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M.S. Viswanathan: The man who composed... old songs?

Earlier this week, the man known as Mellisai Mannar, M.S. Viswanathan passed away. The Tamil cinema industry came to a grinding halt. Everybody, including Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, came together, poured in their condolences and spoke at length about the man’s musical greatness and how it had set the stage for later composers like Ilaiyaraaja to explode. Veterans like Yesudas, P. Susheela, S. Janaki, Vani Jairam and Vairamuthu shared their sadness to the press and reminisced about his most famous songs. Vani Jairam mentioned songs like ‘Malligai en mannan’ and ‘Ezhu swarangalukkul’, Vairamuthu spoke about working on ‘Kannana poo magane’, Sudha Raghunathan expressed her admiration for ‘Aval oru navarasa nadagam’, while Chitralaya Gopu explained how ‘Viswanathan velai vendum’ was conceived.

The veterans were waxing eloquent, but where were the youngsters? Why weren’t they discussing his work? Naturally, we thought it’d be a great idea to speak to some of them — you know, the drum-banging, rapping, yo-yo crowd — and ask them to share their thoughts about his work and see if anything interesting came out. Surely, there would be something beautifully contrastive about a man who makes contemporary music, but confesses to being profoundly moved by, say, ‘Ange siripavargal’.

And then, came the big surprise or should we say, shock? While one rapper’s manager explained that he was not in the country, the other picked up his phone and said that while he didn’t mind offering his condolences, he didn’t want to discuss his work, and would I leave it at that. Several others didn’t respond to messages and calls. What was going on?

Surely, not all of them were busy at once? And then, one fairly young composer picked up and tentatively, honestly, admitted that while he could tell me a few songs off the top of his head, would I check to see if they were indeed composed by M.S. Viswanathan. ‘Or aayiram parvayile’ was offered. But the film it belonged to, Vallavanukku Vallavan, had nothing to do with MSV. Perhaps ‘Chittu kuruvi mutham koduthu’? Better choice, but this wasn’t exclusively MSV. This was still when he was part of the Viswanathan-Ramamurthy duo, and how unfair to just credit the former’s contribution. And then, he hit bull’s eye with ‘Anbe vaa’ by T.M. Soundararajan (who else?) from the eponymous MGR film. But he was still in doubt and to be on the safe side, added, “Tell you what? Shall we just stick to Ninaithale Inikkum?” Surely, even a person who isn’t particularly familiar with MSV’s music couldn’t doubt that this was his work through and through. As if prophetically making it easier for latter generations, he even sang ‘Sambo shiva sambo’ in that album. “Okay, now will you guys remember?” So, yes, we narrowed it down to Ninaithale Inikkum finally.

Then came along another composer to shed light on why this generation finds it rather difficult to narrow down MSV songs. “It’s only from Ilaiyaraaja that we really remember the composer,” he said.

“All the earlier songs — by composers like K. V. Mahadevan, V. Kumar, MSV — get lumped into a mental category called ‘old songs’.” He posited that it’s only when the style of music changes decisively that a composer gets remembered, “like Ilaiyaraaja, like A.R. Rahman.” “Don’t be surprised at all if all the hit songs of the last two decades are credited to A.R. Rahman 30 years from now,” he warned. That’d be something, wouldn’t it?

A film journalist in 2045, could potentially hear this over the phone from a latter-day young celebrity: “‘Oh podu’, ‘Selfie pulla’, and ‘Apdi podu’ are my favourite Rahman songs. Oh, could you just check they are actually his before carrying my quote?”

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Printable version | Nov 25, 2021 3:10:03 AM |

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