Celebrated South Indian music director and composer MS Viswanathan -- who died in Chennai on Tuesday morning -- was one of the first to have infused respect and regard into film music in the early 1950s.
In a country where classical forms were venerated and worshipped as the ultimate in human arts, where even folk fare was not quite welcome, Viswanathan composed songs that were wonderfully melodious. Kannadasan's lyrics and TM Soundararajan's voice enriched Viswanathan's compositions. But they were not classical -- in any sense of the term. Rather, they were light and had a zing about them. No wonder, he was honoured with the title of Mellisai Mannar (The King of Light Music).
Viswanathan, who has often been compared to another giant composer, Naushad, was never a slave to traditions in music. He transcended every known boundary or category. And he gave us songs that moved and melted us. Working with some of the greatest heroes of the time, like MG Ramachandran, Sivaji Ganesh and Gemini Ganesh, Viswanathan composed hits which were played and replayed. They still are, and remain amazingly fresh at a time when movie music has transformed itself into din and noise.Can anybody forget Aavalukkena Azhagiyaval from Server Sundaram or Tamizhukku Amuthu Endru Per from Panchavarna Killi or Chittu Kurvi/Partha Nyabagan in Pudiya Paarvai or Nenjam Marapthillai from Nenjam Marapathillai or Paal Irukkum Pazhaam Irukkum / Kaalangalil Aval in Paava Mannippu?
Viswanathan, who set to music nearly 2000 songs in Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada and who worked with three of Tamil Nadu's chief ministers (MG Ramachandran, M Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa), was most renowned for his Tamil work. This is what he is best remembered today.
Yet, Viswanathan -- who was 87 and who is survived by four sons and three daughters, his wife having passed away some years ago -- might never have lived to illuminate the world of cinema with his sweet renderings. He once told his biographer, Ranimainthan, that when the family was driven to despair by degrading poverty after the death of his father (who worked as a jailor), he wanted to kill himself by jumping into a tank. His mother also decided to end her life, but then his grandfather arrived in the nick of time to save him. Viswanathan lived to enliven us with songs that, one is sure, will continue to be sung for a thousand years.This was not quite all. More obstacles were coming. Ramachandran had serious reservations about Viswanathan when he was inducted to compose music for his very first work, Jenova, in 1953. But the producers were firm, and they told Ramachandran that he was free to leave if he felt Viswanathan was no good. Viswanathan was lucky. Times were different. Even 10 years later, no producer would have dared to oppose Ramachandran or any other hero of the day.
However, later, Ramachandran became one of the most ardent supporters of Viswanathan.Born Maniyanga Subramanian Viswanathan at Elapulli in Palakkad district (which is now in Kerala), Viswanathan entered the world of motion pictures not as a singer or composer, but as a child actor -- the son of Kovalan in the Tamil classic, Kannagi. Jupiter Pictures found that he was not quite apt in that role, and so they changed his costume and made him Bala Murugan.
Little Viswanathan had really no background in music: Yes, he would sit on his father's lap and listen as he sang devotional songs. A passion grew out this lap-time, and one remembers a similar episode in Adoor Gopalakrishnan's life. He would sit on his mother's lap and watch Kathakali performances -- and that evoked the beginnings of a lifelong interest in the theatre form. Adoor is still passionate about Kathakali.It is possible that apart from his father, whose songs were deeply etched in Viswanathan's psyche, his daily visits -- by playing truant from school -- to a small cinema at Kannanur, where he then lived, got him addicted to film songs. He sold 'murukku' and 'vadai' there without a fee, so that he could slip into the auditorium and enjoy those lilting numbers.
At other times, Viswanathan would stand outside the house of Neelakanta Bhagavathar and listen to his Carnatic music classes. Later, working at Jupiter Studios in Tiruppur, one of his tasks was to clean the harmonium of the music director there, SM Subbiah Naidu, and a strange bond developed between the keys of the instrument and Viswanathan -- a bond that eventually stirred the strings of raga in him.