M.S. Viswanathan: The legend of music

M.S. Viswanathan (1928-2015) and his music have a unique space in the hearts of both connoisseurs and commoners.

Published : Jul 22, 2015 12:30 IST

'MSV on the Grand Piano' function at Museum Theatre in Chennai on September 28, 2008.

'MSV on the Grand Piano' function at Museum Theatre in Chennai on September 28, 2008.

THIS is the story of a self-made musician: Manayangath Subramanian Viswanathan, popularly and fondly known as MSV, who mesmerised Tamil minds with his melodies for close to six decades. He passed away at his residence in Chennai on July 14 at the age of 86.

Born in Elappulli near Palakkad in Kerala in 1928, MSV grew up in near poverty after he lost his father when he was four years old. His mother made him the extraordinarily humane but strong human being that he remained all through his life.

One of his disciples, the composer Ganesh of the Shankar-Ganesh duo, said he was more a humanist than a composer. “Music and humanism cannot be separated,” he said.

MSV’s basic schooling in Carnatic music from Neelakanda Bhagathavar for a brief period laid the foundation for his phenomenal career, which spanned more than four decades and thousands of immortal melodies. When he began his career, film music still had a strong Carnatic infuence, with doyens like Adi Narayana Rao, S.M. Subbiah Naidu. G. Ramanathan, S. Dakshinamoorthi and the irresistible K.V. Mahadevan ruling the roost.

But MSV’s genius saw him innovating with ragas, which others refused to do for fear of “polluting” divine music. This break with tradition appealed to the common people and brought for MSV’s brand of music a unique space in their hearts. Rare ragas were taken out of their traditional form of rendition and given a “makeover” that evoked popular appeal and left the purists with nothing serious to complain about.

When this writer met the iconic director K. Balachander (KB) for an interview last year, he shared an interesting facet of MSV. Balachander said he utilised MSV’s expertise whenever he had Carnatic music as the central theme of his scripts. “MSV was the musician for Aboorva Ragangal , and when I expressed my wish that I should have a rare raga for the song “Athisaya raagam”, he used a combination of rare ragas such as Mahathi and Bhairavi. Another song in the film, “Ezhu Swarangalukkul”, has the unique combination of Sindhu Bairavi and Kambhoji, besides a few others.

Asked why he did not use MSV again in his Sindhu Bairavi , he said that the film was about a musician’s life, his rise and fall, where interpretations [of ragas] were not needed. The KB-MSV combination scored songs that defied time, especially in films such as Aval Oru Thodar Kathai and Sollathan Ninaikiraen and, much later, his musical extravaganza Ninaithalae Inikkum , which KB politely termed as a small “kaanikkai” (offering) to MSV and lyricist extraordinaire Kannadasan.

Connect with fans

MSV gave his first stage performance at the age of 13 at Kannur and later performed light music on stage in Thiruvananthapuram. The crowd responded cheerfully. Since then MSV maintained his live orchestra troupe which, he once said in Madurai, was his direct connect with his fans.

Despite his busy schedule as a music director—at one time he even had 12 films on hand—he maintained the troupe. He loved the stage and his fans. He loved the garlands and the shawls which his fans showered on him. Like a child, he used to bask in their glorious encomiums. In fact, he sourced a few singers from his troupe.

MSV’s passion for music made him join Jupiter Theatres as a “cleaner” to dust the harmonium of the musician C.R. Subbaraman and later S.M. Subbiah Naidu. From that day to his very end, the harmonium was his alter-ego. “You could never see him in programmes without his harmonium. It was his life. It breathed his breath. It fine-tuned his tunes. Though keyboards ushered in a revolution in light music, he stuck to his faithful box. That tiny, fiery magical box, just imagine, created immortal tunes,” said a musician who worked with him.

Despite the advancement of technology, MSV never became irrelevant. The fact is that he never strived like many of his contemporaries to remain relevant. “He is timeless,” said “Vietnam Veedu” Sundaram, writer, director and close friend. He always encouraged youngsters and appreciated their freshness and vigour. When Ilaiyaraja burst on to the silver screen with the freshness of folk in Annakkili in the 1970s, MSV called him a genius.

His absolute confidence in his music made him pair up with Ilayaraja to compose music in three films, including Mella Thiranthadu Kathavu . He never hesitated to sing numbers of other young composers too. He sang to the music of V. Kumar, Shankar-Ganesh, Ilaiyaraja, Gangai Amaran, Deva and A.R. Rahman. “He is sure of his creativity. His song “Vidaikodu engal naadae” in Kannathil Muthamittal in A.R. Rahman’s music was a poignant rendering on Tamils’ woes in Sri Lanka.

Of course, MSV gracefully appropriated with ease modernism in music in the 1980s. The films of the 1960s had stilted dialogues, dull performances and archaic storylines. But his music made them spring to life. “Many films that would have flopped survived because of his soulful music,” said Ganesh.

The tedium of such films was effectively camouflaged with his immortal mettus (tunes). When Subbaraman passed away, music for three films, Chandi Rani , Marumagal and Devadoss , remained unfinished. MSV and Tiruchirappalli Krishnaswamy Ramamoorthi, a violinist in his troupe, helped complete the films for their timely release. Impressed, N.S. Krishnan asked the two of them to score music for his film Panam (Money) in 1955. In fact, MSV had by then scored music for four songs in producer E.M. Eappachan and M.G. Ramachandran’s (MGR) bilingual (Tamil-Malayalam) starrer Jenovah , in 1952.

NSK’s Panam gave them the desired break. From then on there was a no looking back. The duo, Viswanathan-Ramamoorthi, became celebrated musicians, scoring music for more than 100 films in the 1950s and 1960s until the two separated amicably after completing the MGR blockbuster Ayirathil Oruvan in 1965. They came together again 29 years later, in 1995, for the film Engirundho Vanthan , which unfortunately did not do well in the box office.

MSV continued his journey alone and went on to score music for 500 more films until he wound up his long innings with the Tamil movie Suvadugal (2013). In Malayalam, he scored music for 77 movies and in Telugu 31, besides a few in Kannada and Hindi.

Incorporating various genres

His success lay in his ability to adapt quickly and innovate. He incorporated into Indian cinema various genres of what is now called world music. He could make a perfect synthesis of folk, jazz and classical influences in his tunes.

“He used three instruments in his lilting number ‘Thazhayam poomudichu’ in the film Bagappirivinai and had the guts to use 300 instruments for one song, ‘Enge nimmadhi’. His orchestration was something that had to be seen to be believed, simply astounding,” said “Vietnam Veedu” Sundaram. The 70-year-old veteran told Frontline that Hindi film music director Naushad was his fan. “R.D. Burman used the pallavi of ‘Muthukulikka varihala’ of the Tamil film Anubavi Raja Anubavi in its Hindi version Do Phool for which Mehmood and Asha Bhosle sang. Such was his versatility,” he pointed out.

MSV loved yuppie music, too, inspired by the New Age music that swept Western countries in the 1980s. He assimilated Persian, Egyptian, Mexican and European music and jazz and adapted them into the native music of rollicking rock. He even scored an English song, “Love is fine, darling”, in the Sivaji Ganesan starrer Thavapudalvan . The same film has a song on the importance of ragas in “Isai kettal puvi asainthadum”.

Though his love was for his harmonium, he used the piano, the dilruba and the shehnai liberally. The sound of the whistle was also something he used to great effect. “Naan kavignanum illai” (I am not a poet) in Padithal Mattum Podhuma is one such number. “Just listen to the song “Sambo Siva Sambo” in Ninaithalae Inikkum , it proves MSV’s adaptability to the Western genre. The creative variety in his music has made it ageless,” Sundaram said.

Can anyone blend pride with pathos in a song? He did, with aplomb, when he sang Vaali’s “Unakkenna koraichal… Nee oru raja, vanthal varattum muthumai” in the film Velli Vizha . The composer was V. Kumar. The heart-rending numbers in Karnan will live forever in the minds of people. Here he brought in the rare mix of regality, godliness and pathos. In “Engae nimmathi” in Puthiya Paravai , he blended the moods of exasperation and helplessness of the human mind.

The song “Pirakkum podhum azhugindran, Irakkum podhum azhugindran” in the Chandrababu starrer Kavalai Illatha Manithan in the early 1960s had a liberal dose of pathos with philosophy. MSV relished singing songs that matched his high-pitched voice. His song “Allah, Allah” in Cho Ramaswamy’s Mohammad Bin Tughlak in 1972 was a runaway hit. Actually, he wanted to rope in the legendary Nagore Hanifa for the number, but Cho insisted on him singing it.

But what made MSV exemplary was how he transported himself into the picturisation of a song. He would become the actor, assimilate the role of the protagonist rendering the song and the situation wherein the song sequence would be shot. He would study the lyrics and then catch the mood. Whether the scenes were poignant or ecstatic, he would infuse them into his tunes.

His obsession with perfection was legendary. The singer L.R. Eswari said he would scold a singer when he or she failed to deliver what he wanted. “Once you gave what he expected, he would be the best person in the world for you,” she recollected.

For him, there was no line between fantasy and reality. That is why he could bring out the best from even brassy and sensitive singers. In fact, he was comfortable with youngsters too while composing, acting or even singing their tunes.

Formidable combination

Each composition of his, with Ramamoorthi or alone, was a journey to eternity. He never believed in short-term advantages. He worked hard until the tune he longed for was realised. “When MSV [Ramamoorthi] sang the tune for “Yaar andha nilavu” for the film Shanti (1965), I wondered how I am going to sing it. It is impossible to sing like him,” singer T. M. Sounderarajan (TMS) once said. The combination of MSV (Ramamoorthi), lyricist Kannadasan and actor Sivaji Ganesan was formidable, bringing out the best in each of them.

A haunting melody is “Malai pozhuthin mayakkathilae” in P. Susheela’s voice in the film Bhagyalakshmi in 1961. Could anyone other than MSV (Ramamoorthi) have brought out effectively the sorrow of a young widow? MSV would never compromise on the pronunciation of Tamil words, and this created a niche for MSV in the world of music.

He had celebrated contemporaries in K.V. Mahadevan, P. Adi Narayana Rao, A.M. Raja and R. Sudarsanam. Hence, his composing needed to be a notch above theirs. It may not be an exaggeration to claim that the classy combination of Kannadasan-Vaali-TMS-MSV had made a Chief Minister out of MGR and established a versatile actor in Sivaji Ganesan. In fact, the Dravidan Movement drew inspiration from his tunes. The song “Acham enbathu madamaiyada” in the MGR film Mannathi Mannan, released in 1960, was thoroughly exploited by the movement to its political and ideological advantage.

The vibes he shared with lyricists Kannadasan and Vaali are the stuff of folklore in the industry. They lived and breathed music. Despite his closeness with Kannadasan, MSV, with no inhibition, roped in the lyricist Vaali for a dash of freshness and variety. Vaali used to say that but for MSV, he would have been on the streets. “Before I met him, I had nothing to eat. After I met him, I had no time to eat,” Vaali once said in an interview. “Wherever a talent is there and whenever it could be spotted, I will have no hesitation to use it,” MSV once said.

MSV and Kannadasan shared a special bond that transcended time. Their friendship was so deep and perfect that when MSV asked his friend, a strong atheist then, to pen a few devotional songs, Kannadasan obliged him with hits such as “Pullankuzhal kodutha moongilkaley, engal Purushothaman pugazh padungalae” and “Ayarpadi maligaiyil”. On screen, the MSV-TMS-Kannadasan trio belted out many outstanding numbers.

MSV and Ramamoorthi were conferred the “Kings of Melodies” title by the Triplicane Cultural Academy in the 1960s. “It was Kannadasan who chose the title and Sivaji Ganesan who conferred it on them in the presence of academy secretary Narasimhan, directors Sridhar and C.V. Rajendiran, and Chitralaya Gopu and myself. That occasion cannot be forgotten,” Sundaram reminisced.

The God-fearing musician was equally known for his humility. Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, who enacted songs set to music by MSV, said that she had been recommending him for national recognition since 1991. In fact, when she broke this news at a felicitation function for both MSV and Ramamoorthi, he politely said that every fan had been his reward. But national recognition eluded him to the last. Actor Y.G. Mahendra said that it was a shame that an icon like MSV was not recognised during his lifetime.

Perhaps the best and poignant tribute came from “Vietnam Veedu” Sundaram when he said: “It is his harmonium that misses him today. His fingers played on it for 60 long years. Today it is left orphaned and alone.”

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