I just got back from the December music festival in Chennai a few days ago, and while I did have a blast as usual, there were certain developments that painted a somber mood over the whole occasion. Pandit Ravi Shankar passed away a few days after I arrived in Madras, and during the middle of the season, the tragedy involving Nithyashree Mahadevan’s husband occurred (which I will not go into for privacy reasons). And finally, the night I left, to my shock, I heard through facebook that the esteemed violin vidwan Sangita Kalanidhi Padma Bhushan M. S. Gopalakrishnan had passed away.
M. S. Gopalakrishnan (or MSG as he is popularly referred to by Carnatic rasikas) was one of the foremost violin vidwans of his day, and belonged to the Parur school of violin playing. This bani was first established by his father, Parur Sundaram Iyer, but it was M. S. Gopalakrishnan who took it to unparalleled heights. One of the trademarks of this bani is the fact that all vidwans in it are proficient in both Carnatic and Hindustani music. In fact, MSG had also performed Hindustani concerts, both solo violin, and accompanying famous artists, including Pandit Omkarnath Takur and others. In the Carnatic idiom, MSG was considered one of the top violinists, and was one of the “violin trinity”, which also includes Lalgudi G. Jayaraman and T. N. Krishnan. MSG had accompanied all the leading artists of the “golden era” of Carnatic Music, including GNB, Madurai Mani Iyer, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Dr. Balamuralikrishna, Nedunuri Krishnamurthy, Voleti Venkateswarulu, T. N. Seshagopalan and others. His best concerts, however, in my opinion, were with Thanjavur S. Kalyanaraman and Ramnad Krishnan.
Picture of a concert featuring Nedunuri Krishnamurthy (vocal, center), M. S. Gopalakrishnan (violin, right), Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman (mrudangam, left), and T. H. Vinayakram (ghatam, behind Sivaraman sir). The Malladi Brothers can also be seen in the back.
I am not an expert on violin, so I cannot comment on the technicalities of MSG’s playing. Nonetheless, from what I have heard from some of his students, his playing methods and fingering style were very novel, incorporating aspects of Western and Hindustani music as well. In my opinion, MSG’s approach to violin playing differs fundamentally from that of Lalgudi and TNK. While they used the gayaki style in their playing in order to approximate vocal music to the maximum extent possible, MSG did not do so. Instead, his method of violin playing was purely instrumental, making his style of playing very distinct. In fact, when I started listening to Carnatic music seriously, he was one of the first violinists I was able to identify accurately, due to the uniqueness of his style of playing. MSG was also famous for being able to play the Kalyani Ata thala varnam on one string of the violin! His solo concerts and recordings are masterpieces, especially the ones where Trichy Sankaran has accompanied him.
The combination of MSG and SKR (Thanjavur S. Kalyanaraman) was one of the most successful combinations in Carnatic Music, as I mentioned earlier. This is because both artists had open minds about using Hindustani approaches to music within the Carnatic idiom. One example of this is included here:
This is from a 1970 Krishna Gana Sabha concert, with Karaikudi Mani on mrudangam. SKR announces the ragam as Deepali, which is one of a set of “dwi-madhyama” ragas that were created and popularized by him. But listen to the taans (fast-paced akara phrases) at the end. This is typical of Hindustani music. The speed and accuracy of Kalyanaraman’s taans is mindblowing, but what is even more amazing is the uncanny ease with which MSG is able to match him!
Ramnad Krishnan’s music, on the other hand, represents the purest form of Carnatic music. This is because he learned from Brinda and Mukta, and was heavily influenced by the Dhannamal school of music. Even there, MSG’s playing brings a new dimension and depth to rakthi ragams, such as Bhairavi, Kalyani, Shankarabharanam, Thodi, and others. His Madhyamavathi from a 1969 Music Academy concert is unforgettable, but I have included here a Sahana from a 1968 Music Academy concert.
Even the purists cannot fault his playing, which is why the Madras Music Academy fittingly bestowed upon MSG the Sangita Kalanidhi in 1998.
I consider myself fortunate that I got to see MSG perform live several times. I have also seen him perform live with my guru Neyveli Narayanan sir. In fact, there is a famous Doordharshan program of MSG featuring Neyveli Narayanan on mrudangam, and I used to see it on the TV frequently when I was in Chennai. Part of that is included here:
I’ll publish my thoughts on the 2012 music season within the next few days…