With the demise of iconic violinist M. S. Gopalakrishnan, the music world has lost a maestro and the audience, a genius
As his fine pernambuco bow caresses the steel strings, the spruce and maple wood, carved some 300 years ago by Giovanni Paulo Maggini (the legendary Italian violin maker), spontaneously yield the sweetest of sounds, saptaswaras in a dazzling dance of complex yet brilliantly clear resonances.
The fingers of his left hand are a blur as they strike fast and precise, their exact pitches and their finest nuances weaving tapestries of perfect musical designs unheard of before. Today, the bow rests; the wood of Maggini has fallen silent. MSG has passed on into the realm of the Gandharvas, as they gleefully welcome him back into their musical dreamlands.
With the demise of Parur M.S. Gopalakrishnan, the Indian music world loses another towering icon. But having said that, MSG (as he is fondly referred to by one and all) was not just an icon. He was, and is, one of the most powerful forces that shaped violin-playing in both Carnatic and Hindustani music since the time the European instrument was introduced into Indian classical music in the late 1800s.
MSG was one of the two illustrious sons of Parur Sundaram Iyer — the other being his elder brother and equally great musician Parur M.S. Anantharaman — the two defined the genre of the violin duo in Carnatic music performance and played together for many decades.
MSG has always attributed his drive for excellence in music to the untiring efforts and disciplinary regimen that his father instilled in him. Ten to 16 hours of practice was on the daily menu for more than 25 years during his student years. But as the teary-eyed elder brother said on Thursday, “MSG was an avataram who was born to play the violin. Wherever I go I always proudly declare to all that I am MSG’s brother.”
MSG’s daughter Narmadha and his many students testify to his exacting drive for perfection and of his relentless pursuit to master the instrument.
Even casual listeners of MSG’s music were astounded by his perfection in such a complex and spontaneous art form.Legendary violinist Yehudi Menuhin, on listening to MSG’s violin once remarked, “A finer violinist I have never heard in all my travels.”
Mastery over technique
MSG’s adaptation of bowing and fingering techniques from the Western classical tradition, his absolute perfection of both the plain note as well as the ornamentation and graces, the large variety of bow strokes that enhanced the musical gamut of the instrument, his mastery of the ‘single finger’ left hand technique, the innovations in left hand fingering, especially in the very high registers — the list is endless.
But above all it was the pure sweet sound of his violin, its bright tone that transported listeners to realms of musical ecstasy.And all this he did with amazing ease, with his trademark smile and eyebrows slightly raised in focus belying his immense saadhana.
Though he carved a niche for himself mainly as a solo violinist, MSG has also accompanied all the great vocalists of his and previous generations for more than half a century. His unique style and musical acumen shone forth in his perfect shadowing of G.N. Balasubramaniam’s virtuosity, his quick repartees to the Alathur Brothers, his echoing Chembai’s strident music, the stentorian Hindustani vocalist Omkarnath Thakur, the soft sowkhyam of Madurai Mani Iyer and the whimsical genius of Flute Mali and Veena Balachander.
His essays of ragas such as Hindolam, Hamsanandi Subhapantuvarali, Kalyani, Sindhubhairavi, or a Hindustani Marubihaag, Miyan ki Todi, Shudh Sarang, and Mand, ring indelibly in the ears of all musicians and connoisseurs alike. Even the most rigid north Indian musicians acknowledge that MSG was the greatest exponent of Hindustani music on the violin.
MSG’s lifestyle, diet and daily routine all underlined a very disarming simplicity. An intense personal discipline, an unfailing commitment to the Hindu spiritual practice, a fine sense of balance and control, an unshakeable personal conviction — these attributes were seen in every aspect of his life.
Hundreds of prestigious awards, including the Padma Bhushan and the Sangita Kalanidhi notwithstanding, he didn’t need designer silk kurtas or expensive personal ornaments.
His meals were simple too, and his attire at home or at The Music Academy or The Lincoln Center was the same — a spotless white full-sleeved shirt, a simple white veshti, a thin angavastram, and the trademark pattai vibhuti marking his forehead
Like the tennis firebrand John McEnroe once quipped: “I shall henceforth let my racquet do all the talking,” so also did MSG’s violin. His violin displayed, for all to see and hear, the unrivalled richness of his technical skills, the wealth of his musical imagination and his repertoire and the majesty of his performance style.
Spurred on by the pioneering efforts of many predecessors such as Dwaram Venkatasamy Naidu and his father Parur Sundaram Iyer, MSG is undoubtedly one of the margadarshis who redefined, and in the process, transformed the art of Indian violin playing.
There is no violinist of worth today who has not been deeply impacted by his immense technical and musical contribution. This big wheel of the great ratha that is Indian music rests today. May it rest in Ananda.
(The author is a violinist and vocalist who performs in both Hindustani and Carnatic styles.)