He Knew Nothing Else

Image Source: Silverscreen.in

Image Source: Silverscreen.in

“He knows nothing,” Kannadasan said of MSV, launching into an anecdote. The iconic Tamil poet and lyricist loved to hold forth on a variety of subjects, including politics, love and other intoxicants, and his peculiar, inseparable friend, M.S. Viswanathan. “We boarded a plane and he misread Toilet and asked me what the rent was. We landed in Kabul and asked me what Afghanistan meant and who Muhammad Ghori was. We went to Tashkent and he was listless. We went to Leningrad (Saint Petersburg) and when I introduced him to someone, he mistook engineering for a vegetable. He was really quite hopeless. Our host took us to the Tchaikovsky concert hall and showed us a piano that the great Russian supposedly played on. Viswanathan couldn’t pronounce Tchaikovsky. But he sat at the piano and for 30 minutes, played the maestro’s concerto. Naturally, the Russians were spellbound. He really knows nothing. Nothing but music.”

Born in Elappully in Palakkad, Kerala, the story of Manayangath Subramanian Viswanathan would have ended in 1932 when his mother decided to drown herself and her four-year-old in a tank, to escape penury. Legend has it that as mother and son debated who would jump first, MSV’s grandfather arrived to deny them a watery grave. His childhood after that momentous day was unremarkable, except for a passion for cinema. He sold snacks at the local movie theatre, and sometimes, the payment, was to be allowed in. His musical talents were discovered by accident, when his teacher, Neelakanta Bagavathar, spotted him singing and playing the harmonium by himself. His primary ambitions were to act and sing in the movies. The pull of cinema was strong. He began his career as a ‘boy’ in Jupiter studios, cleaning the harmonium of music director S.M. Subbiah Naidu. His first film as an actor was Kannagi, a Jupiter production. Music, however, was always just under the surface.

MSV’s debut as a film music composer was Jenova (1954) starring former Tamilnadu Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran. Incidentally, as B. Kolappan of ‘The Hindu’ observed in his studied obituary, MSV has worked with four Chief Ministers – N.T. Ramarao, M.G. Ramachandran, M. Karunanidhi and J. Jayalalithaa.

MSV’s relationship with music has a touch of serendipity to it, like a great love story. It was almost as if he let music pull him towards it, before he gave it his all. He was not born into a musical family. His talents were discovered early on, but he chose to act instead of compose for film. And while his training in Carnatic music was extensive, he had no formal training whatsoever in world music, which he enjoyed and seamlessly adapted to Indian sensibilities with prodigious ease. Thulluvadho Ilamai from Kudiyiruntha Kovil (MGR, 1968), and Avalukkenna from Server Sundaram (Nagesh, 1964) come to mind. According to several accounts, MSV set the latter to tune in 15 minutes. And it took the formidable T.M. Soundararajan the rest of the day to record it. A tricky bit with the rhythm illustrates casual, aesthetic virtuosity.

One way of putting it would be, ‘he could hold a tune from start to finish’. There was never any ambiguity in MSV’s tunes, even if he occasionally indulged complexity, like in the National Award-winning Ezhu Swarangalukkul in Apoorva Ragangal (Kamal Hassan, Srividya, Rajinikant, 1975). With a rich, organic quality, his tunes seem to make their way through the grammar of a raaga, occasionally conduct a brief liaison with a few bars of western music, and finally wrap themselves to a close all by themselves. Consider Kadhal Siragai from Palum Pazhamum (Sivaji Ganesan, 1961) or the poignant, dreamlike Malarnthum Malaraatha from Pasamalar (Sivaji, Savithri, 1961), the deceptively simple Mauname Parvayal from Kodimalar (Muthuraman, 1966), the seductive Anbulla Manvizhiye from Kuzhanthaiyum Deivamum (Jaishankar, Jamuna, Kutti Padmini, 1965), or the…this is dangerous territory. MSV, as a solo composer, and as part of a duo with Ramamurthy, a violinist with S.M. Subbaiah Naidu, worked on over 1,700 films. A playlist with a lazy, indulgent tag like ‘great tune’ would take a while to compile.

The inimitable (though many try) voices of TMS, P.B. Srinivas, P. Suseela and Sirgazhi Govindarajan blossomed, blushed, sparkled and shone within the liberating notes of MSV’s music. He did more than ‘give hits’ to these singers. He immortalised them within an indestructible amalgam that was his song, where it is impossible to separate or shut out music, lyric or voice. The catalyst is MSV’s affinity for poetry. No wonder he and Kannadasan were such fast friends.

He never had a problem with setting Kannadasan to music. There is latent music in every word, every syllable, he believed. As far as poetry is concerned, Kannadasan has a parallel in Gulzar. The latter boldly brings in the abstract into his lyrics and occasionally, the words and the meter grapple for space within a song. One wonders if he hasn’t found his MSV yet. Kannadasan had a cheeky proclivity towards distilling an everyday conversation into lines of lyric. MSV’s style is less about making words sit in a meter than about a musical empathy with the meaning. Could anyone else have set to tune the first line of Sonnadhu Nee Daana, of Nenjil Or Alayam (Muthuraman, 1962)? Or so marvellously brought out the onomatopoeia of the third word in Attuvithal Yaroruvan Adathaare Kanna from Avanthaan Manithan (Sivaji, 1975)?

An extension of his poesy was his feel for genre. While Ilaiyaraja is celebrated as the rescuer of Tamil folk music, songs like Thazhayaam Poo Mudichu in Bhaaga Pirivinai (Sivaji, 1959) and Aarodum Mannil Yengum from Pazhani (Sivaji, Muthuraman, 1965) ensured there was something of the rustic left to save in the film world.

Occasionally, MSV sang. As a poet once put it, “MSV’s is the voice of your conscience. You’ll want to listen, even if it doesn’t tell you very pleasant things.” Sollathan Ninaikkiren, from Sollathan Ninaikkiren (Sivakumar, 1973)  is not a bad example.

A star from an era that prized monopoly and produced insecure artists with an exaggerated opinion of their own artistic invincibility, MSV turned out to be an experimenter and cheerful collaborator with a later crop of lyricists, singers and music directors. That A.R. Rahman looks up to him and Ilaiyaraja considers himself fortunate to live and work as his contemporary, is telling of his magnanimous spirit. Talents like S.P. Balasubrahmanyam, K.J. Jesudas and S. Janaki owe much to him. Unakkenna Mele Ninrai in Simla Special (Kamal Haasan, 1982) stood its own, bang in the Ilaiyaraja era. Had he had time, perhaps MSV would have adapted to higher technology, richer orchestration. However, one finds it curious that even at the wane of his career, MSV’s music seemed as contemporary as the best of them. For the uninitiated, it’s hard to tell if the blockbusting Engeyum Eppothum and Sambo Siva Sambo from Ninaithale Inikkum (Kamal Haasan, Rajinikant, 1979) was composed by MSV or by Ilaiyaraja.

I couldn’t bring myself to write an obit on MSV. I enjoy him too much. A dal-chawal note with an anecdote and a few references turned into a binge-listening session, alternated with some impetuous writing, past 3:00 a.m.

It began when I was ten. It was the year Sun TV invaded our home in Vizag, just as it did the homes of Tamils all over the world. On a fairly large Videocon TV with a capsule-like two-toned start button, a song from Puthiya Paravai (Sivaji, 1964) began to play after cheesy logo animation. I was bored, uninterested in watching anything that wasn’t Cliffhanger. The song was Unnai Onru Ketpen. Unmai Solla Vendum. I was in love. It took me a while to realise my mouth was hanging open and that my parents were watching me curiously. “You like the song?” my father asked me. I nodded. And then, “Are you able to enjoy this? Really?” he said. “Of course,” I replied. Over the next two decades, this dialogue played back every time we listened to MSV. My reply seemed to validate the immense pride that came with being a diehard MSV fan, as well as the typical conviction of every generation that their music is the only one of any substance. My appreciation grew more vocal and nuanced, but the look of immense satisfaction on his face never changed. It lent itself to only one interpretation – “I have done my job as a father. I have passed on a love for MSV.”

An edited version of this article, published in  can be found here. Copyright © The Wire.