Radio days

Posted on July 18, 2015


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The king is dead. Long live the king. Baradwaj Rangan remembers MS Viswanathan.

At 7:59 am, last Tuesday, I got this sms from a friend: You have to write a great tribute. I hadn’t looked at news sites yet, but I knew who the tribute was for. We’d been hearing news about his hospitalisation and the word “critical” was being thrown around a lot. It wasn’t surprising, that sms. What surprised me, though, was my reaction. I misted up. I usually don’t do this. There’s some sadness when you hear such news, certainly, but when people have lived a long life and when they’ve produced an immortal body of work, their own mortality doesn’t seem as calamitous. Tears are for the family, for those who knew him personally. For fans, for those who knew him only through his music, MS Viswanathan will always manifest himself at will. In a song on the radio. On YouTube. From the pen drive of an auto driver with roof-blasting speakers. Why, then, this surge of emotion?

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I guess it’s because another link to my past is gone. When you’re young, you absorb pop culture intensely. Your mind is a blank slate, and gradually songs and stars and movies begin to leave their mark on it. These songs and stars and movies become… home. Then you grow up and, at some point, there’s no more room on that slate. Thereon, you still listen to music or watch a movie, but because your mind has more to do, more to process, with work and family and other things that make up life, pop culture no longer becomes personal. Thereon, it’s a kind of disengaged participation. Luckily for me, MSV was around when the slate was still being filled. And at least some of the tears were due to an image, however fuzzily recalled, of me tying my shoelaces and making sure I had the right textbooks in my satchel while Kaatrukkenna veli played on the radio.

Around that time, the late 1970s, there was a programme on Doordarshan called Mellisai. As the name suggests, it featured light music – that is, music that is “lighter” than classical music. The title card for this programme had the name in Tamil (obviously), and behind it was this design: notes of music on a staff, except that the staff wasn’t a series of parallel lines. The lines undulated, like a wave, like a sine curve – the impression was that there was a breeze and the notes were flowing along. That’s the image I have as I read obituaries that refer to MSV by his appellation, Mellisai Mannar, the king of light music. Beginning to end, his songs just flowed.

It’s impossible to do more than scratch the surface in a space like this, but take Minminiyai kanmaniyai, from Kannan En Kadhalan. The melody line descends like steps – sharp, distinct notes, the kind given to beginner music students so that they learn to land on a note without the crutch of the preceding (or succeeding) note on the octave. You’d think such a tune would sound a little staccato. You think it wouldn’t flow. But it does. And a dizzy accordion flows around it. The beat is a waltz, but try figuring that out from the percussion, with at least two rhythm patterns flowing simultaneously. MSV did this over and over. He made songs whose constituents suggested one thing (say, if you read the music) when the outcome was entirely different.

MSV’s mind must have resembled a bottomless pot of spaghetti, with coiled loops of tunes that he kept pulling out for our consumption. So many songs today have four lines in the opening verse – the pallavi/mukhda– and these are usually four repetitions of the same melody line. But MSV would fashion four different tunes for each of the four lines. One of my favourite songs done this way is Madhana maaligayil, from Rajapart Rangadurai. And the stanzas – charanam/antara – too contain astounding variations. A rise here. A precipitous dip there. If there’s such a thing as a “Guess the Next Note!” competition, MSV’s songs would be the ones you’d play in the fiendish final round. And yet, this unpredictability never stood in the way of your being able to hum the number as you would a pop standard. And such style too. Velli kinnam dhaan could be something sung by Frank Sinatra. Only, this isn’t a song meant to be sung so much as crooned, caressed, made love to.

Writing comprehensively about MSV would mean writing a book. One chapter would deal with his early work with TK Ramamurthy (many of the songs people have been attributing to MSV in obits and remembrances are actually by the duo). Another would delve into his staggering mind-meld with the lyrics of Kannadasan. A third would discuss the genres he adopted (is there a better instance of Big Band jazz in Tamil film music than Ninaithadhai nadathiye mudippavan?), the instruments (bongos, the xylophone) he made his own, the great voices he had at his disposal (TM Soundararajan, P Sushila, LR Eswari, PB Srinivas). Then, a look at his exquisite latter-day work with SPB (pausing for many, many listens of Bharathi kannamma, Kanaa kaanum kangal mella, Enakkoru kaadhali irukkinraal, Nitham nitham en kannodu). And an appendix filled with “mad songs” like Kettukodi urumi melam, in which the Indian part is scored with Western instruments and vice versa. By “mad,” I mean out-of-the-box – then again, with MSV, there was no box at all to begin with.

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Other songs mentioned in the piece above: