Kadri Gopalnath: Pioneering Carnatic saxophonist with a Kerala link

Kadri Gopalnath

If high scope for impromptu improvisation is a hallmark of jazz and Carnatic, then saxophone always had the potential to bridge the two systems that are otherwise steeped in thoroughly different cultures. Yet South India’s classical music had to wait till the 1980s for the western instrument to enter its corridors noticeably and make a mark in the concert circuits across the Deccan and beyond.

The credit for that novel track of global recognition goes singularly to a young master from Karnataka, Kadri Gopalnath. Blowing into the single-reed mouthpiece of the wind instrument tracing a European origin, he blended Carnatic alapanams, kritis, neraval and swaraprastarams with a fresh resonance that won him mass fanfare.

For once, brass even looked like a particularly suitable metal for Carnatic. The notes from Gopalnath bore all the flamboyance and celebration associated with band music in general, but not many even among the purists in Carnatic sought to approach it with scepticism. For, Kadri could also bring out all the quintessential nuances and elements of introversion typical of the system. In short, the saxophone effectively exploded on the Carnatic scene, but without damaging its beauty or hurting the traditional sentiments.

That was around the time when prodigious U Srinivas (1969-2014) was already a rage among music buffs across India and abroad. The boy’s mandolin, too, had an occidental root, but talent and hard work ensured its adaptability to kacheri conditions. Kadri, a good 20 years elder to Srinivas, emerged as a parallel trendsetter. Carnatic anyway has had a history of brush with European music (under British India) and instances of employing western instruments such as the violin, clarinet and even the piano to play its vintage repertoire.

It is not just that Gopalnath added to the popularity and plurality of Carnatic with an instrument he happened to specialise in. He succeeded in lending an ideal dose of hipness to South Indian classical, largely known for its orthodoxy (despite constant bouts of in-house revolutions). True, a composition like ‘Vatapi Ganapatim’ at the start of a Carnatic concert invariably aims to pep up the air as much as to invoke the elephant-headed god mentioned in the first line. But when Gopalnath played that Muthuswamy Dikshitar number on his instrument, the notes of raga Hamsadhwani and the keys of the saxophone sounded to share special dynamics. It worked like the first-ball-for-a-six loft by an opening batsman on the cricket ground, inviting noisy cheers that set the trend till the end of the show.

Kadri turned yet another milestone soon in 1980 when Californian musician John Handy heard him play at the Bombay Jazz Festival

Such was the following Gopalnath got that he became synonymous with not just Carnatic saxophone, but his place in South Canara. The monsoon-fed fertile tract of Dakshina Kannada between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea has the famed pilgrim centre of Kadri, which has for the past four decades connoted the saxophonist’s name for the typical Carnatic buff.

It’s another matter that Kadri was the urban space to where his family came a generation ago. Gopalnath’s father Nagri Thaniappa had come to that pocket of Mangalore, moving 30 km away from their ancestral village in Bantwal taluk. Thaniappa taught the boy the initial lessons in Carnatic, after which local guru N Gopalakrishna Iyer took over for a while.

Gopalnath succeeded in lending an ideal dose of hipness to South Indian classical

Then happened a crucial change of phase that, in a way, has a grand Kerala connection. Multifaceted maestro T V Gopalakrishnan, a Chennaiite with family moorings in Tripunithura south of Kochi, spotted Gopalnath’s talent and chose to tutor him in a big way. Gopalakrishnan, who was brought up in downtown Ernakulam and is known for his vocals that owe to the sturdy style of his iconic guru Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, virtually took Kadri under his wings. That stint, as the saxophonist would himself recount in numerous occasions later, enabled his rise as a musician. In fact, his maiden Carnatic kacheri was for the Chembai Memorial Trust.

The experimental attitude that TVG (as 87-year-old Gopalakrishnan is called fondly) has had a deep effect in Kadri’s music. Not to be ignored, Sangita Kalanidhi TVG’s improvisation-powered singing is unmistakably an update on Chembai (1896-1974) who lived a Keralite all his life despite the trend of Carnatic musicians moving out of their place to settle in Chennai, the capital of south Indian classical.

Kadri turned yet another milestone soon in 1980 when Californian musician John Handy heard him play at the Bombay Jazz Festival and invited the saxophonist to join him in the US. That triggered the start of a string of tours for Gopalnath, enriching crowds across continents with the idea of Carnatic jamming well with jazz. Such encounters also led to Kadri cutting discs in collaboration with westerners, coming out with audio-video records across genres and associating with cinema scores back in India.

Such engagements no way meant a dissociation from Carnatic. The oscillatory microtone, he knew, was so integral to south Indian classical, but Kadri only rose in that field to become a titan despite the innate incapacity of the saxophone to generate the Carnatic gamaka. Far from taking that as a handicap, the instrumentalist went on to make waves by treading a path that not only propelled his career but gifted the idiom with a sensibility high on free spirit. Kadri’s jugalbandi one-on-one with Hindustani maestros upcountry, most regularly with flautist Ronu Majumdar, had been a bit hit.

That way, it is only ironical that The Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Music of India makes no reference to Kadri or the saxophone. Across its close to 3,500 pages, the pioneering instrumentalist who decorated the country’s audio scape with a unique service is conspicuous by his absence.

Kadri died on October 11, 2019, at the age of 69. The family continues with the music legacy what with one of his sons, Manikanta Kadri, being a composer-singer. More importantly, Carnatic music today does have its set of saxophonists trying their best to bring out the aesthetics of the idiom. Looked in a way, that is a subgenre of sorts, thanks profusely to the one and only Kadri Gopalnath.

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