It was 50 years ago — on October 24, 1966, to be precise — when the domed General Assembly building inside the United Nations (UN) headquarters, located on the east side of midtown Manhattan, resonated with a host of guttural and intense alapanas, krithis and pallavis, many of which were interspersed with the bhakti bhava, in the voice of one of India’s best-known musicians, Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi.
Accompanied by Radha Vishwanathan and Vijaya Rajendran on vocal support, VV Subramaniam on the violin, TK Murthy on the mridangam and TH Vinayakaram on the ghatam, 59-year-old Subbulakshmi, with the nasal twang in place, wasn’t just crooning some of the finest pieces of music in her mellifluous voice. She was creating history by becoming the first Indian to represent one of the oldest musical cultures in the world, perform at the UN on the United Nations Day and set the future of classical Indian music at a global level.
Now 50 years later, the UN is paying a tribute to the legend by organising a photo exhibition just outside the General Assembly Hall. The exhibition, which also marks Subbulakshmi’s birth centenary on September 16 and also comprises the iconic picture of her singing at the UN, has been curated in collaboration with India’s Permanent Mission to the UN and Sankara Nethralaya, Dr DD Badrinath’s non-profit ophthalmic care, to which Subbulakshmi continued to donate from her concert revenues.
“I had been reading about this being MS Subbulakshmi’s centenary year and that she performed at the UN 50 years ago. When I dug deep, I found out that she was supposed to perform in 1965 and couldn’t because of the India-Pakistan war. It finally happened in 1966. So it seemed like an interesting time to pay this tribute, all of which culminated over six months of discussion with the concerned authorities,” said Syed Akbaruddin, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Permanent Representative, Permanent Mission of India to the UN.
Oscar-winning musician AR Rahman’s performance at the same venue on August 15 this year was also a part of the initiative. The UN Postal Administration will also issue a stamp to mark Subbulakshmi’s birth centenary.
The photo exhibition, currently on at the General Assembly Hall foyer, with the tall UN building on the side, comprises an array of archival photos of the legendary artiste sourced from Sankar Nethralaya. There is a picture of her, looking into the abyss with her taanpura as if resonating with the vibrating strings and finding that perfect note, looking straight at the camera while playing a veena, with Dr Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan and former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Sometime in 1947, just a few months after the Independence, freedom fighter, film producer and journalist Kalki Sadasivam received a call from the Kasturba Foundation requesting his wife to sing Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite bhajan, Hari Tum Haro, and send the recording to Delhi. But the woman in question, Subbulakshmi or “the nightingale of India” (a titled given to her by Sarojini Naidu) didn’t know the piece. To make sure there was no injustice to the bhajan, she pleaded unfamiliarity and requested the foundation to use someone else’s voice. A prompt call came from Gandhi soon, who said, “I should prefer to hear it spoken by Subbulakshmi than sung by others.”
She promptly recorded the bhajan and sent the recording. A few months later, she heard the same bhajan play in her voice at All India Radio post the announcement of Gandhi’s assassination and was overcome with emotion. A black-and-white photograph of Subbulakshmi and Sadasivam, sitting at the feet of Mahatma Gandhi and attending a prayer meeting, which shows the revered association of Gandhi and Subbulakshmi, is one of the main photos at the exhibition.