New Delhi: “I have not heard such a violin in all my travels! How superbly this young Indian is playing our instrument!” said American violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who is regarded as one of the great violinists of the twentieth century, when he first heard M.S. Gopalakrishnan in 1952.
Gopalakrishnan, popularly known as MSG, was part of the holy trinity of violinists who played Carnatic music, along with Lalgudi Jayaraman and T.N. Krishnan.
However, unlike most artists of his generation, MSG was remarkably fluent in both Carnatic and Hindustani Classical music, although the two genres demand very different performance mindsets and practice.
He was presented with the Padma Bhushan award in 2012 for his excellency in Indian classical music. He was also awarded the Madras Music Academy’s Sangeetha Kalanidhi in 1997, the Padma Shri Kalaimamani and Sangeet Natak Akademi awards, among others.
On his seventh death anniversary, ThePrint remembers the violin prodigy and his extraordinary talent.
A child prodigy
Born into a family of musicians in Tamil Nadu’s Mylapore, on 10 June 1931, MSG began playing the violin at the age of five. He gave his first live performance at a concert when he was only 8 years old.
His father, the legendary violinist Parur Sundaram Iyer, trained him in both Carnatic and Hindustani music. Iyer worked with many artists, including Hindustani musician Pandit Vishnu Digambara Paluskar for 12 years in the Akhil Bhartiya Gandharva Mahavidyalaya — an Indian classical music institute — in Mumbai and was one of the earliest Indian violinists, who began playing it in 1906.
Both Iyer and MSG were even invited to perform a concert in Kabul in 1939.
MSG always attributed his success to his father with whom he would practice the violin for 15-16 hours a day in their small living room in Mylapore.
“My father began practising the violin at a very young age. Back then, very few knew how to play the instrument let alone the various techniques that needed to be excelled,” recalls his daughter Dr M. Narmadha, who is also a violinist and has been playing the instrument for the past five decades.
When MSG was 11, he accompanied renowned Hindustani vocalist Bade Ghulam Ali Khan in his recording of Raag Malkauns. Khan, amazed by the young violinist’s talent, gifted him a gold ring for his performance.
“My father was the only musician to have accompanied the great legend Bade Ghulam Ali Khan in his recording of Raag Malkauns at the age of 11. Ustad even presented him with a gold ring,” Narmadha tells ThePrint.
Playing on a single-string
A perfectionist in the art of violin-playing, MSG mastered the technique of playing the violin on a single string with one finger to avoid melody breakage, which is part of the Parur technique.
According to his daughter, he globalised the Parur technique and systematised the bow of the right hand and the fingering of the left hand in such a way that it gave the best possible combination of the usage of fingers for the best melody.
“He introduced the use of long bow on the right hand for continuity and similarly on the right hand he introduces the single string technique. The speed gets doubled, tripled and quadrupled when you play on single string because of continuity,” Narmadha, who started performing with him when she was 10, tells ThePrint.
MSG was also featured in an All India Radio national programme on Indian classical music in the late 1960s. Those who had tuned into his performance on this show called it an unparalleled musical experience.
‘Maradona’ of Indian classical music
In one of his blogs, music journalist Narendra Kusnur wrote that MSG was likely the only artist from his generation who was well-versed in both South Indian Carnatic and North Indian Hindustani music. He called him “the violinist who unified south and north”.
According to Vishnu Vasudev, a Carnatic music enthusiast, MSG’s rendition of Abhogi, a raga in Carnatic music, in the Hindustani style was nothing short of a miracle.
“It’s one (very impressive) thing to master Carnatic ragas and the idiom and Hindustani ragas and idiom separately. To be able to take a Carnatic raga like Abhogi and be able to defy decades of conditioning and play it in the Hindustani style with such consummate ease is simply awesome,” he wrote.
“I don’t see anybody that has equalled this achievement. At one side he was exalted by the Hindustani artist Pandit Ravi Shankar ji and Visath Ali Khan sahib and on the other, he was recognised as the violin-trinity of Carnatic music. We can rightly call him the Maradona of the Indian music industry,” Narmadha, who continues to research and promote the Parur playing technique across the world, tells ThePrint.
Gopalakrishnan also toured numerous countries to perform, including the US, UK, Holland, Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong. He was also familiar with the western approaches to playing the violin.
In December 2011, at the age of 79, when Indian classical musician Purnaprajna Bangere asked him if he still played the violin, MSG had jokingly replied — “If I do not play the violin, I will die.”
And less than two years later, on 3 January 2013, he passed away at the age of 81.
Bangere wrote in his blog: “Perhaps when he realized that he could no longer play, he left for the higher worlds!”.
This article has been updated to correct an error.