‘Mellisai Mannar’ MS Viswanathan died at a private hospital in Chennai today. He was 87. The music composer had been ill for a while, and spent his last few days in the hospital battling a variety of age-related illnesses. The death came at 4:30 AM in the morning.
MSV, as he was widely known, had a storied career in Tamil film music, composing thousands of songs for hundreds of movies. In the three decades after his debut, MSV anna was the most sought after composer in the Tamil film industry, churning out hit songs at a rapid rate with all the top directors and stars of the time. His full discography is unavailable, but estimates on the number of films he worked on vary from 500 to over a 1000.
Born in 1928, the young MS Viswanathan was very interested in becoming an actor and, despite his impoverished background, would scrape together money to feed his passion. His efforts failed, and it was only much later in life that he was able to fulfil his dreams of acting onscreen.
A man of indomitable spirit, MSV battled his way through life, surviving despite harsh conditions in his early years. Poverty gripped his family after the death of his father, and subsequently his sister. Unable to handle the stigma that followed these deaths, MSV’s mother decided to drown herself, along with her young son. Fortunately for them, and for the world of music, MSV’s grandfather’s timely arrival averted the tragedy.
MSV had no interest in a formal education, often skipping classes to make time for his real love—music. As an errand boy for SV Venkatraman’s musical troupe, he began to learn in earnest. While working as a harmonium player for CR Subburaman, he met TK Ramamoorthy, an enterprising violin player who became MSV’s fellow composer.
After Subburaman’s death, the duo were asked to step in and complete their teacher’s work—a feat they managed despite their relatively young age. Movie offers came in slowly, but steadily. After a series of jobs arranging music, they were given the opportunity to compose the score for Sivaji Ganesan’s film Panam. Success came at last, and with it began a glorious partnership. The due composed music for 86 films before calling it quits. Their last film together was Aayirathil Oruvan.
Interestingly, once they went solo, it was the roughly-hewn, untrained MSV who reached the heights of eminence. TK Ramamoorthy had formal musical training, but only managed to compose for 20 films. In contrast, MSV became a towering figure in the industry. A brief attempt at reconciliation in the 90s didn’t result in success—the duo worked on the Sathyaraj starrer Engirundho Vandhan, but the film flopped, and the music didn’t find much favour.
MSV will be remembered most of all for broadening the canvas of Indian music—he often incorporated world music elements and made his own brand of music. He is noted for his many collaborations with lyricist Kannadasan, with whom he shared a birthday, and a close friendship. MSV and Kannadasan together elevated Tamil music to high art. Kannadasan’s lyricism—often tinged with philosophical musings and inventive wordplay—found the perfect foil in MSV’s music. Simple and unadorned melodies that let the lyrics stand out were an MSV trademark. After Kannadasan passed away, MSV’s main collaborator became Vaali.
MSV was known for fostering many great talents—TM Soundararajan, P Susheela, PB Srinivas, Sirkazhi Govindarajan and LR Eswari all found success under his aegis. Prolific till the 80s, MSV slowed down towards the end of his career. He began to spend his time composing devotional songs instead of film music. It was at this time that his acting dreams materialized. He acted in Kaadhala Kaadhala, Kadhal Mannan (in which he paid tribute to his late friend Kannadasan by playing his fan) and the television serial Ganga Yamuna Saraswathi.
Contemporary composers, including maestro Ilaiyaraaja and AR Rahman hold MSV in high regard. Ilaiyaraaja often talks about how he would wait on the streets of Chennai to catch a glimpse of MSV annan’s car. MSV has also collaborated with Ilaiyaraaja and his son, Yuvan Shankar Raja. Their films include Mella Thirandhadhu Kadhavu, Vishwa Thulasi and Thillu Mullu. He sang for AR Rahman in several movies, including the poignant Vidai Kodu Engal Naade and the lively Mazhai Thuli. But the benchmark for his singing prowess will always remain the remarkable Sambo Siva Sambo—his own composition for Ninaithaale Inikkum (Feels Good Just Thinking About It).
Ninathaale Inikkum is also the appropriate motif for MSV’s life and career. A gentle, soft-spoken colossus with a reputation for nurturing talent. Ninaithaale Inikkum.