M B Sreenivasan
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M.B. Srinivasan (1925-1988)


"Oru vattom koodi en ormakal meyunna..." is a song close to the heart of any Malayalee with some musical taste. Many of us know that it is crafted from ONV's poem. However, few people remember the composer of this piece, M.B. Srinivasan. The reason for this probably is that MBS was a private person who let his work speak for itself and did not mingle with the media.

Birth and Early life

Manamadurai Balakrishnan Srinivasan was born into a rich family in 1925 in Chithoor, Andhra Pradesh. Though not professional musicians, his parents imbibed music in MBS at a very young age. He did his schooling in P.S High School and higher studies in Madras Presidency College. During his college days, he was attracted towards Marxian principles and became a full time member of the Communist Party. He became the Secretary of All India Student Federation. He was also an active member of Madras Students Organisation (MSO). Bharatiyar songs were working up patriotic fervour at that time and the freedom struggle was peaking. While in college, he took part and led many an agitation against colonial rule.

Nephew of the CPI leader M.R. Venkatraman, MBS's Communist leanings and his command on English took him to Delhi, where he became private secretary to CPI leader AK Gopalan. He was attracted to Indian Peoples Theatre Association (IPTA). This association helped him to familiarise himself with regional strains of plays and music in different parts of the country.

Meanwhile he met, fell in love with and later married Zahida Kitchlew, a Kashmiri Muslim, who was the daughter of the freedom fighter Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew. Their marriage was solemnised by Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru.

Film Music

MBS meanwhile acquired knowledge in Carnatic, Hindustani and Western music. He took to music as a profession in 1959.

He worked in the Tamil film industry together with director Nimai Ghosh. Both were key figures in leftist Kumari Films. Its best-known film, "Padhai Theriyudu Paar", included the popular song written by Jayakantan and set to the xylophone, "Thenankeetru Oonjaliley...". He did hardly 8-9 movies in the Tamil world. His political allegiances hampered his Tamil career and he turned his interest onto Malayalam films.

MBS's best-known works are in Malayalam. Acclaimed filmmakers, mostly from parallel stream, like Adoor Gopalakrishnan, MT Vasudevan Nair, Hariharan, K.G. George, Mohan, Lenin Rajendran etc. came to MBS to set music for their films. The combination ONV-MBS gave some of the best songs to Malayalam film music. To name a few, "Oru vattam...", "Nirangal than...", "Manthram pole...", "Bharatha muniyoru..", "Ente kadinjool..." etc. The communist leanings of MBS and ONV and their mutual respect resulted in a rare chemistry, which gave rise to ever-memorable songs.

A challenge of any MD is to have a signature of his own and also being versatile. One can easily identify MBS songs. He was also versatile enough to give songs in stylistically different genres. eg: Semi-classical ("Ragam Sree Raagam.."), Melody ("Thenankeetru Oonjaliley...", "Saradindu.."), Western/Pop ("Peethambara..") or Folk ("Neelakkuda choodi..", "Machane.."). Even though he was not a Malayali, he gave the tune only after the lyrics were written. He had deep respect for poets and their works and his music never distorted or over-powered the lyrics. His songs were always a bit tough, perhaps the reason why they didn't become as popular as songs of other music directors.

For MBS, film music was not just film songs. He was a master of re-recording (background music). He had a clear idea on where to use which musical instrument to emphasise or underline a scene. With judicious use of instruments, he demonstrated how background score could give more meaning to a film. He even did BGM for films in which other music directors composed the songs. Very economical in BGM, he proved that silence could be effectively used as music. Some of his films didn't have any songs at all.

One of the biggest contributions of MBS to film music was the introduction of Yesudas, who went on to become the pillar of Malayalam film music. MBS gave Yesudas his first solo song "Jaathibhedam Mathadvesham" in "Kalpadukal" (1961) and also his first duet with Shanta P Nair in the same movie. MBS worked with all the great singers of the time. S Janaki won national award for the song "Ettumanoorambalathil...". MBS was again the man who gave P Jayachandran his memorable award winning song "Ragam Sree Ragam...". He gave Usha Uthup her movie hit, "Peethambara O Krishna", for which he wrote lyrics as well.

Choral Music

National integration and patriotism were themes that always drove him and he believed in using music to instill these into children. He founded the Madras Youth Choir in 1970 and registered it in 1973. He composed songs of Tagore, Subramanya Bharathi, Iqbal, Vallathol etc. that spoke of patriotism, national integration, environment, social values etc. He explored, through choral music, ways to bring a positive change in society by breaking the barriers of language, religion and social status. With just a simple harmonium and table as instruments, he used the human voice to create the effect of an orchestra. He, with the members of his Choir, went to the rural districts of Tamilnadu and Kerala and sang to the people, trained children and youth groups thus spreading mass singing movement in a big way. He was responsible for the AIR choral group at Madras as well.

He had a firm belief that everyone is bestowed with basic musical abilities. With this conviction, he made ordinary people like teachers, government employees and workers, who were not necessarily great singers individually, sing in unison. A polyglot, who knew Malayalam, Hindi, Telugu, Kannada, Tamil and English, he would explain the meaning of the songs before teaching it or before presenting it to an audience. His aim was to set up youth choirs at regional levels, who could sing songs in different languages. Madurai Kamaraj University utilised his invaluable services in organising its own choir. Undoubtedly, we can call him a pioneer in the field of Choral Music in India.

In 1986, he helped to set up Kerala University Choir. Mahatma Gandhi and Calicut Universities followed this. M Jayachandran, today's leading music director was once a member of Kerala University Choir. Many a singer like Sudha Ranganathan and Rajkumar Bharathi graduated from his Choir.

After his death, Comrade Sharmaji, MBS's lifelong friend, set up MBS Youth Choir in Trivandrum. People from Choral groups set up by MBS were drawn for this. Madras Youth Choir and MBS Youth Choir are still active and give performances on special occasions.


He was the architect of the Cine Musicians' Union in Madras and various Cine Technicians Unions in South India. He ensured timely payment of wages (spot-payment) for musicians and their wages were decided based on the person's skill and experience. He also helped in regularising their working hours. While he strove for the security and status of workers, he also reminded them of their responsibility in delivering the work. He believed in responsible union activity.

It was MBS who led the fight in ensuring performance rights of songs for composers and poets through Indian Performing Right Society (IPRS). A concept borrowed from Europe, the result of this was that whenever a song is played on Radio and TV or in Hotel lobbies and public places, the composer and poet get an amount as royalty. This has ensured a reasonably good source of income for people, who had created many hits in their prime time, but were not active now. He held the post of Chairman of IPRS till his death.

It was again MBS who played the lead role of eccentric professor in John Abraham's "Agraharathil kazhuthai". This film went on to become one of the most noted and perhaps controversial films in Indian film history. A multi-talented person that MBS was, he took up the job with ease and did full justice to the role.

He had a brief stint in Central Censor Board. He was member of Sangeeth Natak Academy and various other cultural groups. He also worked as adjudicator for various national and international music events.


M.B. Srinivasan died of a heart attack at Kedamath, a small place in Lakshadweep islands, on 9th March 1988. His son Kabir and wife Zaheeda survived him. Zaheeda passed away on 23rd October 2002. Kabir passed away on 4th April 2009.

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