The passing away of M.S. Viswanathan on Tuesday, 14 July, at the age of 87 has left a deep chasm that would prove difficult to bridge, especially in the South-Indian musical world. On Wednesday, as friends and family joined in carrying his mortal remains on its final journey, a light drizzle began to fall, mixing with tears in the eyes of the cortege bearers and assuaging the pain in the hearts of millions of his musical fans everywhere.
The death of the legendary musician was widely reported in the media and attracted the usual spate of clichéd verbiage from political leaders and stalwarts of the film and music industry. But the copious eulogy rendered on his death did nothing to mask the fact that throughout a life dedicated to music, MSV, as he was fondly known to his friends and fans, failed to gain the recognition that was due to him from the music industry and even more shamefully, from our country.
In an age when, given the right political connections, anyone who can whistle a tune, or croon a song or move their feet to a beat, is given a Padma Shree or even a Padma Vibhusan, it is matter of shame to all of us that MSV was never recognized by the nation. But would the maestro have cared that he was not given due recognition? Doubtful — a life lived and driven by a passion for music has little need for external endorsements or commendations. It is also difficult to contemplate how someone who was the very personification of the Muses could be acknowledged by mere mortals.
The music of MSV transcends boundaries of time and age, existing in a realm of its own; chained to nothing and beholden to no one, it subsists solely in its lingering melody. His mastery of music and versatility with which he could compose tunes to a wide variety of musical genre and varying vocals, isolates MSV from his contemporaries and places him on a pedestal among a select pantheon of Indian musical legends.
Born Manayangath Subramanian Viswanathan, on 24 June, 1928 in the village of Elappully, in Palakkad district of Kerala, MSV experienced extreme poverty from an early age. At the age of four, following the death of his father, Viswanathan moved in with his grandfather who was a warden at the Central Jail in Kannur district. There, a local musician, noticing the young boy standing at his gates listening attentively to him tutoring other students, decided to give him basic music lessons. In the evenings, Viswanathan would sell snacks at local movie theatres so that he could listen to the music in the films.
In the 1940s, Viswanathan moved to Coimbatore, where he found work at Central Studios, which was then the hub of South-Indian movie production. The composer and violinist T. R. Papa took a liking to MSV and arranged a job for him as an errand boy for S. V. Venkatraman's musical troupe in 1942. It was while working there among other musicians that Viswanathan realized his inclination and potential for composing music.
He then joined the musical troupe headed by C.R. Subburaman, another famous musician of the time, as a harmonium player. It was here that he met with and formed a successful musical partnership with the violinist T.K. Ramamoorthy. The two worked together as a team from 1952 to 1965, composing music for over 100 films under the Viswanathan-Ramamoorthy label.
In a musical career spanning over six decades, MSV has composed scores for over 1,200 films in Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, Kannada, and Hindi. He also acted and sung over 500 songs composed on his own and more than 200 songs composed by other music directors. In the 1960s and 1970s, he worked in close association with the legendary Tamil poet and lyricist He worked together with the Tamil poet and lyricist Kaviarasu Kannadasan and also with Vaali from late 1960's.
The music of MSV was critical in the success of innumerable super hit songs by artists ranging from T.M. Soundararajan, L.R. Eswari and P. Susheela to S. P. Balasubrahmanyam, Vani Jairam and the Malayalam singer Jayachandran. He is also considered responsible for making singers like R. Balasaraswathi, S. Janaki, A. L. Raghavan, Sirkazhi Govindarajan and Yesudas popular names in the film and music industry.
In 2012, after a life-time of dedication to music and to the film industry, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Jayalalithaa Jayaram, conferred on MSV the title of Thirai Isai Chakravarthy (Emperor of Cine Music). Viswanathan and his wife Janaki, who passed away in 2012, are survived by their four sons and three daughters.
MSV was among only a handful of Indian musicians who could not only compose adeptly in Carnatic and Hindustani music, but also mellifluously bring together the two distinct musical formats. This is best heard in the Tamil song ‘Ulagin Mudhal Isai Tamil Isaiye’ , where the Carnatic portion is rendered by T.M. Soundararajan and the Hindustani portion by P.B. Sreenivos.
He was also the first to compose film songs in Bilaskhan-i Todi, one of the finest raags of Hindustani music. Though very few songs have been composed in this raag, even in Hindi cinema, the maestro was evidently fascinated by this raag and composed over 20 film songs in this raag, most of which ended up becoming super hits.
His willingness to experiment with different musical genres and introduce innovative methods brought a spectrum of variations and emotions to his music. At a time when no music composer would dare to use humming or whistling in their songs, MSV tuned the entire song ‘Neerodum Vaigayilay’ by having an artist whistle it.
MSV also enjoyed the challenge of composing situational songs and for rendering songs in different languages. For instance, the song ‘Pattathu Rani’ in the film Sivandha Mann was inspired by Arabic tunes, while ‘India Nadu En Veedu’ amalgamates a range of native sounds from different States and languages of India. His versatility is further evidenced in the Tamil movie Thavaputhalvan, where he composed music to the English lyrics of the popular song, ‘Love is fine darling when you are mine.’
Though he was willing to try out different Western and Eastern musical instruments and had some of the best musicians at his command, what makes his scores uniquely captivating is that he insisted on giving musicians and their instruments the upper-hand only during very specific interludes in his scores. His innovations in rhythms, his ability to draw out the best from his singers and orchestra to best depict the mood of the character in the movie, and his adeptness in conveying the story of a film with its title score, is what made the music of MSV so enchanting.
People who worked with him often said that he was a musical workaholic who spent long hours going over and over every aspect of his music. However, it was this dedication to perfection that ensured each of his scores brought something unique with it. It was this focus on even the smallest detail in his scores, and the attention with which he listened to a film’s director explaining the song’s situation, which allowed MSV to effortlessly produce tantalizing tunes that seem to linger forever touching the hearts of musical aficionados and the uninitiated alike.
- Staff report