MS Gopalakrishnan: Revered Southern Indian violinist


MS Gopalakrishnan, or MSG as he was known, was one of the three most senior violinists of South India's classical tradition. Though that tradition is fond of its Trinities – its most illustrious is that of the Hindu poet-musician-composers Muthuswami Dikshitar, Syama Sastri and Tyagaraja – it doles out the title sparingly. With T N Krishnan and Lalgudi G Jayaraman, however, M S Gopalakrishnan formed its Violin Trinity.

Waves of seafarers, traders and colonists took European violins to the subcontinent. Indigenous musicians found the instrument relatively easy to master, highly adaptable and capable of microtonal nuance. Being India, there are counter-claims that the violin is in fact Indian in origin, but the violin that musicians popularised from the 1800s onwards was European in origin and not like its putative Indian forebears.

Unlike native stringed instruments, the violin was highly portable, structurally robust, compact, and fitter when warding off attacks from the six seasons and wood-loving beetle larvae and termites. Pockets of violin playing developed around, for example, the East India Company's Calcutta base in Bengal and the Portuguese colony of Goa in the west. In the north, the instrument had to compete with the phenomenally versatile sarangi and fared less well. However, the place where it made the greatest cultural inroads was in Hinduism's South Indian heartland.

Before taking up the European violin, Baluswami Dikshitar (1786-1859), brother to the Holy Trinity's Muthuswami Dikshitar, had played the vina, which has its frets fixed in hard wax. Switching to the fretless violin, he supported his brother Chinnaswami singing devotional music, in so doing becoming India's first violin champion. Violin became, so to speak, not only religiously sanctioned and all the rage, but also a pioneering example for the "appropriate accompaniment" debate.

By the time that Gopalakrishnan was born near Madras – now Chennai – in 1931, the violin had risen to be recognised as one of the premier instruments for accompanist and for principal soloists. Born into a violin dynasty, he was the son of Parur Sundaram Iyer (or Ayyer), with whom he made his public debut at the age of eight, and younger brother to the violin-playing M S Anantharaman. Also applied as a prefix to MSG, Parur is a naming convention pinpointing the settlement near Kalady in modern-day Kerala where Sundaram Iyer was born. In time Parur was also added to the trademark style of playing which the family fostered and became famed for. Still later, it became known as the Parur-MSG style.

Several characteristics set what became known as the Parur style apart. Beginning with Sundaram Iyer, it was bilingual. This meant that the family played violin in both the northern Hindustani and the southern Carnatic art music styles. In performance they kept the two related, though separate styles apart, even if quotations from, or allusions to the other classical system might be deployed for effect. In this respect, the family's approach differed markedly from that of the family dynasty to which T N Krishnan belongs. His father, A Narayana Iyer, had his children and grandchildren choose one or the other path. Thus T N Krishnan took the southern and his sister, Dr N Rajam, the northern path, though each was adept in both.

N Rajapolan, in his encyclopaedic A Garland: A Biographical Dictionary of Carnatic Composers & Musicians (1990), described M S Gopalakrishnan as "one of the top violinists with international appeal" – and Yehudi Menuhin supposedly praised him fulsomely.

While MSG toured extensively – performing in North America, Western Europe (including Britain), Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and South Africa – his recorded legacy is meagre; indeed, MSG had only two LPs to illustrate his unmistakable, lyric-driven violin style with its innovative fingering and bowing techniques. Nevertheless, he will be remembered as one of the pivotal violinists of his era.

He is survived by his wife, his daughters, M Narmadha and Latha, and son, Suresh. Both Dr. Narmadha and Suresh maintain the family's violin tradition.

M S Gopalakrishnan, violinist and teacher: born Mylapore, Madras Presidency British India (now Tamil Nadu) 10 June 1931; married Meenakshi (two daughters, one son); died Chennai, Tamil Nadu 3 January 2013.

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