In 1951, with a mridangam, a shruthi-box, some clothes and a few testimonials Tripunithura Viswanathan Gopalakrishnan, or TVG as he is popularly known, landed in Madras [now Chennai]. It’s hard to get an exact handle on what his music journey has been in an eventful musical career stretching to 66 years. He has seen generations of musicians, played with many of the greats, mentored young geniuses, and continues to perform with the verve and excitement of one making his debut. And TVG strives to remain relevant and contemporary.
This journey began at the age of four when TVG first let his fingers explore the mridangam. Soon, he was playing solo before Governor General and Viceroy of India Lord Linlithgow and his wife, Lady Linlithgow, during their visit to Cochin (Kochi). By the age of nine he was on stage, accompanying his future guru Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar at a concert. TVG is, perhaps, the first vocalist who performed with equal mastery both Carnatic and Hindustani classical music. His first Hindustani concert was in 1969. He is also an accomplished violinist. TVG travels back in time to unspool memories that ‘refuse to erase.’
On his guru, Chembai
I cannot forget the thrill of accompanying Chembai for the first time. After the concert he asked my father to send me to Madras. But my father wanted me to graduate first. Chembai said that by then there would be at least 10 people to play the mridangam and I would be the just another one. When I reached Madras, my guru had lost his voice. During this phase, I got the chance to play alongside eminent musicians such as Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu, S. Balachander, T.R. Mahalingam, T.K. Rangachari and Dandapani Desikar. Then, from 1958 till his death, I played the mridangam for my guru. I was more than a disciple to him. I learned a lot from him on music, the art of accompanying artistes on stage, on the importance of sharing knowledge, and of life itself.
On jazz and Gunboat Jack
Between 1951 and 1961, I was fortunate to listen to some great jazz musicians in Madras. Charles Mingus, Stan George... there was a different colour and tone in their music that impressed me. St. Andrew’s Church at Egmore in Chennai was a venue for many performances. It was here that I played with the great American jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck. I also remember playing a specially composed piece by Alan Hovhaness, the Armenian-American composer for All India Radio. The first time I was on stage with a western artiste was while in school. There was a carnival at the Naval Base in Cochin in 1945 where I played a short mridangam piece for Gunboat Jack, a pugilist, circus performer and tap dancer, who was a rage in India at that time. Jazz, I felt, was free expression of music with no definite parameters. I had a music group, Madhuradwani, which was an Indian jazz group of sorts. A. R. Rahman, drummer Sivamani, guitarist John Anthony and so on have played with my group on so many occasions. Even individually, I have played with so many greats of Western music.
On Pandit Ravi Shankar
I was pleasantly surprised when Ravi Shankar invited me to join him and George Harrison (of The Beatles) on their North American Tour. This was in 1974. It was to be a 60-day tour with around 68 concerts and served to be a launch of George’s record label, Dark Horse Records. My guru insisted I go and even spoke to Ravi Shankar, asking him to take care of me well. We were a 26-member team that comprised musicians such as Ustad Alla Rakha, Lakshmi Shankar, Shivkumar Sharma, Hariprasad Chaurasia, L. Subramaniam and Sultan Khan. We performed to sell-out crowds at all venues. Ravi Shankar, I realised, was one who batted strongly for Carnatic music whenever he got the opportunity. We travelled in a special aircraft and he asked me to explain the nuances of Carnatic music to the others.
That must have been an unforgettable tour...
For many reasons that will remain an unforgettable tour. Celebrities like Peter Sellers and Bob Dylan were with us for three of the concerts. Bob Dylan even asked me stay back for a year, which I could not. He presented a medallion to me with the words ‘superstar’ etched on it. It was during this tour that my guru passed away. The news devastated me. I could not bring myself to rehearse or perform. Ravi Shankar came to my room and told me how he went through a similar experience. He told me that since I had not seen my guru dead, he would always be alive for me. It was kind of him to spend time with me.
In this long musical journey you have accompanied maestros, young turks and maverick geniuses, of which T.R. Mahalingam aka Mali, the flute wizard, was one of your favourites...
Mali’s music was much ahead of his times. His eccentricities often got precedence over his music. I think this was because very few really understood and appreciated it. Whatever he played, even the short phrases, were sheer magic. It was not prescribed music, it was spontaneous, natural. There was a meditative quality about his music that often seemed to overwhelm him to the extent that he became unconscious of the audience before him. I have felt that since people did not really fathom his music, they focussed on his pranks on stage. Moreover, he was an excellent conversationalist who could talk about any subject under the sun. We shared a good rapport.
As a teacher
My approach to music as a teacher is that each student has his own ethos and skills, which needs to be developed. In my school (Academy of Indian Music and Arts) we do not teach the basics in the first two years. The students are taught to sing after which we sift and pick those who are really wired for the big circus to follow, while the others can continue with their training in singing. When Ilaiyaraja came to me it was not to learn the basics but to know more about music, its relevance, on the nuances of Hindustani and Carnatic styles. A.R. Rahman wanted to know about the intricacies of music, while Kadri Gopalnath was with me for nearly 19 years. So, I have tried to be a guru and mentor to all those who come to me with a genuine interest in music, any form, any style.
Your thoughts on life
It’s a quest. Life is a constant process of asking questions and seeking answers. Once the questions dry up what’s life? I have kept pushing myself, exploring to the maximum, for I believe that only this will give me fulfilment.
On stage at Navarathri Mandapam
TVG has sung at the Navarathri Mandapam of the Sreepadmanabhaswamy temple, Thiruvananthapuram, for more than 25 years. He has played the mridangam at the annual music fête as well. This year too, he will be on stage, playing the mridangam, accompanying violinist S. Varadarajan. The concert is on September 25. Here the musician talks about why concerts at the Navarathri Mandapam are close to his heart.
Right from the time I began listening to broadcasts of concerts from the Navarathri Mandapam, especially of the greats like Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Ariyakudi Ramanujam, Alathur Brothers, G. N. Balasubramaniam, Palghat Mani Iyer, Chowdiah and others, I nursed a dream to perform there. The first time I played at the Mandapam was in 1989 (October 7), accompanying Semmangudi. Since then I have been fortunate to sing and play the mridangam many times over. The ambience humbles you. With just the sound of the tamburu and the fragrance of the lamps, there is an aura of divinity that allows complete concentration on music. It is a heritage that needs to be preserved.