Viswanathan composed film music together with composer and violinist T. K. Ramamoorthy from the 1950s to 1965, as Viswanathan–Ramamoorthy for 100 films and from 1965 until 2014 he worked independently as a composer for 1100 films composing more than 15000 songs.
M S Viswanathan was born on 24 June 1928 to Manayangath Subramanian and Manayangath Narayani ("Narayanikutty" or "Naanikutty") in Elappully village in Palakkad, Kerala, India. His father died when Viswanathan was four years old, and his mother decided to kill him, his sister and herself as an escape from abject poverty and lack of support. He was saved at the last minute by his grandfather after his mother and sister were killed. His grandfather Krishnan was a warden at the central jail of Kannur. After death of his father, his family moved from Palakkad to Kannur to stay with his jailor uncle. As a child, he sold refreshments in a movie theatre without any pay, so he could listen to the music in the films. He had a part in the film Kannagi produced by Jupiter Pictures.
His primary education was at Pallikunnu, Kannur. He would often play truant from school and stand outside the house of Neelakanta Bhagavathar, a local music teacher, and listen to his teaching other students. He learnt to play the harmonium, and Neelakanta Bhagavathar, who heard him play and sing on a Vijayadasami Day, was impressed and organised a three-hour concert at the Kannur town hall. He later gave his first stage performance in Trivandrum at the age of 13. He worked as an office boy for Jupiter Pictures in the 1940s, earning Rs 3 per month.
Viswanathan was married to Janaki and they have four sons and three daughters. His wife, Janaki, died on 14 May 2012. She was 77 when she died.
He is known to have looked after his original Guru, S.M.Subbaiah Naidu, when the latter fell into financial difficulties and then continued to look after his wife until her death.As a rare human approach, M. S. Viswanathan, looked after his friend J. P. Chandrababu, the great Comedian and Singer of Tamil films, when the latter fell into financial ruins. Chandrababu stayed the last few years of his life in the house of M. S. Viswanathan, and as per the request of Chandrababu, MSV arranged his rites when he died in March 1974.
On 27 June 2015, Viswanathan was admitted to Fortis Malar hospital in Chennai with breathing difficulties. He had been undergoing a treatment at the hospital for some time. He died at 4.15 a.m. on 14 July 2015 due to age-related ailments. He had turned 87 only three weeks earlier, three days before his hospitalization. He was cremated with full state honours at Besant Nagar Electric Crematorium. People from various fields of life paid homage to him. He is survived by his seven children - four sons and three daughters - none of them who followed their father's path.
Viswanathan had always wanted to be an actor and singer, but was not successful. He had a few small roles in stage dramas in the 1940s. The composer and violinist T. R. Papa met Viswanathan, took a liking to him and arranged a job for him as an errand boy for S. V. Venkatraman's musical troupe in 1942. In that company of musicians, Viswanathan realised that he had the inclination and the potential for composing music. He thereafter joined S. M. Subbaiah Naidu and at times assisted him. He then joined C. R. Subburaman's musical troupe as a harmonium player. Here, he met T. K. Ramamoorthy and T. G. Lingappa, the two leading violinists at that time. T. G. Lingappa also became a renowned music composer on his own in the 1950s.
In 1952, C. R. Subburaman died unexpectedly. Ramamoorthy and Viswanathan joined together and completed the background music for the films Subburaman was working on, including Devadas, Chandirani and Marumagal. N. S. Krishnan knew them both fairly intimately and also their respective talents by then because of his close relationship with C.R.Subburaman, with whom he had worked earlier in several films. Meanwhile, Viswanathan also worked as the third composer for the film Genova where the other composers were M.S Gnanamani and T.K.Kalyanam. M.G.Ramachandran, the hero of the film Genova, had reservations about the 'raw, young music director' but the reservations lasted only till he listened to the songs. M.G.Ramachandran instantly recognised the arrival of a genius and the relationship lasted till the end of his career as a hero in 1977. Viswanathan and Ramamoorthy were asked to write the music for Panam, a 1952 film produced by A. L. Seenivasan and directed by N. S. Krishnan. Later the duo was asked to do the background score for the film Ratha Kanneer by its music composer C. S. Jayaraman.
The duo composed music for over 100 films, and they worked together from 1952 to 1965.
On 16 June 1963 at a special function M. S. Viswanathan and T. K. Ramamoorthy were each given the title of Mellisai Mannar(Kings of the Light Music). It was granted by Sivaji Ganesan at the Madras Triplicane Cultural Academy. The function was supported and facilitated by the Hindu Group of Publications, especially Mr. T. M. Ramachandran, Director C. V. Sridhar and Chitralaya Gopu.
The duo parted in 1965 after release of Ayirathil Oruvan and since then they composed for films individually. After 29 years, they rejoined in 1995 for the Tamil film Engirundho Vanthan starring Sathyaraj.
They were awarded an honorary doctorate by the Sathyabama Deemed University in September 2006.
J. Jayalalithaa, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, conferred the title Thirai Isai Chakravarthy (Emperors of the Cine Music) on Viswanathan and Ramamoorthy in August 2012 and presented them with 60 gold coins and a new car.
Viswanathan Ramamoorthy duo were the first musicians to arrange a stage performance of the film singers and live orchestra in India. Until then only traditional Carnatic music and Hindustani classical music was performed live in any function. This became a trend setter and paved the way not only for the birth of many musical troops, but also for knowing, understanding and learning about the western instruments among millions of Indians.
M. S. Viswanathan began his solo career in 1965. Viswanathan is known for having incorporated various genres of world music into Indian cinema music. He used elements such as humming and whistling in his songs, and blended new trends such as western music and disco with Indian classical tunes. Some of his films as solo music composer include Idhayakani, Gallatta Kalyanam, Chandrodhyam, Kannan En Kadhalan, Dheiva Magan, Nimrundhu Nil, Rickshakaran, Ulagam Sutrum Vaaliban, and Urumai Kural. M. S. Viswanathan also scored music for many non-film albums and for political campaigns.
He also did playback singing, including 500 songs composed by himself and over 200 songs composed by music directors. He performed songs such as Sollathan Ninaikiren, Inbathilum Thunbathilun Sirithidu Magaley, Yenakkoru Kaathalai Irukindral, Sangamam and Vidaikodu Engal Nadey.
Viswanathan worked with many different film directors, including B. R. Panthulu, S. S. Vasan, B. S. Ranga, and Krishnan-Panju in the 1950s, and in later decades with C. V. Sridhar, A. Bhimsingh, Madhavan, T. R. Ramanna, A. C. Trilogchander, K. Shankar, K. Balachander, Muktha Srinivasan, Chitralaya Gopu, Cho Ramaswamy, and K. S. Gopalakrishnan from the 1960s. From the 1970s directors such as S. P. Muthuraman, Major Sundarrajan, Bhagyaraj, D. Yoganand, C. V. Rajendran, P. Madhavan, K. S. Prakash Rao, Vietnam Veedu Sundaram, N. T. Rama Rao, and I. V. Sasi frequently worked with Vishwanathan; later, in the 1980s and 1990s, new directors such as Visu, Mouli, Komal Swaminathan, and K. Raghunath collaborated with Viswanathan regularly.
He worked with a number of singers, both younger artists and more established ones, including, P. Susheela, L. R. Eswari, T. M. Soundararajan, and the Malayalam singer Jayachandran. He is also considered responsible for making singers like S. P. Balasubrahmanyam and Vani Jairam, R. Balasaraswathi, S. Janaki, A. L. Raghavan, Sirkazhi Govindarajan and Yesudas popular names. He gave Swarnalatha her first job as a playback singer when she was 14 years old. MSV has given great life by giving opportunity and support for many musicians, lyricists, singers etc. Lyricist Vaali quoted in 1984, "Until I met Viswanathan Sir, I had no money to have any food. But from the moment I met Viswanathan Sir I had no time to have food".
M. S. Vishwanathan went on to act in Tamil feature films, notably appearing in Kaadhal Mannan after being convinced to do so by actor Vivek, while he also starred in Kamal Haasan's Kaathala Kaathala and Karthik's Rojavanam. He also made appearances in other films and television series since 1995.
Since 1996 Viswanathan focused on composing devotional music and serving as a judge in Malayalam TV reality shows. He collaborated with Illaiyaraja in 'Mella Thiranthathu Kathathavu', 'Senthamizh Paatu' 'Vishwa Thulsi' and 'Senthamizh Selvan' starring Prashanth. He sang the song "Vidai Kodu Engal Naadae" for 2002 Tamil film "Kannathil Muthamittal" composed by A.R.Rahman. Then in 2013 he sang for the film Neelam – the song called 'Alayae o Alayae' and it was recorded in the supervision of music composer Satish Chakravarthy. According to director Kumar G. Venkatesh, this was the last song sung by M S V. He in 2013 composed music for the film Thillu Mullu, with Yuvan Shankar Raja While M. S. Viswanathan composed the tunes in the 2013 Thillu Mullu film, Yuvan Shankar Raja orchestrated and recorded them. He sang the song ‘Saami Namba saami' penned by Snehan for the film "Mannar Valaiguda", composed by S.Siva Pragasam.
Rajnikanth said in an interview about M. S. Viswanathan, "You will rarely find someone like MSV in any industry. He lived life like a selfless saint, free from jealousy and lies. He was behind the success of legends like MGR and Sivaji. If not for MSV, the careers of filmmaker Balachander, lyricists Vaali and Kannadasan wouldn't have tasted huge success."
M. S. Viswanathan has won many awards include the following:Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award – South
PBS Puraskar Award presented by Aruna Nithya Gopal Foundation awarded on 29 September 2013 at Ravindra Bharati
Honorary doctorate from Tirunelveli-based Manonmaniam Sundaranar University (MSU) on 3 January 2013
Paramacharya Award, meaning 'The Ultimate Guru' in 2006.
Doctorate conferred by Sathyabama University in 2006.
Won Gold Remi Award for the best music score for movie Vishwa Thulasi in 2005.
Isai Sangam honoured him with Isai Peraringnar, meaning "Great Scholar in Music", in 2004.
Kalaimamani – A jewel for art – from State Govt of Tamil Nadu
Seventh Kamukura Award – given by Kerala Cultural Ministry.
'Sangeetha Saraswathi' by Poojya Sri Guruji Viswanath of Manava Seva Kendra.
2013 - Asiavision Awards - Lifetime Achievement Award
1968 - Lakshmi Kalyanam - Tamil Nadu State Film Award for Best Music Director
Tamil Nadu State Film Honorary Award - Kannadasan Award in 2002.