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)