Seven notes come full circle

When T V Gopalakrishnan speaks about his favourite subject, it isn’t just about Carnatic music that you get to hear from the maestro. After all, the 79-year-old artiste has seldom limited hims

Published: 10th October 2010 11:34 PM  |   Last Updated: 16th May 2012 05:05 PM   |  A+A-


When T V Gopalakrishnan speaks about his favourite subject, it isn’t just about Carnatic music that you get to hear from the maestro. After all, the 79-year-old artiste has seldom limited himself to south Indian vocal — he has excelled in playing quite a few string, wind and percussion instruments of the Deccan, and spread their vibrations to the rest of the world. In fact, many purist

music-lovers below the Vindhyas view him more as a maverick globe-trotter and assimilator of varied aesthetics of voice and noise that overtly or subtly resonate through his concerts. And, again, they aren’t always classical, even as this Chennaiite Malayali is also an exponent of the Hindustani idiom. As TVG’s own website notes, he is the original innovator of Indian jazz, having worked in the company of senior American alto saxophonist John Handy and Swiss drummer Pierre Farve, besides Canadian composer Franklin Kiermyer.

The portal would go on to list quite a few achievements that the casual browser — not the discerning researcher — may take for tall claims. Even so, there is at least one point that strikes you as a sign of the selflessness of the master. Mainly, his earnestness to teach music. And that not just to potential professionals, but even to part-timer kids. Else, you wouldn’t see schoolchildren sit in the front room of his Academy of Indian Music and Arts during weekends and recite compositions under the guidance of the elderly guru.

“In fact, simple songs…mostly,” TVG substantiates. “With no gamakas or loops. Straight notes. Say, in (raga) Sankarabharanam, which is anyway a transcontinental tune (Major Scale in Western classical). It eases their mind, lends them a sense of geometry and helps them modulate their voice.” This outlandish approach to not always go by the standard format of imparting Carnatic lessons has met with its share of sceptics, but the master doesn’t seem to mind. “Certain maamis would complain,” he says with a smirk. “But then why should I teach their grandsons tough varnams and keertanams when all of us know that a chunk of them would stop learning music once they reach Class IX?”

For TVG, voice culture is a matter of deep focus. And, it’s not confined to how you oscillate just the vocal cords, but move (or not move) your torso and head while singing. “If it’s Indian classical, the posture is vital — much like what the stance is for a batsman in cricket. The artiste should sit upright and straight-faced. Even raising your hands to shoulder level — a common mannerism on the dais — isn’t advisable at all.” Stylish movements of the neck or swaying the head might look elegant for the kacheri audience, but they would check the artiste’s prospects in the long run. “Of course, you tend to acquire certain body movements while performing, but at least they should never be imitative of your tutor,” adds TVG, whose chief mentor Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar (1895-1974) was known for his long-spanning preservation of a robust voice despite a mid-career break.

Wrong applications of force on the twin infoldings of the mucous membrane stretched horizontally across the larynx would lead an artiste to lose the tonal quality over time. TVG, who has authored a book titled Voice Culture, calls them “unforced errors”, likening the problem to that of a tennis player. “It will be ideal if you sing with your neck least moving.”

That said, TVG, a flag-bearer of the Kirana gharana style of his Hindustani teacher Pt Krishna Anand, is finicky about getting the akaaram right. That is airing the ‘aaa’ sound “without distortions”, as he words it. “This may sound simple, but many of our musicians are skewed singers of akaaram. Over the generations. So much so, we are all used to it.” Here, TVG breaks into a slice of history, and attributes the flaw partly to a present hangover of the pre-microphone era. “Before we had loudspeakers, they had to sing open-throated for purposes of audibility. That habit lingers even today, when we should be practising on how not to move your mouth beyond a three-inch radius of the microphone.”

TVG believes the “loud voice” culture of Carnatic, which also devised noisy taps on the lap in the practitioner’s obsession with taalam when beats “should only have been a reference”, further traces to the first half of last century, till when south Indian classical music used to be more percussive. Remnants of this high-decibel style are possibly “one reason that is driving the youngsters away from Carnatic to film music”. And, as owners of voices free from distortions, cites singers like S Janaki and his own disciple K J Yesudas, at whose classical concerts he occasionally plays the mridangam.

Also a master in playing the violin and the ghatam, TVG imparted the skills to his two younger brothers. T V Ramani plays the string instrument, while T V Vasan, who died last week, was one of the finest virtuosos who specialised in tapping on the clay-pot. In fact, TVG was only just out of his teens when he became a music teacher for his siblings in their hometown near Kochi. But then, as sons and pupils of the late Tripunithura Viswanatha Bhagavatar, music was an all-in-the-family affair. Not surprisingly, when little Gopalakrishnan debuted with a vocal concert at the age of six in the Cochin Palace, the VIP listener was Victor Alexander John Hope, that is Viceroy Lord Linlithgow. It’s more than a full-circle story if septuagenarian TVG’s music has buffs today in Britain and beyond.



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