Today, T V Gopalakrishnan, 80, may be known as a renowned percussionist, noted for his extensive interactions with musicians from the West. For Gopalakrishnan, also a vocalist and violinist, who is fluent in all forms of Indian Classical music, there was a time when the question of survival nearly threatened to derail his musical career. That was when he was in a clerical position at the AG’s office here in 1952, struggling to make both ends meet.
A precedent, however, provided him a glimmer of hope. “The fact that noted vocalist Musiri Subramania Iyer too had worked at the same office before his musical career took off, buoyed me,” he says with a twinkle in his eye.
The recipient of a long list of illustrious awards, including the Sangeet Natak Akademi and Padma Bhushan awards, Gopalakrishnan owes his successes to his guru, the doyen musician Chembai Vaidyanatha Bagavathar, whose gigantic portrait occupies prime space at Goplakrishnan’s academy in Gandhi Nagar.
Born in 1932 in Thripunithura to a family of musicians, it was at the age of tender age of seven when Gopalakrishnan accompanied Bagavathar on the mridangam, in a concert. Soon, he brought the budding musician under his wing.
Among Gopalakrishnan’s trysts with experimentation in music, he was rather forced in the form of a challenge from an associate of his, Chinna Satyanarayana, himself an eminent violinist and musicologist.
This was when he was known as an accomplished mridangam vidwan, and had played accompanist to the leading and upcoming musicians in concerts such as the legendary violinists Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu and M S Gopalakrishnan, M Balamuralikrishna and of course, his guru.
In all aplomb, TVG (as he is known popularly) enrolled in the Government Music College, learnt the violin; the wager ending with a fitting performance of his with the fiddle. The years 1951-58 were unfortunate for TVG’s guru, as it was a period when he lost his voice. “In 1959, when he regained his voice, he sent for me, stating that I must accompany him in his concerts, which gladdened me.” Gradually, TVG was exposed to Hindustani classical music, which he imbibed as well. He is also among the early musicians to have ventured abroad and collaborate extensively with musicians from the West. At this point, he also concedes that musicians, in general, face resistance and are scared to stick their neck out to do something different.
To buttress his point, he cites the outrage music composer Ilayaraja faced, especially from the purists, when the Thyagaraja krithi Mari mari ninne, originally set in ragam Kambhoji, was set to Saramathi in the Tamil movie Sindhu Bhairavi.
“Creativity is a must in music; however, it must adhere to certain norms, and must not be there just for the heck of it.”
Question him on the evolution of the Carnatic kacheris (concerts) over the decades, and he sums it up in a single word, “adaptation”. He recalls how during the beginning of the 20th century, concerts were the only way people got to listen to music and recordings were taboo.
Things changed with the proliferation of cinema and release of devotional movies like the M S Subbulakshmi-starrer Meera.
However, in the 1950s, a separation was observable between cinema and Indian music, between which there was a one-way osmosis of ideas from the latter.
The following two decades, Gopalakrishnan notes, was a watershed moment for musicians, as they started exploring newer possibilities such as ensembles. “There was an automatic reduction in the time spans of concerts after various music sabhas sprung up; this was compounded by the reduction in attention spans of audiences,” he expounds. Strictures over rendition of ragams in accordance with time, too, started giving way, as the audiences desired to return with a light heart.
Among the vocal performances that TVG has given, one that stands out fresh in his memory is that of the violin virtuoso M S Gopalakrishnan accompanying him. “I sang with the best of the accompaniments,” he reflects.