When Manayangathu Subramanyan Viswanathan sings

Circa 1991, HMV released the album Legends: Viswanathan Ramamurthy. I was given the job of producing a TV advertisement for this release. They wanted me to include bits from an interview with M.S. Viswanathan in the promo. I rushed to his Chennai residence on Santhome High Road with camera crew and this huge excitement of meeting M.S.Viswanathan. He was waiting, ready for the shoot in his white and white dhoti and shirt and with his trademark accompaniment, the harmonium. The composer of countless unforgettable film songs, one of India’s incomparable music geniuses was waiting for me there in flesh and blood!

He was humility personified as he welcomed us. The next three hours were a continuous and flowing stream of remembrances from his music life. His experiences and experiments in music, the stories behind many great songs, the way many songs that took their place in history were composed, tidbits of incidents, it was a magnificent tour of the world of South Indian film music. The interview he gave for a 30 second advertisement film was sufficient to craft a full length documentary of his music career! M.S.Viswanathan is a humble person but a spring well of endless musical ability even at a ripe old age.

Ilayaraja once said, “Countless are his songs which melted my heart totally enraptured by their charm. His every song is a priceless jewel. If I have achieved anything in music, I submit them as my humble offering at the feet of MSV.”

A.R.Rahman, in one of his rare interviews, recently admitted that M.S. Viswanathan was close to his heart as a great all-time-composer and that he was the true music genius of Tamil film music. “There are no music composers in Tamil film music who are not influenced by MSV nor will there ever be!” is Kamal Hasan’s comment. He goes on to add: “MSV’s tunes have filled my ears and heart and dominated my taste of music since my childhood. He infused life into film music by introducing new styles to light music composition. He is a legend in Indian film music.”

M.S. Viswanathan who has been ruling the air waves beyond one generation with his countless super hit melodies who counts millions as his fans even today. Undoubtedly he is the numero uno composer of Tamil film music. From his first song in 1952 to the late eighties he stayed at his creative heights. He composed the music for over 1740 films in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Hindi. No other film music composer in India stayed at the top as long as M.S. Viswanathan did.

Recently in a discussion about him on the internet, a Kerala youngster asked: “Are you talking about the Viswanathan who sang the Malayalam song ‘Kannuneer Thulliye’?” For most Malayalees M.S.Viswanathan is a Tamilian, a Tamil film composer who also composed a few unforgettable songs in Malayalam and above everything, a singer who sang with great emotion ‘Kannuneer Thulliye Sthreeyodu Upamicha Kavya Bhaavane’ for the film Pani Theeratha Veedu- 1973, in an astounding high pitch to secure a place for it in the history of Malayalam songs forever.

According to an article written in the Malayalam journal Mathrubhumi by an ‘expert’ on Malayalm film music, MSV has composed music for a few Malayalam movies. He has sung only one song; the super hit ‘Kannuneer Thulliye’. He could not recollect another equally famous song in Malayalam sung by M.S.Viswanathan, ‘Hrudaya Vaahinee’. Actually M.S.Viswanathan had scored music for over 60 films in Malayalam and sung over ten songs there in.

Surprises greet you at every turn when you hear about the life and times of M.S.Viswanathan. Manayangathu Subramanian Viswanathan is a Malayalee was born in Elappulli village in the then Malabar (part of today’s Kerala) district of Palghat on 9th July of 1932. The first composition to be released in his name was in the bilingual Tamil-Malayalam film ‘Jenova’ in which MGR played the lead.

MGR, who too was a Malayalee, at that time strongly opposed M.S. Viswanathan being introduced as a music composer. He argued that he was as yet raw and unfit for the big assignment. The film’s producer, Eappachan, another Malayalee, supported M.S. Viswanathan and he got that chance along with T.A. Kalyanam and Gnana Mani as other composers of the film.

But MGR recognized the arrival of a genius, when he heard the songs recorded for ‘Jenova’. In flooding rain he called on M.S.Viswanathan in the thatched hut he was living in to hug him and congratulate him. It was a relationship that lasted till the end. MSV got some other partial film assignments during this time like ‘Panam’, ‘Devadas’ and ‘Chandi Rani’.

MSV always had the highest regard for Hindi film composer Naushad. He called him his guru. When a book on MSV’s life story was released in 2002, he humbly refused to sit with Naushad on the dais, out of his respect for Naushad. But Naushad himself had expressed differently about MSV. “I have learnt many things from him. So I ought to consider him my teacher. I was asked to compose for the Hindi version of Tamil film ‘Alayamani’. But after seeing the film, I pointed out that MSV has touched new heights in the film and there was little left for me to do. MSV has accorded me the status of a guru, but that is because of his humility. I always had goose pimples listening to many of his tunes.”

Naushad was quite right. It is MSV’s opinion which apart from showing his humility also has shades of confusion. Anyone who minutely analyses the compositions of both Naushad and MSV will agree that Naushad cannot be compared with Viswanathan on creativity and the control over the medium. In 1956, Viswanathan-Ramamurthy had composed for the Hindi film ‘Naya Aadmi’, ‘Laut Gaya Ghum ka Zamana’ sung by Hemant Kumar-Lata Mangeshkar duo. You can compare this song with any of Naushad’s songs. None will stand the test according to me.

If you listen to the Hindi versions of MSV’s songs you will realize that his music scores have remained unchallengeable. Where MSV’s scores have been massive hits, the Hindi versions were mere pale imitations. Listen to Lakshmikant Pyarelal’s compositions for the Hindi remake film ‘Pyar Kiye Ja’ and then listen MSV’s score for the original Tamil film ‘Kaadhalikka Neram Illai’. Or listen to Shankar Jaikishen’s scores for ‘Dharti’ and ‘Main Sundar Hoon’. Then listen to MSV’s scores for ‘Sivanda Mann’ and ‘Server Sundaram’. Then again look at what Music composer Ravi had to offer in ‘Do Kaliyan’ in place of MSV’s ‘Kuzhandayum Deivamum’ in Tamil. The lackluster Hindi scores are great testimonies of the brilliance of M S Viswanathan.

I am not calling M.S.Viswanathan a genius to merely praise him. A genius is not a natural extension of his circumstances. A genius easily breaks the barriers erected by his birth and circumstances. He stuns and leaves everyone wondering about his arrival and his gathering force. Long after his time is done, he lives on luminously through his creations. MSV is such a personality.

Tamil is a language with not less than two thousand years of music traditions. Two hundred years have passed since Carnatic music took its current form. Here the given was that music means traditional ragas. Before M.S.Viswanathan most of the film music composers took a part of the traditional raga and laced the lyrics with it. There ended their creativity and work as composers. MSV’s music creations could not be confined within the traditional ragas. There was a need to find a new designation for MSV’s creations. That is why, I believe, the term ‘Mellisai’ (light music) was created. Did the title ‘Mellisai Mannar’ (King of Light Music) really do justice to MSV’s stature? Was his music just ‘light’ music?

Viswanathan’s compositions look simple at first glance. It attracts the fan at once. But on a more careful analysis, one will realize the depth of his compositions. His music often graced by heavy movements of scales. At times, the song may be a composite of more than one tune. Or he may rearrange a single tune in many different ways. His music with its emotional undertones, at times, lends new meaning to words. He may take a totally different track after the Pallavi in some songs. Suddenly, the ending may be in a new tune. A thousand songs may be analyzed to illustrate these musical movements. For example in the song ‘Anbulla Man Vizhiye’ a new tune graces every quartet of the song.

What tradition MSV’s music, that straddled half a century of Tamil Film Music like a colossus, does belong? One cannot trace notes of the music of his native Kerala in his creations. Nor can it be associated directly with the Tamil folk music. Western music is not his forte either. These were merely the backgrounds that inspired him.

Music, for him, is not a continuation of tradition. It is a very personal language. He has often said that Sa Ri Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni is his language. He uses his language to lend emotional content to the dramatic scenes in films. He has often explained this with the way many tunes evolved for the occasion. He had once remarked that he had literally roamed for days together to find a tune for the song ‘Nenjam Marappadillai’ from the film of the same name till and finally he found inspiration from the sound of a retreating wave on the seashore. Countless were such songs! Today, those scenes have faded away with time. But his evergreen songs still stands tall.

M.S.Viswanathan is known to people of other languages as a Tamil film music composer. Even though he composed many super hit melodies in many other languages, he was never sufficiently recognized in them like Tamil. ‘Chandirani’ produced by actor Bhanumathy in 1953 in multiple languages including Hindi. ‘Naya Aadmi’ (1956), ‘Afsana Do Dil Ka’ (1983) etc were his other Hindi films.

He had composed music for over 60 Telugu films. The multi-lingual ‘Devadas’ was his first Telugu film. Every one of the ten songs he composed for ‘Santhosham’ (1956) was a super hit. Some of the all-time-hits of Telugu film music were his compositions. Viswanathan continued to score music for Telugu films till 1997. Viswanathan has scored far less for Kannada films. But most of his songs are considered big hits even today. His first Kannada film was ‘Bhaktha Markandeya’ in 1956.

After ‘Jenova’ Viswanathan scored music for a Malayalam film in 1958 named ‘Lilly’. But till ‘Lanka Dhahanam’ in 1971 he could not find time for Malayalam films. Then followed a great innings with ‘Pani Theeratha Veedu’, ‘Babumon’, ‘Chandrakandham’, ‘Dharmakshetre Kurukshetre’, ‘Divya Darshanam’, ‘Yezham Kadalinakkare’, ‘Iyer the Great’, ‘Jeevikkan Marannupoya Stree’, ‘Kolilakkam’, ‘Kutravum Shikshayum’, ‘Panchami’, ‘Sambhavami Yuge Yuge’, ‘Vaenalil Oru Mazha’, ‘Yaksha Ganam’ and ‘Shuddhi Kalasam’.

Viswanathan has composed some very great light music scores like ‘Kannuneer Thulliye’, ‘Easwaranorikkal’, ‘Nadan Paattinde Madisheela Kilungum’, ‘Katrumozhukkum Kizhakkottu’, ‘Suprabhatham’, ‘Swarganandhini’, ‘Veena Poove’, ‘Hrudhaya Vaahini’ and ‘Thiruvabharanam’. These great songs continue to be heard by Malayalees wherever they are. Since MSV continued to score music till nineties, it is possible to extend this list manifold.

Apart from these, Viswanathan has composed music for countless Devotional Songs and Independent albums in all the four South Indian languages. These fill our ears and mind on a daily basis. Fact is that it is unthinkable to spend a day in South India without listening to one of his songs. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that with his prodigious music output he has remolded the South Indian music taste. Many a new film songs that we hear even today are MSV’s songs in altered forms.

There is another fact which even film music connoisseurs have overlooked. The very purpose of this article is this one central fact that Viswanathan is essentially a singer. In reality he trained as a singer. In 1941, at the age of nine, he performed his first music concert as a Carnatic vocalist in Kannur, in Malabar.

He is a great singer but in the biography of his life written by Ranimaindhan with MSV’s blessings too only has a passing mention of his singing. In a 300 page book, there are not even three lines on MSV as a singer. Adding insult to injury, the book wrongly mentions “Allah, Allah” song, sung for the film ‘Mohammad Bin Tughlak’ as his first song as a singer.

‘Mohammad Bin Tughlak’ was a film released in 1972. In 1963 M.S.Viswanathan had sung the song ‘Paar Magale Paar’ for the film of the same name and this song was played in every hamlet in Tamilnadu. This is an often heard number even today. His voice was recorded for the ‘Palirukkum, Pazhamirukkum’ number of the film ‘Pava Mannippu’ as a background voice accompaniment after the lyric lines. After that he continued to sing many songs.

In India many composers have sung their own compositions and under other composers. The list extends from Pankaj Mallick to A.R. Rahman. But how many of them have passed muster as singers? When they compose a good score for themselves to suit their voices, they have half their job already done. But when the thought crosses our mind that a professional singer would have done better justice to the song, the composer is already defeated as a singer.

Salil Chowdhury used to instruct his singers on the minutest details of his score. But when his children wanted to record his great Bengali songs in his own voice, he developed cold feet and refused. But his children readied the track for ten of his best songs and fixed a date for recording it in his voice. Left with no alternative, a flustered Salilda woke up at four in the morning to practice singing. On day one, when the first song was recorded, he was nervous in the extreme. He was perspiring profusely when he came out of the recording room after the first recording. He could finish that album only after many faltering takes. And the songs recorded did not sound very great either. Salilda’s daughter, Sanchari Chowdhury, had given me this account of Salilda’s trepidation at recording his own voice.

But MSV never found it difficult to sing. Only the singers felt small and inadequate in reproducing what he sang for them by way of illustration. T.M. Soundararajan once said: “When MSV sang the tune of the song ‘Yaar Andha Nilavu’ composed for the film ‘Shanti’ I was just too stunned and I wondered how I am going to sing it. It is impossible to sing like him. “P.B. Sreenivas used to say that he could reproduce only ten percent of what MSV illustrated while explaining his tunes to him.

P. Susheela said once that no singer has sung his tunes with the liveliness with which MSV sang for them. She had come away from recording theatres in tears many times; unable to sing the way MSV had illustrated his tunes in his own incredibly expressive voice. Vani Jayaram had commented that the subtle nuances that MSV brings out while singing are difficult for any singer to reproduce and that the song will be a great song if they can reproduce even ten percent of what he illustrated. All his singers have remarked the greatness of MSV as a singer.

M.S.Viswanathan occasionally used to sing his own compositions sung by others on the stage. Some of these are also available as records. Music fans will realize how his singing is livelier and more nuanced. We can see this MSV style of rendering in the many great songs sung by renowned singers.

When Viswanathan sits with his harmonium he becomes a singer not the composer. When he sings the same tune again and again, they keep coming with new refreshing changes every time. But singers would find it difficult to keep track of serial creative evolutions of tunes that MSV keeps stringing together all the time.

Viswanathan was not the typical singer with a cultured voice. It is nobody’s contention that he has a mellifluous voice or a pleasing flow. That may probably the reason why he did not consider himself a singer! His was not a voice that suited the actors of his time. That was the reason why his was either a disembodied voice in the background or the voice of miscellaneous characters in films. But his songs he sang were an exciting amalgam of countless play of nuanced differences. The creative energy of these songs was like the countless waves of the sea refreshing your mind unceasingly. The boundless emotions that they unleashed on us were truly amazing.

Let us take, for example, the song ‘Enakkoru Kadhali Irukkindral’ from the film ‘Muthana Muthallavo’ released in 1976. He sang this song with S.P. Balasubramaniam. The nuanced change of emotions he brought to every line he sang clearly illustrated the differences in singing by a professional singer and a creative composer- singer.

There is a saying in Tamil film world that ‘Pitch means Vichu’. MSV has sung most of his songs at unusually high pitch. He sang these songs himself, as other singers were diffident about singing at high pitch. He was able to sing these songs expressing a variety of emotions. One realizes this listening to his song ‘Etharkum Oru Kalam Undu Poruthiru Magale’ sung for ‘Sivagamiyin Selvan’ released in 1973. This song imparts a soft touch to expression of finer emotions of man.

MSV’s singing for disembodied voice conveys a wrong impression that he could sing only such songs. It is true that his voice does not suit many artistes donning the roles of heroes. But the extraordinary effect of his voice in the portrayals by artistes has been noted. His song ‘Jagame Mandiram ... Sivasambo’ in the film ‘Ninaithale Inikkum’ takes Rajnikant’s portrayal to a different level. Another great example is the song ‘Nee Ninaithal Innerathile’ in the film ‘Nilave Nee Satchi’.

In a previous article I have written on A.M. Rajah’s voice, its sweetness and conformity to the pitch. Without these two, there can be no sweetness in the song. But conformity to pitch is something which entered history of music much later. What is this conformity to pitch? It is, according to musicologists, the requirement that vocalist conform his pitch to the pitch of the accompanying instruments. Of course, the vocalist must be conscious of the need to conform to the pitch!

But how would the songs in the past before the need to conform to the pitch and for voice training emerged have sounded? It would have been an original and uncontrollable sense of enjoyment bubbling along on its own. When a singer can touch that height of music, voice training and conformity become secondary. In any kind of music environment we can identify a few raw geniuses of singers.

MSV is one such genius. Every song sung by him, including his own compositions, had been sung by him with a total application of his mind after a complete understanding of and empathy with the lines of the lyrics. The emotions expressed by his songs are completely natural and honest. That is why their boundless variety of expressions cascade effortlessly. The song ‘Sollathan Ninaikkiren’ from the film ‘Sollathan Ninaikkiren’ is an example. The emotions and longings of this song is smoldering and compelling beyond words.

Long is the list of such songs. ‘Kandathai Chollukiren’ from ‘Chila Nerangalil Chila Manidhargal’, ‘Allah, Allah’ from ‘Mohammad Bin Tughlak’, ‘Ikkaraikku Akkarai Pachai’ from ‘Akkarai Pachai’, ‘Uppai Thindravan Thanneer Kudippan’ from ‘Oru Kodiyil Iru Malargal’, ‘Dagathukku Thanni Kudichen’ from ‘Neelakkadal Orathile’ and ‘Idhu Raja Gopura Deepam’ from ‘Agal Vilakku’ are songs that come immediately to mind. We will do well to ponder whether any other singer could have brought about in the virtual parade of emotions infused in the hums and moans by MSV? He can launch a musical journey in any note of a song. His laughing in seven different music notes in the song ‘Enakkoru Kadhali Irukkindral’! Incredible to the core.

Other composers have recognized his rare and exciting talent as a singer. His song ‘Unakkenna Kuraichal Nee Oru Raja’ sung in the film ‘Velli Vizha’ for composer S.Kumar is a great example. He has sung for composer Govardhanam in the film ‘Varaprasadham’. He has sung for composer Ilayaraja in ‘Thai Moogambigai’ and ‘Yatramozhi’ (Malayalam). He has sung for A.R. Rahman in films like ‘Sangamam’ and ‘Kannathil Muthamittal’.

‘Vidaikodu Engal Naade’ in the film ‘Kannathil Muthamittal’ has a tune of considerable emotional depth. MSV’s singing made it even more tempestuous. But the tune of ‘Aalaala Kanta’ in the film ‘Sangamam’ is an average tune. But MSV through his lifelong experience in music and volcanic emotions of his vocalizing has lifted the song to its stunning height.

Now, well past eighty years of age, Viswanathan still scores music for films and television, sings and emotes. He is conducting music shows all over the world. For his achievements in film music, Tamil Music Association, in its Chennai Music Festival of the season of 2004 honoured him with the title of ‘Isai Perarignar’. An organization of traditional Carnatic music experts honouring a composer of film music was the first of its kind.

Viswanathan lost his father at the tender age of three. His childhood was filled with sadness and neglect. He was not blessed with even a rudimentary formal education. He learnt music from his guru by doing his household work as he could not afford to pay his guru dakshina. In his early days in Chennai he worked as a server in tea canteens and as a helper. From that humble position he rose to be the King of Music solely on account of his genius.

M.S. Viswanathan did not win any National Award during his lifelong innings in music. He was not even given a Tamilnadu state award. He was not given anything of note in recognition of his body of work by governments. He is a simple person not familiar with the ways of the world. He did not know the art of kowtowing to persons in authority. And he had none to speak up or lobby for him.

But, I say, it is nothing to be sorry about. Our awards, achieved mostly on the basis of reach or relationship, are not worthy of being dignified by the genius of MSV’s music. MSV used to regularly repeat a phrase in his stage shows. ‘Mortal Men, Immortal Melodies.’ True, awards of mere men perish with them. But MSV’s music which shaped the taste of millions will last for ever.