After 55 years in Chennai, music maestro T.V.Gopalakrishnan reveals his perspective.
All the youngsters (today) play excellently, but they all play the same way... they are busy without having to develop their abilities."
On the street where music maestro T.V. Gopalakrishnan lives in Chennai, you'll find his house faster by asking for vidwan Gopalakrishnan than hunting for the address. In a busy metropolitan neighbourhood in 2007, this experience is not to be taken for granted. The mridangam vidwan, Carnatic vocalist, Hindustani vocalist, teacher, soloist and accompanist has earned his stature in the music world. Universally referred to as TVG, he is known for moving with the times remaining an icon for young musicians, studying voice culture, constantly experimenting to improve the tonal quality of the mridangam. When he came to Chennai in 1951 from his native Tripunithura, the music scene was not as frenetic as today. "There were not many sabhas. The stalwarts were all in their prime," he recalls, naming Pazhani Subramaniam Pillai, Rajamanickam Pillai, T.N.Krishnan and others. "Palghat Raghu (mridangam maestro) and I came together. We stayed in the same lodge."It was in the 1950s, he says, that "the saturation" of Carnatic musicians began in Chennai. The sabhas music organisations too came up around that time, though the Music Academy and the Indian Fine Arts Society were already established."It was very difficult to make a living," he recalls. For nine years he worked as a clerk to support the family. In a way he had asked for trouble! Because his mentor, the legendary vocalist Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, had recognised his talent when TVG was a child of eight. "It was 1940. Chembai gave a concert. He asked me to play the mridangam for him. Chowdiah (the legendary violinist) was accompanying him." TVG's father and other elders were worried. The opening piece was a heavy one set to a slow `naalu kalai chaukam' Adi tala. "Chembai told me, just play a few avartanams and you'll be fine." Afterwards, he proposed to take the boy to Chennai. But the family wanted TVG to complete his academic degree. "Chembai told my father (mridangam vidwan Viswanatha Bhagavathar), `By that time there will be 10 mridangam artistes to compete with.' And when I went in 1951, he actually counted off 10 of them!" says TVG with a laugh. "Even back then I told him I had no regrets. Everyone has to earn."Significantly, those days every musician had individual traits, points out TVG. "All the youngsters (today) play excellently, but they all play the same way. At the touch of the mridangam you could tell if it was T.K. Murthy, or Palghat Raghu, or someone else. Now youngsters are busy without having to develop their abilities." The reason, he says, is soloists mostly want "just a timekeeper." Vidwans know "the significance of silences, of statements," he explains. "These are after all, musical statements. If they just keep time, I don't know how far they will contribute to music." He should know, performing both the mridangam and vocal music in Chennai since 1952. "Within two or three years, I was able to make a mark, mainly because I accompanied artistes considered difficult to play with," he explains. These included Dwaram Venkataswami Naidu and S. Balachander, wizards of the violin and veena respectively. "The way to establish yourself was only to be seen and heard on stage. There was no media. Balachander was very fair. He would alternate his accompanists, giving several of us a chance. Dhandapani Desikar, who made a great contribution to Carnatic music, helped me a lot too. But I never wanted to compete," he asserts. "Even now I feel musicians are too much in competition."TVG's school, Chembai Vidya Mandir and his organisation, the Academy of Indian Music, which gave an early platform to artistes well-known today including saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath and Yesudas in his avatar as a Carnatic singer are two vehicles to put some of his principles into practice. During the Margazhi season when Chennai explodes with music and dance, artistes should not perform more than 10 concerts, advises TVG. "They give 15 to 20 concerts. And mostly the auditoriums are empty. It is just for an entry in their biodata." The frenzy for innovation spawns change without purpose, he feels. "They start a concert with a javali, or a geetam. Or they start with a raga like Neelambari or Kapi." Each raga has its place, he points out. As do format and tempo. So slowing down a composition for the sake of performing an ati vilambit piece is pointless. "The very purpose of tempo is to give the message of the song."