Service is the bedrock on which stands Sankara Nethralaya, whose journey is intertwined with that of M.S. Subbulakshmi. Geetha Venkataramanan writes.
His humility humbles you. And his eye for detail amazes you. Pioneer of a movement that has made Sankara Nethralaya a household name across India, Dr. S.S. Badrinath, Chairman-Emeritus, continues to be the relentless crusader against blindness. He firmly believes that the little cost, best quality service concept can be replicated all over the world to serve the poor. He has returned from the U.S. after a concert tour to commemorate the centenary of M.S. Subbulakshmi. The proceeds went to fund 3,000 free cataract surgeries.
The veteran shares details of the mammoth effort, which involved money, micro-level planning and high diplomatic skills, both of which Team SN that he leads has in abundance. An ardent devotee of the Kanchi Paramacharya, whose huge picture stands adjacent to his table, Dr. Badrinath captures the highlights of a journey, which united the Indian Diaspora across North America through music and philanthropy, a noble combination that M.S. stood for.
“M.S. and Sadasivam were always our ambassadors,” recalls Dr. Badrinath. Started in 1974 on the suggestion of Sri Jayendra Saraswati, the nascent charity organisation needed funds and the queen of music lent a munificent hand, performing five concerts in four cities in aid of Sankara Nethralaya besides facilitating aid from generous donors. She also gave away the purse that came with her Kalidas Samman.
The bond strengthened over the years, their affinity to the sage of Kanchi firming it up. “Amma’s devotion to Paramacharya was unparalleled,” observes Dr. Badrinath, who vividly recalls M.S. and Sadasivam waiting with a prayer on their lips at the corner of the street while Mahaperiyava underwent cataract surgery. The U.S. tour had a Srimukham from Srimatam.
Dr. Badrinath traces the genesis of this landmark U.S. venture to the party at his son’s home in the U.S. last year. “I wondered whether it wouldn’t be great to organise Carnatic music concerts in America. The response from the small gathering was lukewarm, understandable because it is not easy to pull off something like that,” he elaborates. But the idea kept coming back and took shape as a tribute to M.S. “Nanri Marappadu Nanranru, said Tiruvalluvar. I wanted to do something in her memory and what could be better than a series of concerts in her centenary year across the U.S.? And 2016 being the golden jubilee year of M.S. Amma’s U.N. concert, why not recreate the experience for the Diaspora, I wondered.”
Sudha Ragunathan was the chosen artist to perform at six places, including the U.N. Two additional concerts were scheduled too – on August 15, at the U.N. Assembly Hall, A.R. Rahman’s Sunshine Orchestra paid obeisance to a nation that was celebrating its 70th Independence Day and the melody queen, who performed there 50 years ago. A fitting finale to the homage was a sitar performance by Anoushka Shankar with Manfred Honeck and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at Lincoln Centre on November 5.
“My gurus guided me in many details on music. I have followed certain principles strictly in my music. Of course, it is by the grace of God that I was able to sing in so many concerts, here and abroad. My Carnegie Hall concert was as memorable for me as the U.N. concert. The hall was mostly full of Americans and they were very appreciative.” – the elegant brochure that SN brought out for the occasion has M.S. saying this in first person. The simplicity with which she refers to the U.N. concert sounds ironic considering the halo that surrounds it. The success of Sankara Nethralaya’s retro underlines its enduring aura.
Has the U.S. music tour given him the satisfaction of having paid homage to an icon, who gave her voice to his vision? “Well, I thank Periyava but for whose grace this wouldn’t have been possible…(pauses) But I have a dream, of creating an endowed Carnatic Music Chair dedicated to M.S. Subbulakshmi in the University of Denver, the U.S. It would cost millions of dollars… I leave it to the grace of the Acharyas and the blessings of M.S. to make this come true.” That will be the ultimate tribute when it happens.
M. S. Blue
An M.S. retro without her signature blue silk? When approached, Nalli Kuppuswamy said, “No. We don’t have that sari now. But I can get them made.” So the famous M.S. blue silk sari was recreated and even displayed at performance venues. “Thirty pieces were woven and all sold out,” smiles Dr. Badrinath.
“To those who light candles, the sun never sets.” – a Yiddish proverb quoted by Prof. Jay M. Enoch on dedicating S.N.’s Elite School of Optometry would be apt for both the institution and the Muse, who has always been its source of inspiration.
The M.S. Subbulakshmi Award
An award instituted in 2013 in the name of the Nightingale has been given to persons, who have supported Sankara Nethralaya in its service initiatives. The recipients include S. Rajarathinam and K.S. Jayaraman, Directors, Autotech Industries, Manohar Devadoss, artist and philanthropist and Kausalya Appukutty, Founder Trustee, SWAN.
Sudha Ragunathan’s concert on October 2 at the U.N. was not a fund raiser. But she was kind enough to oblige with another concert that evening. “Two concerts the same day within a few hours would be rather difficult for a vocalist but Sudha sang the same evening at the Sri Maha Vallabh Ganapati temple in New York. A great gesture,” says Dr. Badrinath.
“Rahman’s magnetic pull was in evidence with 800 people enjoying the music that ranged from Sufi to light classical,” says Dr. Badrinath. “After the performance here, the Sunshine Orchestra children should be called ‘privileged’ not under-privileged,” declared Rahman.
The State of Illinois, the City of Houston, the City of Pearland and the City of Sugarland issued proclamations in honour of M.S.
The staff at Sankara Nethralaya fondly recall the celebrity couple as unassuming and down-to-earth, who would wait for their turn to consult a doctor or undergo tests. It is informed that Dr. Prema Padmanabhan, Medical Director, was the surgeon who performed the cataract surgery on both M.S. and Sadasivam. Interestingly, Dr. Prema also accompanied M.S. in a concert, a unique distinction indeed.
It is team spirit that has taken Sankara Nethralaya to great heights. In recognition of their contribution, six staff members participated in the U.S. tour. “Ten of us were chosen but four didn’t get the visa,” explains Malathi G.G., Deputy Manager, Events. “It was a wonderful experience,” she says, referring to the concerts, the U.N. aura and the places they visited. With a stint of 33 years she has literally grown with the organisation.