Song of Surrender

Friday, 4 January 2013

MSG

By MV Swaroop

This morning, I practised Kedaragowla. I played a phrase, paused, thought about it, played it again, hearing myself more closely this time, tried a different kind of fingering, played it again, heard it again, and repeated this process until I was sort of satisfied with that phrase. Then, I moved to the next phrase. Over thirty minutes, I got through phrases that would suffice for a brief sketch of the raga.

My coffee arrived. I put my flute down, and sipped it, my mind still lingering on Kedaragowla’s contours. Then, as I do each morning, I checked my email and Facebook on my phone. There was no email that required immediate attention, and there were no notifications on Facebook. I don’t usually scroll down my news feed on Facebook in the morning, but today I did. The fifth piece of news was a friend’s status message that read “M S Gopalakrishnan, the violin maestro is no more :( ... RIP”.


The news stilled me. I had heard two months ago that he was unwell. Even so, when the end comes, it does make an impact on the mind.


I remembered the first time I listened to him, aged ten, in a library hall in Manipal. Much to my disappointment, he played a Hindustani concert. It started after dinner, and went on into the night. The only raga I recognised was Puriya Dhanashree, because of its similarity to Pantuvarali, and when he went back to unfamiliar territory, I dozed off.


It was some years before I heard him again. This time, it was a Carnatic concert in Madras. I spent my holidays in Indiranagar learning music from my grandmother and a teacher nearby. Each evening, after a gully cricket session, I sauntered to Hamsadhwani to listen to the concert. There, I first encountered his Kalyani. He started his alapana by just stringing notes together, like individual letters of the alphabet, in a logic that never really revealed itself, and wove these notes into words of subtle delicacy, and then built long sentences with clauses and sub-clauses, and wrote them in breathtaking paragraphs. This left an everlasting impact on my own music.


Starting then, I attended every concert of his that I could access. This involved, in my college years in Bangalore, missing classes when I had serious attendance shortage and changing up to three buses to reach far-off venues; wading through interminable traffic jams on my motorcycle, not thinking twice before riding on the pavement or across foot-high dividers to make it on time; and buying cheap tickets at Fort High School and surreptitiously getting as close to the stage as possible, moving two rows at a time to avoid the gaze of disapproving sabha officials. I was, by this time, a fan; a fanatic even.


This morning, when I read the news, I called my teacher N. Ramani first. I wasn’t sure if he had heard; he had not. He went silent immediately for a few seconds, made a couple of indistinct statements and gave the phone to his daughter. I remembered a story he recounted some months ago. “Sometime in the 80s,” he said, “I was accompanied by MSG. During an alapana, I stopped at the tara shadjam and held the note for as long as I could. It must have been forty to fifty seconds or even longer... And I saw, from the corner of my eye, MSG on the violin, bowing so slowly, so carefully, that he held the note for the entire duration with one continuous movement of the bow. When I ran out of breath, he had reached the very end of his bow. There was no break at all; it was the same smooth sound throughout. How he anticipated that, how he controlled his hand
incredible!”

There is a recording of them playing together at a concert in Bangalore in 1980. It features Durmargachara (Ranjani), Ramakatha Sudha (Madhyamavati) and a ragam-tanam-pallavi in Todi. Umayalpuram Sivaraman is on the mridangam, and the three masters offer everything—polish, scholarship, emotion, virtuosity and sheer fireworks.


There was a recent article in The Hindu that asked the question, “Where are the giants?” Reminiscing about MSG, I thought of that article. But I also recalled my teacher’s response to that article, “Music doesn’t end with anyone. There are greats around even today.” That thought comforted me, even as I wondered where another MSG would come from.


* * *
 
I called another friend. He had read the news online, and asked me if I wanted to go to the maestro’s house. I wanted to go, and we made hurried plans.

“No. 110, Apparsamy Koil Street. Do you know where that is?” my friend asked, as he got into the car. To my surprise, I did know that it was near Vivekananda College in Mylapore. We parked on the main road--the street is not navigable by car
and walked into a narrow gully that was marked by a sign that said “Apparsamy Koil Street”. One of the greatest violinists the world has ever seen lived here, in a cramped lane off the busy Royapettah High Road, amidst houses that have almost grown into each other. We walked along, almost silently, looking for No. 110. There was some confusion, as ever, over the new number and the old number, and after some analysis of the numbering system, we concluded No. 110 must surely be the new number. We walked right to the end of the street, even crossing the Apparsamy Koil itself. We found No. 109, but there was no sign of No. 110.

Then, we asked a shopkeeper where No. 110 was. He had no idea. Then, we asked an old man who looked like he had never left the street in all his life, “Violinist M.S. Gopalakrishnan’s house?” He wasn’t sure, he asked, “Do you have an address?” We said it was No. 110. He looked around, confused and asked, “Hmmm. Violinist, you said? Gopalakrishnan?” A lady waking down the road overheard this. She jumped into the conversation and said, “MSG aa? You’re on the wrong street. Take the next right, walk down the road. You’ll see a temple on your left. It’s the sixth building after the temple. There is a board outside...”


On the short walk, I wondered what pushed me to make this trip to his house. I didn’t know him personally at all, although I had spoken to him on a couple of occasions. Some of his family might know me by face, especially if they saw me around my teacher. Otherwise, I was just an outsider to the gathering. I wanted to go, and I went, I realise, not because I knew the man, but because I knew his music intimately. I went because he melted my heart with the purity of his sound, he challenged me with his virtuosity, he inspired me with his mastery.

I was lost in thought as we entered his house. A narrow flight of stairs took us to the first floor, where his body lay amidst a sparse room. Almost naturally, I folded my palms, stood before him and closed my eyes for a while. My mind was completely blank, but I was overcome with emotion.


* * *

The house was that of a most simple man. His Padma Bhushan award hung from a wall, and only when I read it, did I realise that the M in his name stood for Madras. The mood was sombre, but there was a certain majesty in the air—like when he played. After all, he was 82, he had lived a long, fulfilling life where he had reached the pinnacle of a classical art form.

There were a number of musicians—vocalists, mridangists, and violinists of various schools. His children, his nephews and nieces, many of them violinists of high calibre themselves, milled about looking lost. His older brother, M.S. Anantharaman, a violin legend in his own right, sat by his body without moving. His daughter, Narmada, who accompanied him in so many concerts, scurried around offering coffee to all those who had gathered.

His son Suresh said, “His hands were moving as if he were playing the violin even in those last moments.” Those hands played the violin for eight decades, that’s what they knew best, and that’s what they would do as long as blood ran in their veins. It was second nature to them.

In one of those concerts I heard in Bangalore, he played a Mohanam alapana. It was about three minutes long, that’s all. But it was a Mohanam like no other. With each phrase he played, he created something new, but he presented them in a way that seemed childishly simple. The audience was laughing and in tears at once, such was its beauty, such was its novelty.

I practised Kedaragowla this morning for forty minutes to give some shape to a short alapana. How many years of practice it must have taken for MSG to produce a Mohanam that special? How many years of reflection? No wonder those hands played till the very end. It wasn’t second nature to him; it was first nature.

1 comment:

  1. Your review had me in tears. I was introduced to the intricacies of MSGs playing style by my Guru's son Thygarajan (brother of CN Chandrashekaran). I still remember those days when we would practice 1-finger and 1-string techniques. MSG is God, no less. Thanks for the review

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