Conversations with M.S.V

By Sriram Lakshman



M.S.Viswanathan, about whom your’s truly has sung many a paean in the vast corridors of the web world, is a remarkable genius of a composer whose compositions seem to traverse a hitherto unchartered pathway into the interiors of our hearts with minimum of fuss. Often, the sensitive listener is at a loss for words when attempts are made to express the effect. ‘There is a great charm in his compositions’ says our ‘resident’ composer Srikanth. The word ‘charm’ , I suspect conceals a great deal of irritatingly elusive adjectives or expressions yet to be coined in the language world.

There seems to be this air of inevitability to the flow of music here where the compositions seem to have just ‘happened’….and with a lot of underlying passion. This observation by a common listener is further bolstered by testimonies by Visveswaran (yes, Chitra Visveswaran’s husband who worked with MSV and has witnessed several recordings during the composer’s halcyon days, notably ‘kAthalikka nEramillai’ and ‘Karnan’), and several other legendary musical talents of yore. It was this very facet of his composing skills that spurred me on to take a closer look at MSV’s career path right since his ‘Jenovah’ days, which happened even before he had teamed up with TKR. The curiosity was about ‘when it all started happening’ or ‘when the blossoming took place’.

This eventually saw me calling him up during one of my visits to India and requesting him to set aside some time for a casual conversation about his music. A time was agreed upon and the meeting did happen.

I have met him on a few other occasions at his residence to gain a deeper insight into the composer in MSV. An entity that expressed itself through many voices but did not have a voice of its own and pitiably so. Yes, the lack of intent to articulate the nuances of composing or plain and simple……forgetfulness. A frustration laden ‘Oh! Come on give me some pointers atleast’ is the usual response from my inner fretful self. ‘ellAm kadavuL kripai’ is a cliché often thrown at the gleefully accepting TV interviewers.

I was going to have nothing of that and flaunted my exposure to his numbers that lay buried under the sands of the merciless time, only to get past his subtle veneer.

The number I had spoken about first was ‘varavENdum oru pozhuthu in ‘kalaikkOyil’. That seemed to have done the trick , he got up with a start and yelled out to his assistant Guna, ‘pottiya koNdu vA’. The harmonium was promptly ushered in and chords that were not in the track flowed out in cascades as he sang the song (with incorrect lyrics ofcourse :)….’varavENdum oru nilavu’ ….it went. ‘You said you were from America. Where did you hear this number?’ was another surprise laden response. I had this ‘you ain’t seen nothin’ yet’ look on my face and let loose another number from the same movie….’muLLil rOjA’ sung by LRE with PBS interjecting with his humming , a most exhilarating exhibition of humming. This seemed to have floored him, he did rake his memory and quite a bit and said “ ‘ kaNmaNI sarOjA’ appadi varum illE “.

He seemed to have lost himself in the endearing nostalgic memories of the past after my affirmative nod. Goodness !!! It required somebody half his age to remind him of a composition for his own home production. PBS told me that so intoxicated was MSV with the humming bit, that he was requested to sing through it for all the musicians again after the recording.

‘unga compostions-il santhangaL romba vithhiyAsamA irukkE’….I quoted ‘angam puthu vitham azhaginil oru vitham’ , ‘azhagiya thamizh magaL ivaL’ as examples (to which the ‘bolt out of the blue’ question was ‘neenga Kannadasan abimAnI thAnE?’. Even a hardended KD critic would have nodded his head in agreement as a reflex action, (considering the great sense of seriousness)).

My question to him was ‘what came first the tune or the words?’. MSV’s reply was not unpredictable. “‘meter-ukku matter-a illa matter-ukku meter-a?’ enbathu kavignarum nAnum mun koottiyE discuss seyyAthathu. It all depended upon who arrived at the studio first.

I am reminded now of an incident narrated to me in one of the conversations. The movie was ‘pOlice kAran magaL’. MSV arrived first for Sridhar to present him with the ‘song situation’. The melody tuned was ‘ponnenbEn siru poovenbEn’. Kannadasan was his usual nonchalant self when asked to do his bit for the song. ‘kAthal duet-a? athAn athhAn pothhAn mayiru mattai ezhuthiyAchhE. innumA ?’. Sridhar’s response ‘ithu different situation aNNE….’ seemed to satisfy the kavignar. He continued with ‘ennadA ViswanathA …thathhagAram thariyA illai nAn sollattumA?’. MSV it seems sang the tune for the kavignar only for the audience to get bamboozled as words incessantly flowed for the meters dished out, at times even taking the lead. The tune was modified a wee bit to accommodate the words that ‘happened’.

Now, back to the conversation, ‘azhagiya thamizh magaL ivaL……tune mothalla pOttathu’. Much against the relentlessly stubborn MGR’s wishes had the song been squeezed in . The resultant ‘hit’ status of the song was used by MSV in his future assignments to have his way with MGR. An instance where Sivaji did a MGR was narrated to me. The song was ‘ponmagaL vanthAL’ except the reason for the rejection was different… ‘The charanams sound like thiruppugazh to me’. How glad now are we that the composer and the director looked past the imposing presence of Sivaji !!!!

PBS oru sagAptham’ is the reflex answer that comes out when the crooner’s name is mentioned. He continues “Listen to PBS’ songs for every composer including me. The melody that he sings becomes his, ceases to be the composer’s.” Afterall, MSV overwhelmed by emotions after PBS ‘rolled’ his way through ‘udalukku uyir kAval’, is supposed to have stated ‘aNNE ithukku appuram unga rate Ethhareenga’. PBS till date recollects the incident and cherishes the memory. Well, what about the extra bits that singers like PBS and SPB seemed to be adding ? That does not seem to be in sync with his ‘avar ninaithhathu vara varaikkum vida mAttAr’ image. He nods in total agreement to the second statement and further adds ‘en manasula irukkarathai avargaL (singers) kodukkara varaikkum vida mAttEn. ithukku thAn nAnE singers-ai train paNNuvEn. No assistants here.’ . He goes on to add that when the singer’s improvs bettered his own ideas, he did accommodate them. ‘Balu-virrku swara gnyanam kidaiyAthu, kELvI gnyanam romba jAsthI. sila vAttI avanE pOttuduvAn (the sangathis). Oru vAttI pAdi kAmithhAl appadiyE pAdi viduvArgAL…..athu thAn Balu, athu thAn LR Easwari’. Well, praises galore for these singers.

His penchant for usage of wind instruments has always stood out, be it Shehnai, trumpet or sax. The supremely soothing, apt Shehnai piece in ‘AlayamaNiyin Osayai nAn kEttEn’ is a case of Shehnai not sounding like its depressing,dampening self. Yes, couldn’t resist broaching on that. ‘a
thai vAsithhathu Satyam. nAn ‘OK’ solluvathu varaikkum sAppida mAttAn’. MSV’s recollection was coated with a light-hearted grin. Sathyam is a MSV favourite. He had played along with Bismillah Khan in the movie Karnan (note the double Shehnai in ‘iravum nilavum vaLarattumE’ and Bismillah Khan’s piece in Hamsanandi before PBS sings ‘enna koduppAn’ set to the same raga). The assessment (by MSV) at the end of the recording was ‘en Sathyam avarai (guess who?:) vida siranthavan’.

I have presented only a synopsis of what transpired during our conversations. I will try my level best to keep chipping in with what my memory serves me, when it does. Oh yeah….did I achieve what I set out to achieve ? Well, ‘how’ is the word puts true artistes in a nonplussed state. I confess, I did get tempted into putting it across to MSV and yes, what did I tell you ? Nonplussed state ? Yes, I was right.

(To be continued).

Conversations with M.S.V - Part II

By Sriram Lakshman



Recollecting details of all past meetings with the composer……

MSV’s attempts at taking a stab at the past, went into the Golden age of Hindi Film Music on that occasion. “
Naushad enakku deivam mAthiri” is an admiration laden starting point. Naushad’s music in “anmOl ghadi (HFM buffs will remember “Awaz de kahan hai”, set to pahadi, sung by Noorjehan and Surendra), Ratan, Udan Khatola, Baiju Bawra, aan”, he says, elevated him to ecstatic states. He fondly recollects the days of waiting on tenterhooks for the release of a Naushad Album. Interesting to note that he included “Aan” which had “Muhabbat jhoomE jinkE sAth”, rendered by Rafi, the pallavi of which, though set to a slightly different meter, was applied to kick-start the hugely famous “senthamizh thEn mozhiyAL” in mAlayitta mangai (1957). The fact that Naushad re-used the same meter for his “huE hum jinkE liyE barbAd” again by Rafi in Deedar is a different matter altogether. As an aside, this song endeared itself to PBS, enough for him to use it during his audition test.

Have you heard ‘poomAlayil Or malligai’?“ is the question he interrupts the flow with. Oh of course !!! He goes onto sing the pallavi of “thoo mErA chAnd main thErI chAndnI” again, composed by Naushad. He follows this by singing the swarams for the flute interlude. There seems to be this familiar twist to this phrase and it reminds one of…..the “shake” in the pallavi of “poomAlayil Or malligai”… the word “poomAlayil”. He goes on, “ithu thAn composing” with a mischevious glint in his eyes. I marveled at how a simple twist could lay the foundation for a “melody” strong duet that would warm the bosoms of even the greatest music haters.

What about the story behind the other classic in the same movie (Ooty varai uravu), “thEdinEn vanthathu” ? It is well known that the song, much like what happens with every Sridhar movie, was squeezed in at the very last minute, in a hurry. MSV reflects, “
There is a slight twist to that tale. Actually the tune and the BGMs had been approved by Sridhar. P. Susheela had been brought in and the rehearsels had also been completed but a nervous Sridhar, unconsciously biting his nails, appeared less than pleased all of a sudden. His peeve was that the tune could have a different flavour. So out went the tune.” The tune and the orchestral embellishments had to be done all over again, except that MSV preferred to compose the tune on a piano. The whole process, I was told, was over in 20 minutes flat. A great number with the sangathi at “vAsalil” reflecting the composer’s sense of improvisation and placement of musical phrases. The start of the charanam is not predictable and the charanams loop back to the pallavi with a humming for rendering the “seamless” feel.

He flips back to the Bollywood mode and cannot stop talking about his closeness to composers Jaikishen and R.D. Burman, the latter, especially. I interject with citing an example of composing style of Naushad creeping in, in the song “thanga mOgana thAmarayE” in puthayal. Interesting to note that Naushad composed a similar sounding number, after the release of puthayal…can't seem to recollect it now. Will furnish details later. Hastening to add that Naushad finds a place in my musical heart as well and my intentions are farthest from besmirching Naushad’s reputation as one of the very important building blocks of Indian Film Music. An affirmative nod is the response followed by “irukkum. Quite naturally”.

OK, then…how did the MSV idiom of music evolve? FYI, CR Subburaman had been confined to the hospital wards for a long time and the onus of composing for Devadas and Chandi Rani had fallen on MSV. In a way, MSV inherited CR Subburaman’s troupe, in which, TK Ramamurthy was the lead violinist. “Moving away from the composing styles of mama (KV Mahadevan) and G Ramanatha Iyer was foremost in my mind when I was pitchforked in, as an independent composer. This is the reason why, when you listen to title music of a movie, you can brand it as a KVM, GR or a MSV-TKR movie. We had distinct styles and different perspectives on music”. He gesticulates a lot when he says that. Was that the reason he chose atAna for ‘varugirAr unnaithhEdI’ in thangapathumai? This raga had not been used much (or not at all used) by his fellow composers until then. KVM’s atAnA ‘yAr tharuvAr intha ariyAsanam’ came in much later. Hmmm….not much of a response, he shocked himself by recollecting the song. The song had been forgotten totally !!!

Melody is the soul for music” is his motto. Gives me an opportunity to sneak in the cheeky “What about your ‘attitude’ towards raga based melody ? I for sure cannot discern any intentions of your consciously incorporating a raga, except in a few cases”. MSV answers “The bhAvam of the lyrics will need to be brought out in a musical/melodic form. This may nor may not result in a raga. For instance, if you notice traces of Desh in ‘sinthu nathiyinmisai’ it is purely coincidental. Many vidwans have confronted me on this issue and I have always maintained that infusing something ‘new’ had been my central/core theme.

He says he was told that Bharathi muttered the words while putting them across on paper and MSV only mimicked him, introducing pauses after the word nilavinilE merely for taking breath. KS Gopalakrishnan ‘froze’ on what he thought could make it as a tune. Thus was born the tune for ‘sinthu nathiyin misai’. Couldn’t help flaunting my accumulated knowledge on his compositions at this juncture and promptly interjected “‘androru nALilE nilavil’ (from nAdOdI ) is yet another more or less pure Desh composition”. Patted myself on the back following MSV’s gleeful acknowledgement.

I do not yet have answers for those songs where tunes made it first, or for that matter, cases where Kannadasan’s pre-written pallavis enthused the composer to create the tunes for the charanams…to be written by Kannadasan !!! “Neenga sollunga. pattathhu rANI pArkkum pArvai….mettukku kavithaiyA, kavithaikku mettA ?” ..that was a question thrown at me for which I promptly chose the latter. This was primarily because of MSV’s proven ability to obliterate the inherent santhams within a poetry and imposing his own. I thought that this song was yet another instance of ‘meter demolition’. I was incorrect here, I was told, much to my surprise. Pride was evident when he said “enga pAttula (songs composed with Kannadasan) meter-ukku matter-A matter-ukku meter-A endru solla mudiyAthu”.

What about songs like ‘oru nAL iravu’ set to Rasikapriya (72nd Mela) to some and Sumanesa Ranjini to a few others ? More or less the same sequence of notes were used for the peppy ‘indru vantha intha mayakkam’. He appeared quite clueless about Sumanesa Ranjini, he had not heard about it at all !! He did not know the raga the 2 songs were set to !! But I had one last ace up my sleeve. Karnan !!! All songs were set to ragas, I thought, consciously. Ragas like Hamsanandi, Ananda Bhairavi, Gambeera Nattai, Sahana, Pilu, suthha Saveri/Arabi, Behag, Saranga Tharangini, Pure Neelambari and Karaharapriya,Chakravakam had been used to infuse ‘musical’ life into the ‘never to be forgotten’ lyrics by Kannadasan. Certainly, some amount of thinking must have gone into the compositions. I promise the readers, I will get a convincing answer from the composer very soon on this, as the response was, I thought, not ‘weighty’ enough then. It was “The Hindustani style of presenting a melody has always captivated me. Karnan was one movie where I could take the plunge headlong and hence you had ‘Pahadi’ (kaNNukku kulamEthu) as Northies would like to hear. I had to bring in Hidustani music instrumentalists from Bombay, like Bismillah Khan (Shehnai) and (I forgot) Seth (Sarangi)”. Actually, an expected luke warm answer from a composer who forgets his own creations and cannot realize his own worth. This accusation of mine, with overtones of frustration was communicated to him for which a hearty laugh was the answer !!!

“Now for a quiz” I continued , “ ‘anubavam puthumai’ padathhil varum PBS-PS duet enna pallavi” . Eventually, I had to sing out the pallavi to him for which he remarked “neenga pAda pAdathhAn gyabagam varuthu” !!! .

Interviewing this gentleman involves bringing in his assistants who could help him reconstruct the scenario(s) during song compositions. This is what I intend to do. A friend and I did contact Mr. Visweswaran (Chitra Visweswaran’s husband), (he had functioned as an assistant to MSV and had witnessed songs of Karnan and kAthalikka nEramillai being recorded ) as a prelude to what I had in mind. Imagine Lalgudi Jayaraman’s frustration when he tried determining the raga for ‘malligai en mannan mayangum’, failed and had to put it through to Subbudu !!!

Mention of PBS’ and PS’ names veered the conversation towards singers yet again. MSV is quite grateful as he acknowledges the contribution of singers. He recalls, ‘Dandapani Desikar had a superb voice but he was not quite comfortable with complex sangathis. TMS’ strength was his clear diction, voice and his ability to relate to the situation. Oru kOdi rupees koduthhAlum TMS’-ukku abaswaram varAthu. (wah! Wah! What a certificate)). Susheela, Janaki, Balu, Easwari , PBS have all played their parts well. Sometimes I keep a singer in mind while composing for an actor but most of the time, I will need to go by the dictates of the tune. surukkamA sonnA, ‘kuruvi thalayil panaga vekka koodAthu’ (I am sure he said this during another interview). This was the situation I was faced with, because of which I had to make PBS sing for MGR in ‘neeyO nAnO yAr nilavE’ in mannAthi mannan”.

A discerning listener will certainly concur with MSV on this. Please give this song a hear and enjoy the lucid ‘PBS birkas’ that the tune yearns for. TMS had been MGR’s choice for this song as the other MGR songs ‘achham enbathu madamayadA’ , ‘AdAtha manamum uNdO’ and ‘kaniya kaniya mazhalai pEsum’ had had TMS at his very best voice. But are we glad that MGR did relent in this case !!! He had tried out KJ Yesudoss in the mid sixties as well….’nenjathhai aLLi konjam thA thA’, ‘enna pArvai’, ‘alangAram kalaiyAtha’, ‘suvai ethilE’ etc. ‘Balu, without notating can sing with precision what singers with swara gyanam cannot. I have seen singers parsing tunes into swarams and fumbling but with Balu…never has that happened ‘ , ‘ with Dr. BMK and Vani Jeyaram I can stretch into the reserves of my composing repertoire while carving out a tune and feel confident that justice will be done to it. I was the first one to suggest to KJY to learn music formally. Same was the case with Mandolin Srinivas as well” are some miscellaneous remarks punctuating our conversation. MSV had noted that U.Srinivas was too good to play for movies and felt that he could be South’s answer to the Mandolin genius of the North, Sajjad Husain. Sajjad was an ace film music composer as well, who, but for his uncompromising nature and sharp tongue could have exposed us to new paradigms in composing. He breathed his last a some years back, an unsung hero, whose best compositions remained unsung.

A few more, like “CS Jayaraman, Tiruchy Loganathan, Seerkazhi, TMS etc had what you call as a Tamil voice. Powerful!!! Even Naushad in an event in Shanmukananda hall wanted ‘Odam nathiyinilE’ to be sung and stated often that he relished the song. I was really surprised to find that Naushad had great collection of film songs from all South Indian languages“ added life to the conversation.

A few more to follow…….

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