A.R. Rahman’s U.N. tribute to M.S. Subbulakshmi


It was a tribute to legendary Indian Carnatic vocalist M.S. Subbulakshmi, but at the event’s Monday afternoon press conference, at least, the big event was as much a tribute to its equally celebrated performer A.R. Rahman, who appeared in concert at the United Nations General Assembly Hall Monday night in celebration of Subbulakshmi’s birth centenary and India’s 70th Independence Day.

India’s U.N. ambassador Syed Akbaruddin lauded Rahman for fitting it into his extremely busy schedule, itself a tribute, he said, to Rahman’s humility and his reverence for one of India’s greatest music artists. He recounted how Subbulakshmi, who died in 2004, had performed in the General Assembly Hall 50 years ago at the invitation of then U.N. Secretary General U Thant, thus becoming the first Indian to perform there.

Subbulakshmi sang the Sanskrit world peace benediction “Maithreem Bhajatha” and earned a standing ovation. Akbaruddin noted that the peaceful global values expressed in her U.N. repertoire, which he said were atypical at the time, were then carried forward in her ensuing international performances, and remain relevant today.

Hailed as “Queen of Music” by India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the “Nightingale of India” by leader/poet Sarojini Naidu, she was also the first Indian musician to receive the Bharat Ratna—the Indian government’s highest civilian honor—as well as the first to win the Ramon Magsaysay Award, which is considered Asia’s Nobel Prize.

But Subbulakshmi’s compassion and philanthropic activities were also extolled at the press conference. Rahman was likewise praised for his own humility, generosity and respect for everybody.

“One of my duties is to come celebrate her,” he said, and he did so that night with a three-hour concert focusing on Subbulakshmi’s music but also including popular Rahman originals from hit Bollywood films like Dil Se and Bombay. He also performed Sufi songs and “Jai Ho,” the big song from his Oscar-winning soundtrack to Slumdog Millionaire.

Rahman’s two sisters joined him in performance, along with Bollywood playback singer Javed Ali and students from Rahman’s Sunsine Orchestra, an AR Rahman Foundation organization that teaches eastern and western classical music to underprivileged kids.

Rahman said that Subbulakshmi was the inspiration for the Sunshine Orchestra, calling her “a case study” for aspiring artists seeking to achieve “ultimate icon” stature. At the press conference earlier, he noted that Subbulakshmi, who had performed at the U.N. a year before his birth, was the “God of my culture” growing up in Chennai and listening to her on radio and television.

(At the Doubletree Hotel press conference, Aug. 15, from left: Dr. Tarun Sharma, director of Sankara Nethralaya, Chennai; Syed Akbaruddin, A.R. Rahman and Prakesh M. Swamy)

He remembered “looking at the aura” of Subbulakshmi, who was also trained in North Indian Hindustani classical music.

“I grew up with an open mind,” he said, “[with] music all around me. My interests were wider, and as I grew older I started to respect foundation of music north and south–and she comes on the top for that, and is one of the reasons I’m here. I was very, very busy but we wanted this to happen because it was such a great honor for us, all the musicians and India.”

Rahman’s U.N. concert was presented by the Sankara Nethralaya nonprofit opthalmological charity organization based in Chennai–which operates the top eye hospital in India (where over 50 percent of outpatient services and 35 percent of eye surgeries are performed free of charge for the poor)–in conjunction with the Sankara Nethralaya Opthalmic Mission Trust, which is also plannng six September “Voice for Vision” concerts by Carnatic vocalist-composer Sudha Ragunathan (in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas, Chicago and Washington, D.C.) to raise funds for its activities.

Sankara Nethralaya is also arranging a concert by Carnatic vocalist and Padma Bhushan honoree Sudha Raghunathan at the U.N. on Oct. 2, and a concert with composer Zubin Mehta, sitarist Anoushka Shankar and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at Lincoln Center on Nov. 5.

Subbulakshmi was one of the main patrons of the Chennai hospital. According to Dr. S.S. Badrinath, chairman emeritus of Sankara Nethralaya, the celebration of her centenary is meant to perpetuate the memory of “not only one of the greatest musicians India had ever produced but that of a greatest soul who lived a life of philanthropy and goodwill for all humanity.”

Additionally, a photo exhibition documenting the life of Subbulakshmi debuted Monday night at the U.N., and Rahman said that a recording of Monday night’s U.N. performance may be released to raise more money for Sankara Nethralaya.