M.S. Gopalakrishnan on tram rides, live recordings and accompanying musical stalwarts

I have been living in the same house (in Mylapore) since I was born. This narrow street was not congested and had enough breathing space. Most of the famous lawyers such as K.S. Jayarama Iyer, T.R. Venkatrama Sastri and Patanjali Sastri lived in Mylapore.

I would practise for long hours with my father and elder brother M.S. Anantharaman in our small living room. I lost my mother when I was two years old. My father was my mata, pita and guru.

I went to the Centenary Elementary School, opposite the Ramakrishna Mutt. Many would say, ‘O, you go to that kottaai (with a thatched roof) school.’ Then there was no kindergarten, LKG or UKG. At age six, children were admitted directly to Class I. Each class had very few sections with not more than 20 students in each section. The school bag was light. It contained a rough notebook and the Maths and English textbooks and notebooks. So we could easily walk to school. Also, there was hardly any vehicular traffic.

When Route No. 21 was introduced, I started going to school by bus. A one-way ticket cost 10 paise, and my father would give me exactly 20 paise. I would walk back home and save 10 paise to buy biscuits. Once back from school, I would join the children in the neighbourhood to play catch, hide-and-seek and daaya kattai. Most streets were tree-lined and would be dark and desolate after 6 p.m. Yet safety was never an issue. People feared the police. On days when there was school, my brother and I had to practise from six to eight in the morning and seven to nine in the evening. On holidays, our father woke us up at 4 a.m. If we refused to, he would sprinkle water on our eyes. He would make us play the violin for almost 10 hours apart from teaching new compositions for an hour in the afternoon. Exhausting it was, but today I owe it all to that discipline and sustained sadhana.

Sundays were incomplete without a visit to the Marina in the evening and once a month my father took us to watch movies at Sagar, Wellington, or the New Globe theatres. Besides Tamil, we watched Hindi films too.

After the tram was introduced, we enjoyed tram rides on holidays. We would buy a ticket for four annas, travel to town (Parry’s Corner) and back. My favourite eatery was the Rayar’s Mess. For four annas one could get two idlis, a vadai and coffee. …

A cricket buff, I have watched several international matches at Chepauk. The entry ticket cost Rs. 2. My father didn’t let me play cricket fearing I might hurt my hand and not be able to play the violin.

The radio was the only source of entertainment and being an A-grade radio artiste was seen as a major achievement. All recordings were live. I would take a jatka to go to the AIR building on Marshalls Road.

Kutcheris were about team work. It was exciting and challenging to play for stalwarts such as Madurai Mani Iyer, Maharajapuram Santhanam, Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, M.S. Subbulakshmi, Flute Mali, G.N. Balasubramaniam and M.L. Vasanthakumari. Getting an appreciative ‘O’ from GNB was more rewarding than the money you earned. I used to get Rs. 25 for each concert. Accompanying artistes were respected, and given enough time and space during concerts by the main artistes. And, the audience had time to sit through and savour every moment of those elaborate four-hour concerts.

(As told to CHITRA SWAMINATHAN)

M.S. GOPALAKRISHNAN (popularly known as MSG): Born on June 10, 1931, his training in playing the violin began under his legendary violinist-father Parur Sundaram Iyer at age six. He gave his first performance along with his father at the age of eight. Proficient in both Carnatic and Hindustani music, MSG is an acclaimed soloist and accompanist. He has done vast research on violin-playing techniques and developed a unique style called the ‘Parur style’.

In 1952 world famous violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin visited Madras. Musiri Subramania Iyer, the then principal of the Music College organised a concert in his honour. Thirupamburam Swaminatha Pillai played the flute and I, the violin. After the concert was over, Menuhin got up and hugged me. He said ‘I have not heard such violin in all my travels! How superbly this young Indian is playing our instrument!’