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Guru's guru:

M. S. Gopalakrishnan

India has produced some of the world’s greatest musicians. Even among such M. S. Gopalakrishnan (MSG, as he is affectionately called by music lovers all over the world) holds a special place and is a unique figure in Indian music. He was a master of both systems of Indian classical music, Carnatic as well as Hindustani. Even more remarkably, he, his elder brother M. S. Anantharaman and his father Parur Sundaram Iyer, have evolved a style of playing, famously called the Parur style, which has influenced a whole generation of violinists. This style, among other things, is a synthesis of the north and south Indian systems. This was a direct result of his father’s philosophy--based on historical facts--that both systems have the same roots and that one should seek out those roots. What is considered Parur style is much more than a style; it is a whole new system of playing both at technical and conceptual levels. 

 

MSG’s passion for violin playing manifested itself early. At the age of four, he used to take two plantain sticks and pretended that he was playing the violin by holding one stick as the violin and the other as the bow. But his serious training started when he was six years old. Sundaram Iyer was a hard taskmaster. He would make his two sons, MSG and MSA, wake up at four in the morning. Failing to wake up would surely invite a generous sprinkling of cold water on their faces. Many years of rigorous training under his father’s tutelage followed. Sundaram Iyer had a well-rounded regimen for his sons. Everyday, there would be the practice of the “basic” exercises, learning new compositions, improvising on a theme and a mandatory listening of other musicians on the radio in the evening.

 

A child prodigy, MSG made phenomenal progress and gave his first concert when he was only eight years old. Barely in his late teens, his astonishing virtuosity, literally unseen in the music world, and his uncanny ability to anticipate the main artist during accompaniment created a sensation. Several sources confirmed to me that these capabilities made MSG carry the audience along with him so much that even well established senior artists feared having him as an accompanist. When he was nineteen years old, the great western violinist Yehudi Menuhin heard him play raga Kalyani. He was so taken by this young man’s playing that he came and observed MSG’s fingers and exclaimed of his playing “'I have not heard such violin in all my travels!’ How superbly this young Indian is playing our instrument.” 

 

Triumph after triumph followed and one of the highlights of his early career was his national program on All India Radio in the late sixties. A few words need to be said about this. This was a landmark in the annals of Indian classical music. MSG’s interpretation of Carnatic classical music was radical and very new. Played on gut strings, anyone who listens to the recording today would surely realize a phenomenon was taking place back then. In the improvisational part of kriti ‘Manavyala’ set in raga Nalinakanti, one can hear new sounds on the violin. The improvisation blended the classical and the folk, the violin was transformed through the sheer virtuosity and imagination into a variety of instruments, ranging from the Shenai, the Flute, the sitar and the sarod, clearly demonstrating the universality of the violin as an instrument when handled by a master of this caliber. The mridangam accompaniment by the young Trichy Sankaran was spectacular. As music was transforming, so was the percussion from mridangam to tabla and back following MSG like a shadow in spirit and virtuosity. Many people, who had heard this program live, described it to me as an unparalleled musical experience.

 

Triumph after triumph followed and one of the highlights of his early career was his national program on All India Radio in the late sixties. A few words need to be said about this. This was a landmark in the annals of Indian classical music. MSG’s interpretation of Carnatic classical music was radical and very new. Played on gut strings, anyone who listens to the recording today would surely realize a phenomenon was taking place back then. In the improvisational part of kriti ‘Manavyala’ set in raga Nalinakanti, one can hear new sounds on the violin. The improvisation blended the classical and the folk, the violin was transformed through the sheer virtuosity and imagination into a variety of instruments, ranging from the Shenai, the Flute, the sitar and the sarod, clearly demonstrating the universality of the violin as an instrument when handled by a master of this caliber. Many people, who had heard this program live, described it to me as an unparalleled musical experience.  

 

It is not so easy to characterize his violin playing by deconstructing conventional parameters that define excellence, for there are many things that go on simultaneously when he is playing that is not easily quantifiable. Moreover, the whole effect is not the sum of its parts. But the following stand out; his magnificent and towering technical virtuosity, the unsurpassed tonal beauty, the purity of the notes, the amazing clarity of his fingering, his smooth bowing, be it in the slow movement or the super fast staccato and above all his tremendous musical imagination. His great self control and super human powers of concentration are well known and are talked about in the music circles. He compellingly reminds us of the great western violinist Jascha Heifetz about aspects related to perfection, technique, and concentration, and Fritz Kreisler regarding the sound of his violin, especially during early to middle years. It is of significance that in India we had a figure who was in some sense a composite of these two western masters and much more. Due to lack of critical appraisal of issues related to music, we have not fully fathomed his greatness.

 

For MSG, violin playing was an adventure. Like a bold explorer, he waded through the jungle of the musical expression and made what had seemed technically impossible, possible for the rest of us, thereby raising the consciousness of violin playing for future generations. This can already be seen in the burst of technical virtuosity, in the last few decades, among the younger violinists who have been influenced by his deeply researched virtuoso techniques and his musical interpretation.

 

His was a life in music and music was his life. His commitment to music was total and utterly sincere. A spiritual man of great discipline and simple habits, he regarded music as a means of worshiping God. Three themes repeated in all of one’s conversations with him: reverence to his guru, grace of the lord and violin practice. He lived simply without postures, pretensions and a compelling need to cultivate “important” people to promote his career. His towering greatness transcended a need for these manufactured constraints of the times. His simplicity gave him time, peace and immense energy to pursue his love for music. Making music was for him as natural as breathing. One day in December of 2011 I asked him “sir do you still practice”, he smiled and said “of course I play about an hour and a half to two hours every day”. Laughingly, but with a serious intent, he continued, “if I do not play the violin, I will die.” Perhaps when he realized that he could no longer play, he left for the higher worlds!

 

Purnaprajna Bangere

Kansas City, March 15, 2015