Kadri Gopalnath is a name to reckon with in the field of Carnatic instrumental music. For one, he is the one and only musician to mould the very orthodox Indian genre to a totally Western instrument — the saxophone. And if his breath-taking performances are anything to go by, well he is a wizard with the instrument stunning the Western classicists to silence. Collaborations galore with many a maestro on the other side of the continent, Gopalnath has not lost his native naiveté that endears him to all those who cross his path. A genial temperament tempered with a sense of humour are his natural accessories as one strikes a conversation with him. Recently in Delhi after almost a decade for the monthly ‘Bhinn Shadj’ concert by IGNCA at Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, he eloquently spoke about his journey as a musician. “Yes, nearly a decade has passed. It was not deliberate but I was caught up with performances elsewhere and perhaps nothing concrete came my way to play in Delhi, though I love to. Anyway, now I’m here and that makes me happy.”
What made you choose a European instrument considering you come from a family of traditional Nadaswara vidwans?
Do you ask any Indian violinist why he chose a Western instrument? Same is the case here. Why people choose what they choose is simply a matter of destiny. I was enamoured by an English band playing at the Mysore Royal Palace where among all other instruments the saxophone caught my fancy. Till then like an obedient son of a worthy scholar father, I was training on the nadaswaram (he winks gleefully).
What had your father and other elders in the family to say about your choice?
My father who is also my guru had no objection. On the other hand, he helped me to tame the instrument to our Carnatic style which was no cakewalk. The oscillations and subtle nuances of our school of music had to be incorporated in the saxophone for which I had to make alterations to whatever extent the instrument allowed. It took me two decades to master the instrument. And the ensuing success was sheer joy. I call it my ‘ punya phala’ (fruit of accumulated good deeds) that today I stand as a unique artiste solely because of choosing to master this instrument. To me it is divine.
Did you play your style to a Western classicist and show him your mastery over what is originally ‘their musical instrument’?
My first jamming session was way back in the 80s with John Handy, a jazz musician from the US. It was in Mumbai and our pairing became an instant hit. Very soon I found myself being invited to play at the Prague Jazz festival, the Berlin Jazz Fest and so on. But Carnatic platform is my mainstay despite all these experimentations.
Like veterans in music are often asked, has your progeny taken after you?
To a certain extent, yes. My second son, Manikant Kadri is a film composer. I too did the saxophone music for a film for ace director K Balachander. It is a very interesting anecdote. I was trying to play all the catchy ragas, nearly 30 of them, to A R Rahman, the music director of the movie ( Duet ) but he wasn’t very upbeat about any. Suddenly I decided to play Kalyana Vasanta raga and he caught on to it immediately. This movie brought mass accolades to me. One of the reasons, I encouraged my son to take up film music.
We have heard that you have taken the lead for Swachch Bharat project in your state?
I just contributed to building toilets in a school for physically challenged in Mangalore. Artistes don’t live in castles; we are a part of society. We need to be aware of social causes and work towards them to whatever extent we can. I had organised a show during the Kargil war where the proceeds went to the Kargil Relief Fund. It is nothing unique, just my duty as a citizen of this country.