Wednesday, July 15, 2015 - 05:30
  For every Tamilian alive on the planet today, a rather difficult rite of passage occurred on the morning of the July 14, 2015. Bidding adieu to an old friend is very hard, especially when this particular friend had occupied so much of the mind and heart, and filled both with love and gratitude. Some friends alter your psyche. They touch you in certain ways that change you forever. MS Viswanathan (MSV, born 1928) was not just a music director. He altered the Tamil mind and its perception of melody across several generations, infusing our consciousness with new sounds and memories. In the paper boat of our lives, MSV’s music remained a steadfast anchor, filling us with vocalizations for emotions and situations where we found ourselves otherwise inarticulate. With his passing away, Tamil popular music experienced the end of a rather irreplaceable changemaker. MSV’s life is a story in itself. His humble roots in Palakkad district in Kerala, his being an errand boy in Jupiter Pictures, his apprenticing under established music directors of the time and his later rise and friendship with stars and directors are all well documented. His immortal partnership with TK Ramamoorthy, violinist and composer, and subsequent parting and rise as MSV are also known. His was the music of South Indian cinema from the 50’s through the late 70’s, influential decades in  society undergoing huge transformations. Little known outside the Tamil consciousness is the effect MSV’s work had on not only popular imagination but also the foundation it laid for subsequent greats such as Ilayaraja and  AR Rahman, both of whom consider MSV their guru. It is significant that MSV had a wonderful relationship with both his protégés and several others thereafter. Mortality and Destiny Death has a strange way of befriending great people. It usually introduces itself to such people very early in life. Often, these introductions are strange and although unwelcome at the time, pave the way for a different trajectory to what might have been a very different life. MS Viswanathan experienced these things very early indeed – from the death of his father when he was extremely young, and the near-suicide that he and his mother attempted thereafter, due to abject poverty. Death was to visit MSV again when he lost a mentor C R Subbaraman in the early 50’s.  This led him to complete the latter’s film assignments and to work with another colleague, TK Ramamoorthy, a talented violinist and composer. This particular partnership lasted well over a decade and produced phenomenal scores in its wake. In each instance, and as it is with most of us, such events shaped a rather different destiny for this particular king of melody. MSV did some rather wonderful things, and much before everyone else. He was lyric-led, understanding the musicality of words and their meter, a talent that served him through the several decades of his work. This explains why the lyrics registered in the minds of the listener, and poetry flourished. The poetry of Tamil Nadu in the later part of the twentieth century underwent a resurgence largely thanks to MSV’s music. Indeed, Vaali, Kannadasan and Vairamuthu all flourished under his musical guardianship. He also had an incredibly rich ear for sound, picking up often unseemly instrumental additions to highly indigenous melodies. In “Partha Nyabagam Illayo” (from Pudhiya Paravai, 1964), a polyrhythms-playing calypso band joins a brass section in a highly exciting soundscape for an unforgettable melody. In the first interlude, for instance, just as the ‘bossa nova’ style has it in its sway, the brass progresses into a tango-like staccato pattern, punctuated by a three-part choir. These were ideas well ahead of their time, and paved the way for exciting dance music that followed in several films and the oeuvre of music directors who came thereafter. A lone violin plays a plaintive and haunting refrain in “Vaa Nila Nila” (Pattina Pravesham, 1970), an idea that is both sophisticated and accessible at once. In “Appappa Naan Appanallada” (Galatta Kalyanam, 1968), once again we have a languorous tango being used in a context far away from its South American roots. The melody itself underscores, in an unlikely situation, a comic farce involving two grown men and a baby. The “cha-cha”, a dance form in vogue in the 60’s, found itself used to tremendous effect in “Andru Vandadhu Adhey Nila”. The rhumba, the disco and the salsa can be found in numerous renditions.  In his way, he was the inventor of the “fusion” sound, in popular music – much before the idea fructified into even more daring avatars among later composers. We find the accordion and the bongos accompanying the tabla (Pudhiya Paravai, many scenes and interludes), the sitar orchestrated by a 20-piece string section (multiple movies) and many such ideas which were revolutionary for their time. In "Rajavin Parvai", a never-before-or-after masterstroke, a contrapuntal harmonic line does as many as six scale shifts in the second interlude before resolving to the next verse being sung. The extensive harmony work in Ilayaraja’s work as well as the choice of unusual instruments and voicing that is a hallmark in Rahman’s output in the eras that followed owes much to the imagination of MSV, who was unafraid of experimentation and bringing in trends and ideas from a global musical template. Many stage musicians still use MSV’s immortal “Nilave Ennidam” as the reference point for the raga Bageshri,  and the equally riveting “Madhavi Ponmayilai” for the raga Karaharapriya. MSV’s tuning of devotional poetry (Kannadasan’s “Pullanghuzhal Kudutha Moongilgale”, for example) still form the basis of devotional music rendition and composition and orchestration in the South. While collaborations are the zeitgeist of our times, MSV went ahead and did that from the very start. Be it his partnership with Ramamoorthy (“Malardhu Malaradha” from Pasamalar in the 60s remains as iconic today as it did back then, as does “Vaazha Ninaithal Vaazhalam” from Bale Pandiya), collaboration with younger composers Ilayaraja, Rahman and even Ilayaraja’s younger son Yuvan Shankar Raja stand testament to a large-hearted, respected and highly open-minded musician. Thank You For the Music This tribute cannot do him justice. His output of over 1200 songs, his own voice in over 500 songs, his use of all the most beloved voices of our times all belie the simple exterior of a man whom I met once, intently gazing at the piano keys and dreaming up tunes. I’ve seen him with both the harmonium and the piano on stage, and I can’t but help be grateful to him for reinventing the latter in Tamil popular music. I’ve heard from so many colleagues that it was regrettable that he wasn’t chosen for any national honours. If the impact of an artiste is to be judged by the number of other professionals he influenced, the number of hearts he touched, and the respect he will continue to hold in the hearts of millions, I do believe that MSV continues to reign supreme. An award would only be a superfluous addition to a creator far beyond them. But somehow, I keep thinking of a little boy, staring wide-eyed, and listening intently to a Carnatic guru  Neelakanta Bhagavatar conducting his classes in a little town, far away in time and space.  The ‘boy who came back from the dead’ is not with us today. But “mellisai” (light melody in Tamil) owes much to him, and will stand tribute to him for generations to come. In the song he sings in Sangamam in A R Rahman’s music, the line “Aadum Kalaignan Oorukkaga Thannai Marappan, Than Kanneerai Moodikondu Inbam Koduppan” (An entertainer forgets himself for the world’s sake, generating joy for everyone else by hiding his own tears). Dear MSV can we ever thank you enough.  Anil Srinivasan is a pianist based in Chennai. He is known both for his classical and film collaborations Image:  
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