This small coffee table book Kunjamma Ode to a Nightingale chronicles the life of M S Subbulakshmi, the most celebrated classical singer of 20th century India. Written by the daughter of a dear friend, it shows the awe and admiration that the author has for the singer like the rest of the country.
Written more or less chronologically, it starts by talking about her childhood in Madurai and Subbulakshmi’s mother who was also her first teacher. How she ran around to launch her daughter as a singer in Chennai. Thereafter it talks about her marriage to Sadasivam, who was much older than her and was already married with two kids. And how he took on the task of managing Subbulakshmi’s career. How he would choose where and when she sang. Deciding to the last detail of what songs she would sing and in which order. At the end of each concert, she would bow to him. And dedicate everything she has to him. She never had any children of her own. And that part is completely missed by the author.
There is repeated mention of all the awards that she got and all the dignitaries who used to call on her and her husband when visiting Chennai. There is a fair amount of mention of the newspaper that her husband used to run. And how that was also skillfully used to promote Subbulakshmi’s singing career. There is a generous mention of the charitable work that both of them did for various temples. There is mention of her featuring in the movies as a devotional singing star. And her success as Mira in the film based on the devoted saint. She also mentions her style and how her Sarees were specially woven in Kanchipuram. Never to be repeated for anyone else. How a particular shade of Blue became synonymous with her Style and carried her name (I am curious to see this shade of blue now).
It talks about her visiting various countries and creating a sensation by her singing. It talks about the preparations that she made before each and every concert. And how her focus was to please each and every member in the audience.
The book paints M S Subbulakshmi as a simple, devoted woman for whom singing was all that mattered. It can not really be called a biography. As it leaves lots of part of her talent, her personality and her life as missing pieces. This can be taken as a book written by an ardent fan for a personality whom she knew from close quarters.
The pictures do speak a thousand words on every page. And you would enjoy looking at the singer’s expressions in each of the pictures. Overall the book Kunjamma left me wanting to know more about the legend called M S Subbulakshmi.