How the saxophone took to swaras

Kadri Gopalnath talks about the challenge of introducing saxophone to the Carnatic realm and his many crossover projects

January 17, 2019 04:04 pm | Updated 04:04 pm IST

Saxophone exponent Kadri Gopalnath

Saxophone exponent Kadri Gopalnath

“It was at one of my concerts in the early days of my career. I began to play with full enthusiasm and the (over)confidence typical of youth. I was lost in my own world, oblivious of the audience response. Halfway through the concert, my guru T.V. Gopalakrishnan, who was accompanying me, leaned closer and whispered, “Are you aware that the audience is not responding to your music? I was startled, but also realised the truth in his observation. Soon a request for playing Mohanam raga came from a rasika. I put my heart and soul into its every nuance. The thunderous applause at the end was like an adrenaline boost. That experience not only taught me to be humble, but also made me realise the importance of connecting to people,” says saxophone vidwan Kadri Gopalnath, who was honoured with the title Sangeeta Choodamani by Sri Krishna Gana Sabha in August 2018.

Gopalnath’s long journey began, when as an eight-year-old, during a visit to Mysore, he was fascinated by the sounds emanating from a shiny musical instrument played by a musician in the ‘Mysore Band.’ The band was patronised by Mummadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar, the Maharaja of Mysore and a composer of merit himself. Kadri went up to the musician and discovered that the instrument was called saxophone. So mesmerised he was that Kadri decided to learn to play the instrument. Today his name has become synoymous with saxophone.

Kadri made up his mind to get a saxophone for himself at what was a princely sum of Rs. 800 in those days, and he had to plead and fight with his father, who was reluctant to part with so much money to buy an instrument about which he was clueless. Finally, Kadri had his way and the instrument was ordered from G.S.Vasan & Co. in Hyderabad. With passion, Gopalnath began to explore the instrument’s potential and tweaked it to play the gamakams that are intrinsic to Carnatic music. He overcame all challenges to adapt it to Carnatic kutcheri.

“I stopped playing the nagaswaram because I wanted to focus on saxophone. However, my learning continued under the tutelage of gurus such as Gopalakrishna Iyer in Mangalore and Balakrishna Pillai in Kumbakonam, who taught me the grammar and aesthetics of Carnatic music.”

Gopalnath was 15, when the priest from the temple near his house, who had listened to him playing the instrument while passing by everyday, invited him to play for a Sathyanarayana puja at the Kadri temple in Mangalore. This, virtually an arangetram concert, was well received and he began to get offers to perform at nearby places. Vidwan Dr.T.V.Gopalakrishnan heard his concert and invited him to Chennai. The city opened new avenues and Kadri pursued his musical journey with a new vigour under the guidance of TVG, who also made him perform at the Chembai Musical Centre.

Meanwhile, Kadri went for an audition at AIR. Speaking about this experience, he says, “I was nervous as I was playing an instrument not on AIR list. I was made to play in one room while the selection committee was in an adjacent room. I was asked to play raga Bhairavi. I did so, presenting the kriti ‘Upacharamu’ with niravals and swaras. When I came out, I was pleasantly surprised to see one of the panel members, Mysore Doreswami Iyengar, waiting there to tell me Besha Vasicheppa. I was elated. I was selected for the ‘B High’ category, which meant I would be called to perform outside Karnataka too.”

Radio, those days, played a major role in the success and popularity of a musician. Kadri’s concert at Narada Gana Sabha, Chennai, impressed its secretary R. Krishnaswamy so much that till date, he performs the inaugural concert every December season. Well-known critic Subbudu had this to say about his music: “Yanai madhiri ulla vaadhiyathai poonai madhiri pazhakirukar.” And then there was no looking back.

At one of his concerts, popular film director K. Balachandar and composer A.R.Rahman were in the audience. Kadri was surprised when he was called to the recording studio by Balachandar, who told him, “I want you to play for my film which is based on a saxophone player”. The film Duet, starring Prabhu in the title role, took his music to the masses. “It is the most special and memorable experience. Rahman asked me to explore raga Kalyana Vasantham in varied speeds and octaves. When he finished mixing it with S.P. Balasubramaniam’s voice and the song was released, the response was mindboggling. Its success could be compared to the timeless ‘Singaravelane.’”

Heeding Subbudu’s advice — nee cinemavukku poyidhathe, un sevai Carnatic musicukku romba thevai — Kadri steered clear of cinema.

Another turning point came his way when Niranjan Jhaveri, the curator of a jazz festival in Mumbai, invited him to perform. Suddenly in an impromptu move, popular jazz musician John Handy joined him on stage to play a song. The fabulous response to this led the curator to present the two together in an evening show. As Kadri pushed the musical boundaries, his fame crossed the Indian shore. The fusion of Jazz and Carnatic music delighted audiences so much that Handy and he performed at jazz festivals in Prague, Berlin, France and many more countries.

He recalls with pride the opportunity that came his way to perform at the inaugural concert of the BBC Promenade festival at Royal Albert Hall.

Kadri has performed jugalbandis with many Hindustani and Carnatic musicians and fusion concerts. He is the recipient of many awards such as Padma Shri, Sangeet Natak Akademi, Kalaimamani and the Chowdiah Memorial Award. He was conferred honorary doctorates by Bangalore and Mangalore Universities.

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