In some fields of music it is possible to use a superlative like ‘greatest’ without fear of charges of partiality or chamcha (sycophantic) designs. The Madurai-born, Carnatic singer Madurai Shanmugavadivu Subbulakshmi (1916–2004) was one of very few for whom ‘greatest’ could, should and – because she lives on through recordings such as this – can be used justifiably. Surdas Bhajans comprises twelve Surdas-themed settings recorded live in Calcutta at the Vidya Mandir’s Prayer Hall on 23 September 1978 with P.S. Srinivasa Rao accompanying on harmonium, uncredited percussion (notably mridangam) and Radha Viswanathan supporting vocally. Née Radha Sadasivan, she is her mother’s daughter. When she comes in on ‘Madhuban Tum Kyon Rehat Hare’, for example, her unison vocalising creates an uplift and quite different vocal dynamic. It’s to do with heightened-artistry buzz that only blood-kin delivers – whether that is, to do a western number, dear readers, the Bee Gees, the McGarrigles, the Watersons or the Stanley Brothers. At this recital M.S.S. was one week to the day past her 62nd birthday. Her youthful voice had changed, had deepened – as had her command of her repertoire and her interpretative skills.
Surdas was a blind seer (supposedly) and epigram-strewing Hindu poet-composer associated with the bhakti (devotional) tree of reforming Hinduism and Krishna worship. He was also associated with its saguna branch. This addressed the paradoxes of illusion on the earthly plane through theological metaphors, including both the entrapment of the senses and how we use our senses – fittingly for Surdas, especially darsan (‘sight’). Surdas, idiomatically ‘slave to sound’, was a late medieval saint-composer whose life was first described in a hagiographical, sectarian work attributed to Gokulnath but whose life and works spiralled into the stuff of bigger legend, including roping in the Mughal emperor Akbar (much like tales of Robin Hood rope in King John and Richard the Lionheart). Now read on…
Listening to archival recordings of whatever provenance frequently calls for a suspension of audiophile ears (whatever that means) and this M.S.S. recording is no exception. The point is that ears attune and adjust. That will happen as you listen to Surdas Bhajans. One thing that you can leave like shoes at the threshold is presumptions of perseverance and weightiness. This is too easy on the ears to count as work. This songcraft runs like the sheerest silk scarf through the fingers.
And another thing, now you ask. This recording presents a less familiar side to M.S.S.’s work. Each composition is set in a northern Indian raga – Desh, Behag, Bageshri and so on – but she delivers them in a delightfully inflected ‘foreign’ accent. Imagine the seductiveness of a Frenchman or woman purring in your ear in accented English. Go on: it’s as naughty as a second helping but it’s very nice indeed. Plus, there is humour in the way ‘Muraliya Ab Kaahe’ ends with its slinky outro slide. When mother and daughter finish, you can see the smiles on their faces. Eidetic artistry.