Narendra Kusnur's music musings …


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.

Further reading:

For details on how the violin is played in India, check the earlier blog

For a blog on the Carnatic music scene in Mumbai, see


Comments on: "MSG: The violinist who unified south and north" (14)

  1. Sunita Bhuyan said:

    great and educative too..thanks for this…

    • Thanks Sunita. Glad you liked it. Wish I saw LS yesterday.. usually don’t miss the Global Fest but I had a commitment and also tend to avoid Times of India shows because I had a bad experience once as they gave out five times the number of passes at Tata Theatre when LS played with the Leipzig Philharmonic. With great difficulty I managed to get in, that too because I saw somebody from the Times. But a lot of old people – the western classical lovers mainly – were sadly turned back because there were no seats left. I did mention it to LS once.. had got to know him quite well but have sort of lost touch. Really love the way Ambi is shaping up

      • You are right Narendra….music events have to be treated with the same sensitivity and thought as the music itself….LS has done a great job in grooming his children not just a musicians but also as wonderful young adults..which is so refreshing to see and encouraging….God Bless them

  2. Sughosh V said:

    Just a few days I was listening to what I consider MSG’s quintessential carnatic LP , containing a Varnam in Saranga, and Thyagaraja’s Brovabarama in Bahudhari and Bantureethi Kolu in Hamsanaadam. His playing is just incredible, especially on the side-long exploration of Hamsanaadam. Must-hear if you don’t already have it

    • Thanks Sughosh for the recommendation. Will surely check if it’s available.
      In my case, the environment at home has always been Hindustani music. I got into Carnatic music at the age of 19 or so thanks to a friend Arvind, and because of that, was lucky to see some of these stalwarts in Delhi around that time. Later, after moving to Jaipur and then Mumbai, the exposure became much less, so there wasn’t an organised way of collecting the CDs of these maestros. The Mumbai stores, as you know, do not have much of a collection and I bought a little of what was available. If you know of any store which has a sizeable collection in Mumbai, do let me know.
      I did manage to get some CDs of MSG which Saregama had released some time in 2004, which I got directly from the company thanks to my being a journalist. And on my visits to Chennai and Hyderabad, I ended up buying a little bit of Carnatic music (not MSG, but more of Lalgudi and Ramani and Subbulakshmi, Semmangudi some of the younger people). But there again it was a matter of picking up what was available and shortlisting based on what the sales person recommended.
      Would be great if you could send a list of quintessential albums by various artistes, so I can improve my collection. My personal ID is

  3. Manek Premchand said:

    The article on MSG is very well written Naren. I loved the part also about knee-deep water, and just 24 people in attendance at his daughter’s recital at Fine Arts Chembur 🙂 Just shows how committed you are. Thanks for a super read!

  4. Chandra Sekar said:

    and somewhere it is sad to see Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan’s name left out when talking about the violin masters of that era. He had his own unique style that has inspired a lot of today’s musicians. You can clearly see that in the way a Rajesh Vaidya, E.Gayathri, Punya Srinivas or Revathy Krishna renders popular film music. I think somewhere the credit goes to Kunnakudi for taking violin to the masses. I am blown away everytime I listen to the ‘Jagat Janani’ track in his album ‘Expressions’. The journey that starts in Ratipatipriya moves on to many a familiar raaga and film song and what not..sheer brilliance! This is only one such instance. Remember he was also a pretty successful film music composer, which not many classical musicians can boast of.

    • Hi
      I have definitely mentioned Kunnakudi later in the article. I have seen him often in Delhi back in the 1980s, when I was in my early 20s. For some reason, the term violin trinity was used and mentioned only Lalgudi, MSG and Krishnan. Guess this was a media-created phrase which stuck on.
      Hope you have gone through the series on musical instruments, specially the ones on violin, flute and shehnai/ nadaswaram.

      • Chandra Sekar said:

        Quite possible Naren..I am yet to go thru that series. Will do go thru and provide my thoughts..

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