IN Carnatic music, the word ‘trinity’ has been used to group different kinds of luminaries together. The Holy Trinity of composers consists of Thyagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshikar and Syama Sastri. The Divine Vocal Trinity comprises the late MS Subbulakshmi, DK Pattamal and ML Vasanthakumari. And the Violin Trinity refers to Lalgudi Jayaraman, TN Krishnan and MS Gopalakrishnan.
Each member of these trinities has played a path-breaking role in the history of Carnatic music. Naturally, it came as a huge shock to hear of the demise of MS Gopalakrishnan, fondly known as MSG, on Thursday, January 3. The simplest way one could describe his music is with the word ‘unique’. In fact, his death comes as a major loss not only to Carnatic music, but to Indian music as a whole.
What made MSG special is that he was equally adept at both south Indian Carnatic and north Indian Hindustani music. In fact, he was probably the only musician from his generation who deeply specialised in and regularly performed both.
Considering that the styles and techniques of both forms are vastly different, that both require a completely different performance mindset and that even audiences for both have subjective approaches to appreciation, this wasn’t an easy task. Even from the rhythmic point of view, the Carnatic musician is often joined by two or three percussionists, whereas the Hindustani musician normally has one tabla accompaniment, as a result of which the whole concept of ‘layakari’ (rhythm-play) has separate approaches.
There have been numerous examples of Hindustani musicians adapting Carnatic ragas and playing them in the north Indian style ― Pandit Ravi Shankar being the foremost. There have been Hindustani percussionists playing Carnatic rhythms ― the way Ustad Zakir Hussain plays adi talam, for instance. Similarly, there have been cases of musicians being rooted in Carnatic music, but later specialising and excelling in Hindustani ― violinist N Rajam being the leading instance. And there have been numerous north-south jugalbandis where representatives of both styles play in their own way and yet manage to make the two meet.
MSG played both styles with equal dexterity and passion. He at times used south Indian techniques while playing north Indian music, and vice versa, but never compromised on the purity of the form, or indulged in gimmickry to please the gallery. He was also deeply familiar with western violin technique and there were instances when he incorporated that too. And all this while maintaining a perfect balance between technical virtuosity, melodic soul and musical charm.
Part of his mastery came from his heritage, of course. His father Parur Sundaram Iyer was a violin wizard who initiated what came to be known as the ‘Parur technique’, which blended the Carnatic style with Hindustani elements picked up through his interaction with doyens Vishnu Digambar Paluskar and Omkarnath Thakur. MSG’s brother MS Anantharaman was a virtuoso too.
As a youngster, MSG picked up the nuances of the Parur technique, including one-finger playing, use of a long bow, and special fingering and bowing styles. As a result, he could play Carnatic gamakas and Hindustani meends with equal ease. He began to research deeper into this style, and his early interactions with Hindustani stalwarts Omkarnath Thakur, Dattatreya Vishnu Paluskar and Bade Ghulam Ali Khan helped him even further. Interestingly, Omkarnath Thakur also groomed N Rajam into one of the finest Hindustani violinists.
MSG’s efforts, which were also helped by his understanding of western violin, led to what is now called the ‘Parur-MSG Bani’. Regular solo concerts in both Hindustani and Carnatic styles, and jugalbandis with artistes like flautist Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia and sarangi maestro Ustad Sultan Khan made him one of the most accomplished musicians of India. Undoubtedly, he was also a huge influence on many other musicians, who learnt something new from his distinct technique.
As a teenager growing up in Delhi, I was lucky to have heard MSG in concert on a few occasions. Though my first exposure to Indian violin was at a stunning Hindustani concert by N Rajam, I got a chance to see Carnatic giants like Lalgudi, Krishnan, Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan and MSG in due course, and was later exposed to L Subramaniam and L Shankar. Over the years, I also picked up some of their recordings, and from the MSG catalogue, his ragas Bhimpalasi and Puriya with the label Magnasound, his duets with Carnatic flautist N Ramani, and the albums ‘Gems of Purandaradasa’, ‘Daasarathi’ and ‘Entanerchina’ remain personal favourites.
It’s been over a decade since I last attended his concert. Now, two of his children have taken to the violin. I am yet to hear his son Suresh, but a few months ago, I saw his daughter M Narmadha at the Fine Arts Society in Chembur, Mumbai. It had poured cats and dogs that day, and though the venue was on my way home from work, it was certainly not a great idea to wade through knee-deep waters to attend a concert. But having heard so much about her, I had to see what MSG’s daughter sounded like.
I literally counted only 24 people in the audience that day. But Narmadha was undeterred, and played marvellous music for nearly two hours, giving many glimpses of her father’s genius and yet, playing in her own individual, thoroughly-researched manner.
Surely, her individuality of rendition would be in the genes. After all, MSG was one of the most original musicians India has produced, and he leaves behind a rich legacy and many magical memories. With his death coming just three weeks after Ravi Shankar passed away, this has been a rather sad period for Indian music.
For details on how the violin is played in India, check the earlier blog https://narenmusicnotes.wordpress.com/2012/09/15/instruments-from-india-1-violin/
For a blog on the Carnatic music scene in Mumbai, see https://narenmusicnotes.wordpress.com/2012/08/16/a-case-for-more-carnatic-music-in-mumbai/