Not resting on his laurels, MSV always looked ahead
Unlike most music directors of his time and age, M.S. Viswanathan (MSV) was a public figure and a musical icon. He might have slowed down in his eighties, but the magic of his muse hadn’t worn off, while the media’s hunger for celebrities had sharpened. He was on TV in reality shows, he was in a handful of films as an actor, he was in live music shows, and he was on rap remixes of his own numbers, crooning and cavorting Thillu Mullu with contemporary worthies. And all along, as the illustrious music composer whose evergreen numbers set the benchmark for melody and lyrical excellence in Tamil cinema in the by-now legendary era of MGR and Sivaji, he was the last shining vestige of a classic age of music that had all but vanished. He will therefore be profoundly missed.
As he lay in intensive care, a pale shadow of his usual self, his face behind an oxygen mask, he seemed to have given up the will to survive. In the last few years since the passing of his wife, the warm, open-hearted and generous Janaki Amma, his zest for life had been slowly waning. She had known he would be like a babe in the woods without her –why, he couldn’t even button his shirt himself – and ironically for a Hindu wife, despaired when told by an astrologer that she would pre-decease him.
Admirers MSV met would speak warmly about the beauty and melody of his music, and the composer would make formal noises of his gratefulness. But his one specially remarkable trait was that his gaze was fixed ahead, never on the laurels of the past. He itched to do more music, to exercise his musical faculties further. But of late the sound of music was going mute, the bellows in his harmonium seemed bereft of bounce. And this was the man whose energy and dynamism in the recording studio one would have to see to believe. Folding his eight-yards dhoti, the number of times he would whirl round the studio, instructing singers or chastising trailing players! In his formative years, he had even tried learning dance from Vazhuvur Ramiah Pillai!
Born in the nondescript Palghat village of Elapulli to Manayangathu Subramanian and Narayani Ammal, he had lost his father before he was four. The poignant conditions of his father’s demise as well as the unsettled circumstances in the family – he would recount an aborted bid by his mother to drown him as part of a suicide attempt – must have been traumatic. As a truant school boy in Cannanore (Kannur), where his maternal grandparent Krishnan Nair was a jail warden, MSV frequented touring cinemas selling snacks. That was when the magical melodies of the likes of Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, Aswathamma and V.A. Chellappa, cast their spell on him.
The romance with music took a significant turn when music teacher Neelakanda Bhagavathar took him as a disciple. The tutelage climaxed in a cutcheri by 12-year-old MSV in Cannanore town hall. One would have a rare glimpse of that past with a sliver of life slipping in through his otherwise selective memory – the young student perched on the shoulders of the guru as they bathed together in a stream, MSV reeling out the swaras as Bhagavathar belted out a Carnatic kriti. Reckoning music, even all sound, as pitch and part of some vast music of existence was a lifelong preoccupation with MSV, though only rarely he gave an inkling of the workings of his mind.
Running away from home in his early teens, MSV went to Tiruppur and finally found his way into Jupiter Pictures in Madras, but missed being cast as the young Kovalan in ‘Kannagi’. He had a minor role and a few singing lines in ‘Kubera Kuchela’, but the itch for recognition as an actor took him to drama troupes exposing him to the stage music of the times as well as to some very unpleasant and heartbreaking experiences. He returned to Jupiter cringing, but his tenure as a boy attendant in the production house’s music hall, brought him close to music directors like Subbiah Naidu and paved the way for his emergence as a music director. The final leg of MSV’s internship was under the musical genius C. R. Subbaraman, whose premature demise at 28 set the stage for the emergence of his chelas, MSV and Ramamurthy as a the first musical duo of Tamil cinema in N. S. Krishnan’s ‘Panam’.
MSV, at 24 was the younger partner, dynamic and raring to exercise his prodigious creativity. Ramamurthi was 31, a respected violinist in film music circles with a special touch of melody, stern in temperament and more knowledgeable in Carnatic music. Together they made a swell team, and struggling through the fifties when opportunities were scarce, they burst out into their own in the early sixties with a new wave of light music in Tamil cinema. Taking a cue from the western orchestration of Hindi film songs, they brought an orchestral richness to Tamil film song combining it with lyrical significance and melodic richness. Kannadasan, who backed the duo from the start, played a pivotal role in this transformation in the ‘Paa’ series of films through his lyrical wizardry and was later joined by Vali, among others. The Viswanathan-Ramamurthy scored music together for just under 100 films before the poignant 1965 split. But by then, they had made the change, and even the competition (K.V. Mahadevan) could not afford to ignore the new trend. Singers like T. M. Sounderarajan, P. Sushila, P. B. Srinivas, L. R. Eswari and to a lesser extent Sirkali Govindarajan and S. Janaki figured promimently in this transfiguration of film music.
MSV worked his magic in times when music directors were expected to offer an array of tunes for producers and directors to choose from. It was the time of live recordings when the logistic challenges of making a song were manifold. A single mistake by a singer or instrumentalist would entail doing a song all over again. The recording studios weren’t air-conditioned yet and the ceiling fans would have to be switched off during takes. The number of films produced was increasing, and unlike the previous era, songs could not be rehearsed for months, but would have to be mostly taught in the studio during the recording. Some music directors left the scoring of orchestral music to their associates, but MSV composed the interlude music of his songs himself, and preferred to do it at the spur of the moment, during the recording. Individual singers could notate the tunes for their reference and individual players could write down their parts, but he preferred performance by the ear. His own education had been entirely by the ear.
Post-split, MSV came out in flying colours as the single-most influential music director of Tamil cinema. Sivaji and MGR had emerged as the pillars of Tamil cinema, and whether it was Sivaji’s melodramatic expression of angst (Gowravam’s Neeyum Naanuma, for instance) or MGR’s song connect with his fans through political and social messages coded in lyrics (Neenga Nalla Irukkanum Naadu Munnera in Idhayakkani), MSV was past master in creating chart busters. While wowing the lay cinema goer with peppy numbers, he would also woo the elite with tours de force of music for directors like K. Balachander, turning out a soaring song (Adhisaya Ragam) in a rare four note raga (Mahathi) in keeping with the film’s title of Apoorva Raagangal, or etching a deeply meaningful lyric in a forceful raga malika (Yezhu Swarangalil). MSV understood the vocal potential of younger singers like S.P. Balasubramaniam, Vani Jairam, K. J. Yesudas and P. Jayachandran and exploited them to the hilt to hone melodious numbers. He himself had a unusual singing voice full of feeling, and as the years went by, sang more frequently, mostly for off-screen song situations. A. R. Rahman too harnessed his voice in films like Sangamam and Kannathil Muthamittaal.
The rise of a new generation of film makers in the mid seventies to the anthem of Ilayaraja’s music slowly tapered off MSV’s musical career, though some boys on the burning deck like director R.C. Sakthi persisted with the veteran unto the last. A series of home productions in the early eighties landed MSV in financial hot waters. To bail him out, Ilayaraja teamed up with him in AVM’s Mella Thirandhadhu Kanavu. There were a few more films they did together, with MSV composing the tunes and Ilayaraja doing the orchestration. In the event, MSV also joined up again with his erstwhile partner, Ramamurthy for a few films. But it turned out to be only a token gesture. In all, MSV scored music for about 600 films, including about 65 films in Malayalam and 30 in Telugu. He was active in the cine musicians’ union as well as the performing rights society, once chaired by Naushad whom MSV considered his mentor.
MSV was a man of restless creativity, toying with new projects, ideas for new albums, live shows and TV serials that projected his musicality. It was when he found himself drained of his capacity to work, with the contours of his world shrinking fast, that he had decided that the song was over. He would tell close friends that he longed to be a wandering singer, with a song on his lips and gliding his fingers over the keys of his beloved harmonium. Freed of the dross of matter, the Mellisai Mannar could well have begun to indulge his deepest desires.
(The writer is a film music historian and an author of several books on film music)
(A version of this article appeared in the Times of India)