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Updated: December 13, 2011 00:03 IST

In defence of the Carnatic saxophone

Swaroop Mamidipudi
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Kadri Gopalanath. Photo: G.P.Sampath Kumar
The Hindu
Kadri Gopalanath. Photo: G.P.Sampath Kumar

Doubts persist regarding the its capabilities to reproduce tonal subtleties

When my father, with an amateur ear for jazz, came back from a trip to the U.K. in the early 90s, he brought back a box full of CDs with names like Chick Corea, Glenn Miller, John Coltrane — the sheer sound of those names excited me. I hadn't heard the sound of the saxophone until then, and I can't remember whose recording I first heard, but the look of the instrument and the texture of its sound had a lasting imprint on my eight-year-old self. Naturally, when I heard a man would be playing the saxophone in the nearby Udupi Krishna Temple, I was thrilled to bits.

The saxophone player at the concert, with thick lines of vibhuti smeared across his forehead, the jewellery in his fingers and ears, and around his neck, shimmering in the amber light, and his music blazing in the humid evening air, was nothing like I had come to expect from the saxophone. The most striking aspect I remember from that evening was that the sax did not look even a bit out of place in the orthodox temple.

Kadri Gopalnath's saxophone has reverberated everywhere, from the temples of south India and overflowing concert halls during the music season, to posh festivals of jazz and world music. His collaborators have been from diverse musical backgrounds, and his fans are found in the remotest corners of the globe.

Still, back home, there are questions about the saxophone's place amongst Carnatic music. There are doubts on whether the instrument is capable of reproducing the tonal subtleties on which Carnatic music thrives. There are accusations that in “approximating” gamakas, the music itself is getting diluted.

Hundred and thirty years ago, Sarabha Sastri, brought the flute to the Carnatic stage — until then, it was almost exclusively a folk instrument. In taming its eccentricities and its propensity to misbehave, he opened up a box full of possibilities to this primordial instrument. No recordings of his playing survive, and apart from stray references in larger works, little has been written about his music. We only know his music through his student, the legendary Palladam Sanjeeva Rao.

Playing with a short, light, high-pitched flute, Sanjeeva Rao was known for playing with a loud, vibrant tone, dealing in bursts of speed, and constructing long passages of supersonic swaraprastara around small kritis. Working within the limitations of the flute, and recognising that many intricate gamakas could not be produced on it, the flautists of his time consciously avoided ragas such as Todi, Ahiri and Dhanyasi. Even with these limitations, Sanjeeva Rao ruled the field for decades until a genius came along.

T.R. Mahalingam was unaffected by the apparent limitations of the flute; being completely self-taught, he did not even know them. Handling the instrument with almost otherworldly intuition, he showed, even before his 15th birthday, that the flute could reproduce every single gamaka that the voice could sing. His successor, led by that other genius, N. Ramani, refined those fingering techniques further, modified its construction, its regular pitch and thickness to make it a full-fledged concert instrument whose place is not questioned by even the grumpiest of traditionalists.

The full exploitation of a musical instrument takes a good amount of time – not decades, but generations. A study of violin music from before the triumvirate of Lalgudi Jayaraman, M.S. Gopalakrishnan and T.N. Krishnan will reveal that it was played in what is called the “harmonium” style. Even today, in the age of contact microphones, veena playing techniques, honed over centuries, slowly evolve. The keyboard, barely two decades old in Carnatic music, has transformed completely with the coming of the pitch-bender. In the hands of a good musician, the new-age keyboard called the Continuum - a red plane of gradually ascending pitch without any keys — should be capable of producing anything the voice can.

Kadri Gopalnath's achievement on the saxophone is immense. The Carnatic saxophone will benefit from second-generation geniuses, who will either build on what is there, or like Mali, look at it with fresh eyes. To write it off in three decades is unfair to the instrument and the artistes. Give it some time.

(The author is a flautist, writer and a practising lawyer)

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Give Carnatic music a chanceDecember 29, 2011

What Lalgudi said sums it up, Its the mind of the artist that makes the instrument sing. Isn't it true that, wholesomeness of Carnatic Music one can enjoy on listening to Clarinet when played by legendary A K C Natarajan, or Mandolin by U Srinivas, is not present while listening to Sri Kadri. That is not the limitation of the instrument, and at the same time it would be naive to deny the contributions of Sri Kadri to the world of Sax. It would be in the fitness of things to conclude that, the instrument Sax has evolved a great degree in stature with Sri Kadri, and may take few more artists to make it on par with other instruments.

from:  A P Subrahmanyam
Posted on: Dec 30, 2011 at 01:36 IST

Thank you for this useful and important article. I have been saying this frequently to
those who pose this topic about my Guru's instrument. The level of innovation he
has done bringing all the ragas to the instrument is extraordinary and worth even
more than one lifetime. Having done gurukulam under him growing up, I was able to
learn all the intricacies from him in great detail and I know what heights the
instrument is capable of in the pure Carnatic realm thanks to his guidance.
Unfortunately, few really understand the instrument and the nature of its sound
(even some who play the instrument, unfortunately). This is really a topic for
doctorate dissertation or an extended article, but at least people can get a gist of
what is at play here. The use of the saxophone in Carnatic music will continue to
grow and become more refined thanks to this great master.

from:  Prasant Radhakrishnan
Posted on: Dec 14, 2011 at 17:30 IST

Lalgudi Jayaraman once exclaimed that Violins do not sing on their own, the mind
has to make the Violin sing. Music is a faculty of the mind and instruments are but
a conveyance of the thought. Thus to question whether a particular instrument is
qualified to be used in carnatic music according to me, is unnecessary,
unproductive and demented. For example I am aware of an earlier negative
comment by TM Krishna on the suitability of instruments as the Sax for carnatic
music. On the contrary I also point Dr. BMK's ability to adapt the Viola and make it
sing. Thus aspersions on the capacity of an instrument does not serve the art. The
genius mindset of Shri Kadri Gopalnath to bring the divine sound of the Sax to
carnatic music is admirable and deserves much respect and recognition. Kadri's
very many renditions have invoked exalted meditativeness in listeners. Be it the
Flute, Piano, Santoor or Mandolin, one needs to evolve it and this takes
generations, as taken by vocal music itself!

from:  Dr. Hari Subramanian
Posted on: Dec 14, 2011 at 16:48 IST
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