T.V. Gopalakrishnan cannot recall when exactly he was initiated into music, but the octogenarian Chennaiite has vivid memories about his debut performance 75 years ago in Ernakulam — his city those days.

There, at the Government Girls’ High School, a six-year-old boy played the mridangam at a students’ function. “The evening gathering included not just a few top administrators; even Lord Linlithgow and his wife,” the artiste notes, referring to British Viceroy Victor Alexander John Hope.

“I played the instrument for a small musical drama that featured sage Narada enacted by (late singer) P. Leela. I won’t call it arangettam in the strict sense. That I never had,” reveals the multi-faceted artiste, now 81.

If the frontline disciple of legendary vocalist Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar went on to master not just the Carnatic and Hindustani streams but also collaborate with a string of renowned musicians from both the East and the West, TVG owes much of the eclecticism to the formative years in his family based in downtown Pallimukku.

As son of Carnatic master Tripunithura Viswanatha Bhagavatar, their house in Pallimukku during the 1930-40s used to be classroom for students with varied pursuits in music. As a toddler, Gopalakrishnan got exposed to their whole range of aesthetics.

Chalikkavattom Kumaran, for instance, learned the nagaswaram from the Bhagavatar. “Then, there was a certain Majeed who was learning the mridangam. Even I taught him later. He’s no more,” trails off the percussionist-instrumentalist-vocalist.

Another student of the horizontal drum was “one Nambiar”, notes TVG. “Jos, who was then a tailor before he emerged as a successful textile-shop owner, learnt the clarinet from my father.”

The placidity of life changed months after his first public show. For, World War II set in, bringing misery for a half-a-dozen years from 1939. Nonetheless, they also lent vibrancy to TVG’s artistic pursuits.

“Every Saturday, a team of us boys would perform music for the naval soldiers. Cultural entertainment for the tired sailors. A jeep would pick me along with some of my cousins and friends. Occasionally, my uncle and teacher (G Narayanaswamy, father of ghatam master Tripunithura N Radhakrishnan) accompanied us. We would stage items inside the ship,” recalls TVG, who won the Padma Bhushan last year.

“I used to even dance,” he adds with an amused smirk. “A sort of amateur ballet with bits of movements borrowed from Bharatanatyam.”

From age 10, TVG began accompanying masters like Augustine Joseph (K.J. Yesudas’s father), Sebastian Kunjukunju Bhagavatar, Sivaraman Nair, Desamangalam Venkateswara Bhagavatar, M.A. Kalyanakrishna Bhagavatar, G.N. Balasubramaniam, Manakkal Rangarajan and Papa Choodamani, among others, besides Chembai, for whom he first played the mridangam as an eight-year-old.

In his high-school days at SRV School on Chittoor Road, weekends meant a brief stay at his ancestral home in Tripunithura. “Much like the majority around, I would walk — up and down (the 8 km).”

That habit changed by his pre-university days, when TVG would often take the occasional bus to Maharaja’s College. “Swaraj was the name of the bus from Vaikom; a man called Mani Iyer was its driver. Pretty fast and reckless,” he says. “Breakdowns weren’t unusual. We students would then get down and assist the mechanic.”

TVG notes that he was “short” in the college. The lack of standard height tempted fellow students to taunt him. “But I never took anything lying low. I’d carry a sharpened pencil in my pocket — my weapon.”

That apart, TVG had a broad circle of friends. “Quite a few of them were Jews and Christians from Mattancherry and Fort Kochi. I’d accompany them to the boat jetty to see them off in the evenings; sometimes receive them there in the mornings.”

A transfer his father subsequently got as music professor of Kerala Varma College in Thrissur led to TVG’s shifting to the State’s cultural capital.

Appa wanted me to be completely academic. No music, only studies,” he says about the B.Com days. But TVG devised a clever way out: “I’d bunk classes; go for concerts — to perform. I needed money as well.” A couple of classmates would help him by supplying class notes.

One of them was P. Sankarankutty, brother of Thrissur P. Radhakrishnan who became a musician in AIR. “Sankarankutty also played the mridangam to my informal but creative vocals at his house.”

Then, in 1951, TVG left Kerala. “For Madras,” he says. The tacit hint: “Rest is history.”

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