mother had given and now her voice was barely audible. Other concerts, one could postpone, but not the UN concert, when, after years of planning, she was going to sing before the whole world!

But M.S. Subbulakshmi was not despondent. She whispered to Radha, that she was going to meditate for the help of the great Kanchi Shankaracharya — Paramacharya. His Holiness Chandrasekharendra Saraswati (1893-1994), who had been guiding her for decades. Till the time came, the next day, to go to the concert hall, she was meditating on her Guru. She later remarked: "As I sat down in the great auditorium and began the invocation song, my voice came back crystal-clear and I knew that my prayers had been answered".


For Siddeshwari Devi (1903-1977), one of the greatest vocalists of Hindustani Music, the problem in 1932 was different. After completing a grand musical performance, she was acknowledging the congratulations of the audience, when someone from the crowd handed over a paan to her. Unwittingly, the maestro put the paan in her mouth and to her shock, it was as if she had eaten a paan dipped in acid. She spat out the pan, but the harm had been done. She lost her voice and for years went from hakims/ayurvedic vaidyas/eminent allopathic throat specialists to regain her voice. It was of no use. Finally, unable to think of a life without music, she went in desperation to the ashram of Aghori sanyasis in Banaras. She was already a devotee of Baba Ramchander — their Guru. She was desperate and poured out her grief to him at losing her voice.

He took a handful of ashes from his pooja agni kund and told her to take it with her to the ashram tank nearby. There she was to put the ashes in her mouth, drink from the tank water and change her clothes to new ones, throwing away the old raiments into the tank. Siddeshwari rushed to the tank, but her heart sank on seeing the stinking surface of the pool, already full of decaying clothes from former supplicants. The water stank so much that she was barely ably to stand there. But, eager to get back her voice, she swallowed the ashes, gulped some of the tank water and fainted on the spot at the pain and nausea in her throat. She regained consciousness after some time and changing her clothes went to Baba Ramchander. He looked at her affectionately and told her "Now sing!"... Miracle of miracles her crystal clear voice which had left her, came back and the happy Siddeshwari Devi spent rest of the day singing the praises of God in the Aghori Ashram.

For the great Carnatic musician, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, (1896-1974) the trial was different. A great devotee of Lord Krishna, the presiding deity of the famous temple at Guruvayoor, "bronze-voiced Chembai" as he was known, was constantly in demand for his classical Carnatic music recitals. But he never accepted any request for concerts, if the programme dates clashed with his "prayer-days" dedicated to Lord Krishna, and preferred to lose the fees. Then the Lord decided to "play" with his disciple. One day, while performing in front of the Guruvayur temple, Chembai found that all of a sudden his voice had failed. One second he was in upper reaches of music and the next second he could not even say a word. The coming months were tortuous, as his admirers and his family took him from specialist to specialist in order to get back the voice for the grand singer. But it was of no use, and Chembai resigned himself to a "voiceless" existence. After some months, as he was stoically worshipping in the Guruvayoor temple, one elderly Namboodri (Kerala Brahmin), a famous ayurvedic expert of Kerala, shook him by his shoulders and told him "God Guruvayurappan came in my dreams and has told me to cure you". To cut a long story short, Chembai went with him and after few months, through the Namboodri’s medication, got back his lost voice.

In the book Pilgrim of the Swara, eminent music critic Raghava Menon mentions of similar experience the great K.L. Saigal (1904-1947) had when, as an youngster, he was just coming up in the musical world. Suddenly he found that his voice had "gone".

He panicked, for he could not sing. Saigal asked his mother to take him to the Sufi saint, Pir Salman Yousuf in Jammu, who had told them to come to him if he was in any trouble. Now trouble had come to Saigal as large as life itself. He fell at the foot of the pir and sobbed. "Do not fret my son", the pir said gently blessing the young musician. "This could be the luckiest thing in your life. It gives a chance to be present while you are being reborn. Life should be a succession of rebirths. It is not enough to be born once. I agree you sang well before. But the voice with which you sang was not yours. It was given to you. You had not made it yourself. Now you have to redeem the voice that was pledged to you. You have therefore to start from scratch, you must practise every bit of it, hour by hour of your life, as you begin to make your new voice". Reassured thus, for two years Saigal did not sing, just did zikr and riaz, tuning his swar (voice), constantly. In later years, Saigal told a friend "I was born — a rebirth in a pir’s hut one windy evening in Jammu".

For Pandit Jasraj the great vocalist, his great devotion to Goddess Kali was reinforced by an incident which happened when he was the court singer to Maharaja Jaywant Singh, erstwhile Indian ruler in the state of Sanand. As he described his experience in the Times of India. "One day, while at Sanand, my brother Pt Pratap Narayan lost his voice. No amount of tests, visits to doctors, or medicines helped him. He could not sing, and was barely able to talk in a hoarse whisper. This condition continued for more than a year, until one day the Maharaja, a great Kalimata devotee, announced that Goddess Kali would return his voice that night. We were sceptical, but he asked us to have faith and meet him in the palace temple at midnight. At midnight, he asked my brother to sing, and he, to our great pleasant surprise sang. That night he sang from midnight to 6 a.m. I did not know what I am to make of this miracle, and I am sure that others also would not be able to explain this grand miracle.".

These miracles are a clear manifestation of the great link between Indian classical music and the sacred mysticism of Nada Brahman, as Divine Music is referred to in our scriptures.