Matchless in his art

T V Gopalakrishnan. Photo: M. Karunakaran   | Photo Credit: M_Karunakaran

“This,” says Tirupunithura Viswanatha Gopalakrishnan, pointing to a tall, ornate kuthuvilakku standing conspicuously in a corner, “was given to me in Bombay by Shanmukhananda Sabha,” and it is impossible to miss the metaphor. The object, to which our attention is directed, remarkably resembles its owner: tall (in every meaning of the word), shining, swanky and pleasing to the eye. The Sabha had just given him a lifetime achievement award, instituted in the name of Paramacharya. The day after it arrived, he got Padma Bhushan. ,

You can't separate sentiment and a Carnatic musician. As he waves me to a seat, the parallelism between the lamp and the man is almost tangible. The lamp, a harbinger of national recognition, flashy but pure in its unlit virginity and TVG, flamboyant in his garb and gait, yet affable and down-to-earth.

TVG, a Carnatic and Hindustani vocalist, a mridangam player and violinist, is also a revered guru. He stands tall among his peers as much for his musical prowess as for his legendary large-heartedness. A man, who is at peace with himself and at ease with others.

TVG remarks how a journalist, had asked him about his most memorable anecdotes. “I am almost 80 years old; how could I possibly choose a few memorable events of my life. There are so many of them,” he says.

Then with a smile, he obligingly takes me down memory lane, leapfrogging a full century and landing in 1896, the year in which his guru, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar was born. The anecdotes are interesting but the task on hand is to get an insight into his personality.

“I have always been very flamboyant,” he says with disarming openness and satisfaction but without conceit.

He always had two cars, he says, while recalling how he used to drop his Hindustani guru, Krishnanand, home after class. Krishnanand had at first refused to teach TVG, saying that he never taught Carnatic musicians, who would only discontinue learning after the first six months. When TVG persisted, Krishnanand's terms were “Rs 10 per class, six months' fees paid in advance, and a drop back home after each class.” This was back in 1969.

When word reached Chembai about his disciple's Hindustani foray, he was very disapproving initially, but later he predicted that TVG would become an accomplished Hindustani musician.

TVG's musical ancestry gave him a genetic leg-up. His grandfather was a violinist (a fact that TVG would recall years later when challenged by Dwaram Venkatasamy Naidu's son, Sathyanarayana, that he (TVG) couldn't possibly become a violinist). His father was a musician in the Royal Court of Cochin and Chembai, therefore, knew his family well. In one of his visits to Tirupunithura, Chembai asked TVG, then a stripling of a boy, if he was up to playing the mridangam for him. An aghast father protested, but the young Gopalakrishnan was insouciantly at ease. After the concert, Chembai told TVG's father, “Viswanatha, send your son along with me to Chennai. There aren't many to play the mridangam and those who are in the field, are old.”

But the father would have none of it. TVG was the eldest of his nine children and he was keen that his son should study well, and get himself a government job ( TVG did. He got his B. Com degree and then worked in the Accountant General's office for a few years). It was only after he completed his studies that Viswanatha Bhagavathar gave his consent to TVG to join Chembai in Chennai.

When TVG met Chembai in Chennai in 1951, the doyen said: “You have come now, when I have lost my voice.” Chembai lost his voice while singing in a concert on January 2, 1951 and eight years later, he regained it at the Guruvayur temple.

The first opportunity

Those were tough days. In a field ridden with competition and politics, it was Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu who gave him the first opportunity. When a scheduled mridangam player could not come, someone suggested TVG's name to Dwaram. They asked whether T.V. Gopalakrishnan should be auditioned? “No. Never do that,” said Dwaram. “Never test an artist. Ask him if he has heard me play. If he has, he can accompany me.”

TVG remembers Dwaram as a violinist who played with a “bell clear tone,” but whose musical extravaganza contrasted with his parsimony when it came to paying an accompanist. Though a man of no small means, Dwaram compulsively saved up for his later years, recalls TVG. But after the first concert that TVG played for him, Dwaram paid him a memorable compliment: “Mani, Palani and you,” he said, bracketing TVG with the other two all-time-great percussionists.

TVG recalls another memorable encomium from the legendary music critic, Subbudu. “You have a perfect hand, you will go a long way,” Subbudu told him very early on in his career. Of course, TVG's guru, Chembai, had a lot of praise for his principal disciple. These compliments were the inspiration, “telling me that I was on the right track,” that helped him in shaping his career.

Shifting to Madras was the right move, or else TVG might have ended up like his father, Viswanatha Bhagavathar. “My father never left our village,” points out TVG.

For a boy, whose musical career began at the age of six, when he played on the mridangam at the Cochin palace in the presence of Viceroy Linlithgow (in 1938), making a mark for himself was no big deal. TVG began his career on the twin tracks of vocal and mridangam — his first vocal concert was when he was about 14.

For six decades from the early 1950s, TVG has sung, played, conducted orchestras, taught and spoken about music. Today, one can detect an almost indiscernible rankle that the award took its time in coming. “But then, my guru also got the recognition very late,” rationalises TVG.

While any national recognition is desirable, TVG perhaps cherishes his status as a guru more than anything else, for it is from that platform that he has served the art the most. His disciple list, including those who consult him from time to time, reads like a who's who of Carnatic music. For instance, he has given his moulding touches to Yesudas and Unnikrishnan in vocals, Kadri Gopalnath (sax), Varadarajan (violin) and V. Suresh (ghatam). Vidyabhooshana, the ex-pontiff of Subramanya Mutt, is also a disciple. “I helped him come out of sanyas,” he says, obviously pleased with having done so.

A foreigner walks in. “This is Sieg, he is learning mridangam from me,” TVG introduces us. Siegmund Kutterer is a percussionist from Switzerland.

Inevitably, the conversation veers around the state of Carnatic music. There are questions, for instance, why vivadi does not get a major space? Or why some ragas become the musicians' favourite while others are consigned to oblivion? “Music,” says TVG, “is all about nostalgia.” What evokes nostalgia is what people want, but he agrees that musicians must not lose the spirit of experimentation.

Rare vivadis

He recalls Madurai Mani Iyer once telling him that in his (Mani Iyer's) early days he was singing many vivadis. Musiri Subramani Iyer advised him not to do that if he wanted to make a name for himself. “Still people come to my concert to listen to my Kaapali and Kaana Kan Kodi Vendum,” Mani Iyer told TVG.

TVG stresses the need for keeping the purity of notes. Although gamakas are the hallmark of Carnatic music, they should be kept to the point. Needless swirls whereby one note encroaches upon its neighbour's territory is abhorrent to TVG. He sings a clutch of ragas — Nattakurinji, Hindolam, Thodi, Sudhdha Dhanyasi and Nasika Bhushani — “in the manner in which they should be sung” and in the way they are sometimes sung today, to demonstrate the difference. “Why do people still remember M.D. Ramanathan,” TVG poses a rhetoric, and loses himself in an MDR style Kedaram. To a lay listener, the limited-gamaka “pure note-way” is clearly more pleasing to the ear.

“The survival of Carnatic music depends upon whether or not musicians keep the purity of notes,” he says, pointing out that if light music is so popular today, it is because the notes are in their pure forms.

Pure notes not only give longevity to the art itself, but also to the singer. “Today, if (R.K.) Srikantan (who is 86 years old) is still able to sing, it is because he sings pure notes,” says TVG with the force of an evangelist. “Why, take me, for instance. I am 80 years old and can still sing.”

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Printable version | Nov 28, 2020 10:20:58 PM |

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