Thursday, January 3, 2013

M. S. Gopalakrishnan 1931 - 2013

I've written at length on this site both about the typical atheism/skepticism topics, but I've also written quite a bit about music, mainly Indian classical music, of course.  Once upon a time, I made feeble effort at Carnatic violin, though now I'm far better a singer than a violinist -- though I should punctuate that point by making it clear that I'm not much of a singer, either.  But there was a reason I was originally interested in the violin to begin with.

Today -- Jan 3, 2013 -- that reason passed away at 2:00 AM in Chennai of what was apparently respiratory failure.

Parur Sri M.S. Gopalakrishnan was and still is my favorite violinist ever.  Here was a guy who could emulate vocal intonations to the finest detail...  maintain laser-precise pitch and rhythm at any speed...  imitate the sounds of other instruments...  and practically pronounce the lyrics of every song he played, whether he used all the strings and all his fingers, or he played on one string using only one finger.  Of the Carnatic violin "trinity", he is actually the youngest (by a margin of 1 year), and the first to go at the age of 81.

Although I first got interested hearing his spectacular solo performances rife with all sorts of string gymnastics, gamaka-laden staccato bowing, and blindingly fast swara interludes, that proves to be the least of it.  It was the fact that he had the brain to come up with something interesting at any level.

It was only after picking up more on the theoretical aspects that I realized how much more he shines when he's an accompanist for some other vocalist.  These are the times when a violinist has to trend outside of his own personal style and common thought patterns and has to come up with it on the spot without the advantage of planning ahead or rehearsing...  and his ability to make every little vocal and microtonal inflection audible from his strings and sound like any vocalist at that moment was what made him a legend.

It was also in these performances that his own alapanas and swara prastharas were at another level because he would be expanding on ideas and inventive little phrases that he might not otherwise have come up with on his own, and yet he will take them and expand on them right then and there. 

There's a reason why the trio of T.N. Krishnan, Lalgudi Jayaraman, and M.S. Gopalakrishnan are listed as the trinity of Carnatic violin -- they each played a huge role in changing how the violin is handled in Carnatic music in general bringing it to what we know today.  MSG's Parur style stands out, though, because of the extent to which it makes the violin a favorable instrument for Indian classical music (Hindustani and Carnatic alike) in general.  The violin had been favored since it came to India because of its theoretical capacity to emulate the human voice.  When MSG's father, Parur Sundaram Iyer brought the violin to Hindustani music, it showed there as well as a powerful instrument potentially capable of all the smooth glides and linear movements endemic to Hindustani.  MSG really made it no longer merely theoretical or potential.  While the Parur style in whole due to its difficulty is something that is relatively rare, certain unique elements of it are now everywhere and being emulated by the vast majority of new violinists.  While relatively few can name themselves as direct students of the Parur style, there are so many out there who can honestly say that MSG is their manaseekara guru.  Now that is change...  and one well worth it.


  1. MSG is by far my favoite violinist of all time! The perfect purity and laser-like precision of each note from each stroke of the bow is incredible. But what is truly amazing is his uncanny ability to handle any kind of vocalist with effortless confidence.

    RIP Shree M.S.Gopalakrishnan!

    1. Wow. Interestingly enough, I caught the news of MSG on the day itself, but I only heard about Lalgudi yesterday. Seems the trinity are all going in reverse order. MSG, the youngest, went first. Lalgudi went just 2 weeks ago, and the eldest is still alive.

      I would have expected more noise over Lalgudi's death because he's ultimately the biggest name, having played far and wide, and also recognized as a significant composer. I think in Lalgudi's case, his health had already been faltering for a while, and it didn't come as a big shock... even 10 or 15 years ago, he couldn't play anywhere close to the level of his earlier years, and after his stroke, he could barely talk anymore. MSG, otoh, was laser sharp to the last breath. Age had no sting at all for him, so it probably came as a bigger surprise.

      Then again, maybe it's just me.