Virtuoso violinist, chosen for Padma Bhushan, M.S. Gopalakrishnan has been playing with the same energy for 70 years…
Walking down Apparswamy Koil Street, lined with traditional houses interspersed with shops, you realise that Mylapore's old world charm is still intact. My destination is Door No. 110, the dwelling of violin virtuoso Madras Sundaram Gopalakrishnan, popularly known in music circles as MSG.
As you reach the first floor of his home, you spot him sitting on the sofa, immaculate in spotless kurta and dhoti, the familiar vibhuti forming three symmetric lines, on his broad forehead. Twilight is setting in. “I just finished my Sandhyavandanam and am waiting for you,” he begins with his characteristic smile. Discipline has been the middle name of this giant.
“Seventy years of violin playing and I am still going on. It is all due to my father Parur Sundaram Iyer's blessings. Trained by him both in Hindustani and Carnatic genres since the age of five, I started giving performances when I turned eight, alongside my father and elder brother M.S. Anantharaman. It was at the Kolkata Music Conference that Hindustani legend Pandit Omkarnath Thakur took notice of my playing and asked me to accompany him the following day. Thereafter, I was a regular in his group along with my father, accompanying him for concerts in Mumbai, Ahmedabad and Surat,” MSG recalls.
MSG's father was trained in Hindustani by Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar (Pt D.V. Paluskar's father). While the sarangi and the harmonium were traditionally used as accompanying instruments, the violin was introduced in this capacity for the first time in a Hindustani concert, for which credit must be given to MSG's father.
MSG has had the privilege of touring abroad exclusively for Hindustani concerts as a soloist besides his foreign tours as a Carnatic soloist and accompanist to leading Carnatic musicians. He is the only vidwan who has been a top grade All India Radio artist for the past many decades both in Carnatic and Hindustani music.
MSG underlines every statement with a mention of his father; it only goes to prove how much he reveres him. There is hardly a doyen of Carnatic music whom he has not accompanied -- Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, Alathur, G.N. Balasubramaniam, Madurai Mani Iyer, M.S. Subbulakshmi, M.L. Vasanthakumari, M. Balamuralikrishna and Maharajapuram Santhanam. He has also played Hindustani-Carnatic jugalbandhis with S. Balachander, N. Ramani and M. Chandrasekaran, to name a few. “It has been almost 12 years since I played as an accompanist. It has been either solos or concerts with my daughter Narmadha and son Suresh.”
Krishnanand is one Hindustani guru whom MSG holds in great esteem. “You can never find such a provider of musical wisdom. Classes would go on for hours together, yet he would not show even a hint of weariness. In Hindustani, one has to play the tabla while learning to keep the beats. It was Krishnanandji who taught me this along with many other nuances.”
Intense practise sessions
MSG insists that every vidwan should respect his guru and each sangati he plays should be an offering to the God of Music. “If a student has to practise for four hours daily on his instrument just to reach an average level, then imagine the quantum of practice he has to put in to become a master!”
“We had to get up by 4.30 a.m. and practise till about 9. It continued throughout the day with a short break in the evening for prayers, and again till about 9 in the night. We were allowed to sleep at 10 p.m., only after listening to the radio concert. Bowing exercises were very special, for we had to bow non-stop… first for 30 seconds, then for a minute and two… The time interval kept increasing.”
Tirukodikaval Krishnamoorthy Iyer was known to play an entire varnam on one string. Taking a cue from this, MSG's father researched and taught his sons to play the same as an exercise. MSG's proficiency in playing a varnam on one string earned plaudits from Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, who called him asura sadhaki.
“That kind of practice laid the foundation for what came to be known as the Parur style. Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu, Kumbakonam Rajamanickam Pillai and Mysore T. Chowdaiah all had a unique style of violin playing. After that, it has been Lalgudi G. Jayaraman, Prof. T.N. Krishnan and myself. The music we play is the same but the difference arises out of our style of presentation. Yet each has an inherent attractive feature that mesmerises rasikas. My only advice is never criticise anyone; it's a quality I have imbibed from my father.”
MSG was awarded Padma Sri in 1975 and it has been a 37-year-long wait for the next recognition – Padma Bhushan. He has also been chosen for the Tagore Rathna Award from the Sangeet Natak Akademi.
The moments he cherishes most? “It was 1954. I was playing for Pt. Omkarnath Thakur when a rasika came rushing to the stage and presented Rs.1,000 to me through Panditji. I recalled my father's advice: ‘Always have the rasika in mind every time you go on stage.'”
“I have many disciples who are now busy performing on stage. I am happy and leading a contented life. It is in this very hall we practised music. A concert is team work and no individual can take the credit for its success. There is no place for ego on stage,” he avers.
Come June, MSG will turn 81. But the artist in him has remained young, the music from his bow making a melodic statement.