By M.V.N. Murthy
A few years ago I was sitting in the Roy Thomson Hall, an extraordinary place to listen to music, in Toronto, listening to Itzhak Perlman performing on his violin with the Toronto Symphony. I was left wondering how nice it would be if M.S. Gopalakrishnan were to perform in the same hallowed auditorium. I do not know if he did perform there.
M.S. Gopalakrishnan, MSG in short, is no more. The bow that touched the strings of his violin and plucked at the heartstrings of many thousands of his followers will not sing again.
My introduction to the music of MSG was through an LP record, one of his earliest. The Tyagaraja kriti Bhavanuta in raga Mohanam seemed to acquire a new dimension in his rendering. The lilting movements in the beginning of the composition were out of this world. Even today when I listen to this it evokes the same feeling as when I first heard it nearly 40 years ago.
I started looking forward to listening to him live. The opportunity came soon enough when I heard him accompany M.D. Ramanathan along with two other stalwarts, Umayalpuram Sivaraman (mridangam) and H.P. Ramachar (khanjira) in a Ramanavami concert at Seshadripuram High School at Bangalore in the early 1970s. MDR and MSG challenged each other, a very common occurrence those days. MSG complemented MDR while adding his own embellishments. The result was happily much more than just the sum of individual potential.
The best was reserved for the next day when MSG gave a solo concert with Sivaraman and Ramachar. The concert began sedately and picked up momentum gradually and peaked with the rendering of a Tyagaraja composition in Nalinakanti, the very best I have heard in all these years. He brought in elements of the Hindustani style of playing in the end, at times the violin singing like Bismillah Khan’s shehnai, all seamlessly blended in the ethereal music of Tyagaraja. It was not fusion but a natural evolution of creativity adding a new dimension to a classical idiom. Incredible as it was, Sivaraman added his own charming beats to complete the music. I heard later that MSG had done this before in a National Programme of Music on AIR in 1967 with Trichy Sankaran accompanying him.
I instantly became a fan of MSG. In the ensuing years I followed him wherever he performed in Mysore and Bangalore. Once in Mysore, I was early to his concert and he caught me and asked me to play the sruti box while he was tuning the violin. I even carried the sruti box on to the stage and vamoosed nervously from there. Next morning he was performing in Bangalore along with vainika Emani Sankara Sastry and there I was in front. He almost laughed when he saw me and asked me if I was stalking him!
Though I was aware that he was also trained in Hindustani music, I had to wait a couple more years to listen to that part of his music. The opportunity presented itself through a concert in the Centenary Hall of the University of Mysore where I was a student. He started with Madhuvanti, then went on to play Pooria Kalyan and Malkauns for a full three hours. Another dimension of MSG opened up for me through this concert. I also saw for the first time his guru Pandit Krishnanand who was to become my guru much later. He has recorded very few albums, but the one with Bheemplasi and Pooria stands out for the beauty of these ragas.
In the early 1980s, I was working in a research institute in Bombay. I got hold of a recording of his concert which began with Bhoop. It was playful and lyrical. I was extremely fond of this recording and played it almost every evening in my hostel room. I also noticed a girl in the same hostel who would pass by and pause to listen to the same. The music must have pulled more strings than just that of the violin, since she became my wife soon after.
After we moved to Madras in 1986, opportunities to hear MSG became more frequent. I especially remember the concert at the Music Academy in 1992 when he played one of my favourites, raga Shanmukhapriya, accompanied by his daughter Narmadha.
What made MSG special? Yes, his bowing technique was extraordinary comparable to that of some of the best violinists around the world. His fingering was dexterous and produced no jarring sound. He was adept at both Carnatic and Hindustani music, brought elements of both to play at times in the same concert. However, it was the way he blended various elements of his playing into a whole that made him so special. The violin was his alter ego; it sang for him.
His concerts as a soloist left you wanting more, thanks to his superb organisation and rendition of rare ragas and kritis. I heard ragas like Viswambari and Jayantasena for the first time during his concerts. He announced the names of such ragas. In collaboration, I heard live some stand out combinations, with other instrumentalists like N. Ramani and Emani Sankara Sastry, and eminent vocalists like K.V. Narayanaswamy, M.D. Ramanathan, T.V. Sankaranarayanan and several others.
I belong to a fortunate generation, which heard not only excellent vocalists, but also instrumentalists capable of attracting huge audiences. However, going to concerts because of the ensemble seems to be passe now. Perhaps there is such a rich collection of extraordinary vocalists at present, that the quality of accompanists is not critical. The attendance in instrumental solos, with some honourable exceptions, is nothing to write home. Surely this cannot be good for the future of Carnatic music.
M.S. Gopalakrishnan, Lalgudi Jayaraman and T.N. Krishnan as violin accompanists, along with some great percussionists, often attracted crowds no matter who was the main performer. It was regarded as icing on the cake if the main performer was also one of the stalwarts. MSG and others of his ilk did not just accompany the main performers, they added to the richness of music by their own extraordinary individual contributions, while at the same time closely keeping to the style of the main performers.
In the evolution of Indian classical music, Carnatic and Hindustani, MSG will be remembered by musicians and listeners alike, as a colossus who walked both streams with equal ease, as one who tugged at the heartstrings with his bow.