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Changing lanes

Kadri Gopalnath, who has masterfully adapted the singularly western saxophone to the carnatic sound, is a name to reckon with in the world of instrumental music today.

EAST & WEST: Kadri Gopalnath

HE IS something of a wizard with the saxophone. Playing the toughest ragas of Carnatic classical on a singularly western instrument comes to him as easily as breathing. Kadri Gopalnath is a name to reckon with in the world of instrumental music today. What made him try his hand at the saxophone when he belonged to a family of nagaswaram players of Dakshina Kannada (Mangalore)?

"I learnt playing the nagaswaram at a tender age of ten from my father Thaniappa, a renowned vidwan those days. When I was at school, I set my sights on the saxophone after hearing it played by the Mysore Palace band once. I was seized with an urge to try my hand on this particular instrument whose vibrancy excited my little artistic mind. I made my nagaswaram experience my guru and taught myself to mould this foreign instrument to my music. It took me two solid years to convert the saxophone into a Carnatic-friendly instrument,'' says Kadri.The struggle was just the beginning of the road to recognition, reverence and right. As the first step, he learnt vocal, which gives any musician the basis to understand the nuances of instrumental music. Kadri admits that he owes his popularity to the media especially the press and the All-India Radio. His first performances were all in Andhra Pradesh AIR followed by Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu in that order.

"The AIR was sceptical about the saxophone being used for Carnatic music just as my father and many a classicist were critical of my innovation. The older generation looked down upon it as it was a foreign instrument and therefore amangalam (inauspicious) as against my traditional nagaswaram. The AIR refused to slot me as it wanted ample proof of my prowess as also guarantee of its listeners if something as odd as the saxophone were to be given a Carnatic recital opening. It was with great misgiving that I got the first break on the radio. Newspaper reviews raved about my performance and the rest is history."

Today Kadri is A grade artist at AIR schedules with any number of foreign tours and Indian performances on hand. He is given prime time in the Madras season and also the inaugural at the sabhas. He has been able to convince the staunchest and most orthodox musicians into admitting his marvellous talent with an alien instrument that could bring out the highly sensitive nuances of Carnatic classical. What is common between the nagaswaram and the saxophone? "Nothing except the blowing,'' he quips. They are entirely different and require individual playing capacity. He has established a school in Chennai called Kadri's Key with 500 odd students learning various instruments.

"My aim is to mould any western instrument to Indian music and show the world that it is indeed a small place.'' Is he too lured by cinema going by his playback in the Tamil film Duet?

"I did play for Duet because it was the famous K. Balachander's movie with A.R. Rehman's music. The hero in the story happens to be a saxophone player, hence my presence. I cannot, however, stoop to commercial cinema. I like to keep myself to my classical music,'' he says.

Has he tried his hand at fusion - the latest mantra in music? "Though I rarely play western music, my feelings towards fusion are not negative. There's nothing wrong in trying innovations at a superficial level to attract the present generation that is moving away from Indian music into some imitative, hotchpotch between the west and east."

"The basis of classical music cannot be altered as long as the fundamentals are in place. Slight modifications to lure our youngsters into our fold lest we lose them totally are welcome. The West has taken full advantage of our lack of knowledge of our own culture and arts and foisted its culture on us. Since we are like rudderless ships, we quickly fall into the western seas, which perhaps look bluer than our own."

"There is every need to reconstruct our culture in this era, which is being swept away by western winds in the name of modernism. Even our flights barring our national carriers, play western saxophone music and we can watch our co-passengers nodding their heads in approval and appreciation when they don't understand a syllable! Just because something is American it ought to be applauded - this has become our nature of late. We have no way to ensure that our children, the future of our country are inoculated from the dread of the western bug. Unlike the west where music or dance is compulsory in schools, we have no such curriculum. Arts are kept in the attic. So it is more out of necessity to keep the waters flowing that fusion has been coined in music. There is no way out to hold at our arts in the midst of torrential currents of western waters. We have to save ourselves and save our future generations from annihilation. So if it pays off in a positive response why not modify our classical arts?'' He is pragmatic, reasonable and discerning. That is Kalaimamani Kadri for you.


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