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Sangeetha Samvaadham: Episode 3 -- A Carnatic Conversation with KV Gopalakrishnan

Welcome to Sangeetha Samvaadham, a series of compact written interviews with Carnatic musicians by Ramaa Ramesh. Samvaadham is the Sanskrit word for a conversation, and each of these conversations is an attempt to understand a little more about each artiste, their journey and how they perceive themselves and their art form. To this end, the set of questions remains largely consistent while the answers vary significantly by artist - some deeply introspective, some refreshingly practical - each a reflection of how that artiste perceives themselves and the world around them.

Photo: Amar Ramesh

KV Gopalakrishnan is a multi-instrumental percussionist who specialises in the kanjira. A top-billed artiste for nearly two decades, KVG plays worldwide with an international concert schedule every year. He is a disciple of renowned vidwans including his father Sri KVRS Mani, Kuthalam Sri Viswanatha Iyer and the doyen Sangeetha Kalanidhi Dr. TK Murthy.

NOTE: Interview responses are rendered in a mix of text and video to best capture and convey the artiste's insights.

Q. Which freely-available piece or concert would you recommend as a 'KVG 101' introduction to a new listener?

KVG: I'd select a thani aavarthanam I played at the Cleveland Thyagaraja Festival 2013; it was a thani aavarthanam with Sangeetha Kalanidhi Trichy Sankaran, as part of a concert with Sangita Kalanidhi Trichur Ramachandran and Vidwan Nagai Muralidaran on Violin. (Listen here.)

Q. What do you think makes you a successful musician?

KVG: On stage: Understanding what's going on and trying to provide (as much as I can) what that particular concert requires.

Off stage: Staying non-political, non-controversial, and being friendly with (almost) everyone. These are the qualities I possess I think. And maybe that's what has helped me to be a successful musician so far.... or maybe people just like me off-stage and on-stage. (smiles)

Q. Have you had a concert moment - either as a performer or a listener - that opened up a new window of possibility for you, or led to a fundamental shift in the way you sing?

KVG: There's not one particular instance or a concert. But I have learnt many things in / from the concerts I have played and listened to, and been updating myself with the information I gather; getting myself prepared for the next assignment as much as I can with that available data. You can "learn" something from almost every concert you perform or listen to if you are looking for it.

Q. What are the most important lessons you have picked up in your professional career as a musician?

Q. Imagine you could be born in any period of history and grow up as a peer alongside any musician of your choice, with unfettered access to them. Which musician would you choose and why? KVG: I would choose GN Balasubramaniam. Just for one reason. I want to listen to the combination of GNB, Lalgudi Jayaraman and Palghat Raghu perform LIVE.

Q. Not Harishankar sir?

KVG: I have listened to loads of Harishankar sir live. But andha dream set enakku kekka kudutthu vekkaliye (I have not been privileged to listen to that dream set)... that's why I chose GNB sir. I have listened to Lalgudi sir / Raghu sir live, but not WITH GNB sir. That's why I chose him.

Photo: CR Ravi

Q. What's something that you consider an unexplored frontier for you musically, or something on your to-do / to-achieve list as a musician?

KVG: I have not played (m)any fusion concerts. That's something I have not explored. I won't say it is something particularly on my to-do list or anything, but if I get an opportunity I will be more than happy to perform. If not, it is what it is.

Q. What is a moment you're proud of, in your musical journey so far?

I've forgotten the exact year, it was around 2005-06. I played a concert with Sri TN Seshagopalan with my guru Dr TK Murthy on mridangam in the Thanjavur naalu kaal mandapam Aanjaneyar temple series. After the concert was over, TNS sir turned to me and said "Bale pa, nanna irundhadhu" (Bravo, that was good). My guru quipped: "En sishyan" (My student). He never usually does that. Maybe something I played that impressed him that day. I felt good... proud.

Q. What one style of music other than Carnatic finds place on your playlist? KVG: I enjoy cine Music, especially Tamizh cine music. In particular, I love the music of MS Viswanathan, KV Mahadevan and Ilaiyaraaja. The tunes are complex and yet at the same time they sound so easy and soothing to the ears. I'm a big fan of the interludes and orchestration of Ilaiyaraaja in particular. His re-recordings are a separate topic for discussion.

Many of these songs have been penned by amazing lyricists like Kannadasan, Pattukottai Kalyana Sundaram and Vaali (and many others), they created such mind-blowing poetic beauties.

And one cannot forget the singers: TMS, PBS, Seergazhi Govindarajan, LR Easwari, P Susheela, S Janaki, SPB, Yesudoss, Chitra, Swarnalatha etc (a long list!) each of whom is unique. Yet when you watch the song on screen, you feel like you are listening to MGR, Sivaji, Gemini Ganesan, Savithri, Sowcar Janaki, Saroja Devi, Rajini, Kamal, Mohan, Revathi, Urvashi etc etc etc!

There are many soul-crushing gems by "Isai Gnani" Ilaiyaraaja - I have a YouTube playlist for those songs which I keep updating from time to time. Here's the link: click here.

Photo: Artiste

Q. Who is on speed-dial when you want to practice, or do you prefer to go solo?

I mostly practice alone now, though I do have a few musicians on speed dial for "catch-up sessions". We used to have loads of group practice sessions maybe some 15-20 years ago... OMG, I'm old! (laughs) The artists I catch up with regularly via text / meet are Chandrasekara Sarma, Bharat Sundar, Trivandrum Balaji, VVS Murari, Sriranjani Santhanagopalan, Sandeep Narayan (and a few others).

Q. From your musical tours and travels, do you have an incident you will always remember?

Q. What one thing would you add to / or change, in the Carnatic music scene?

There should be a kanjira / ghatam / morsing in each and every Carnatic concert. That would make me happy. And maybe slightly better remuneration in some places.


Ramaa Ramesh is a music teacher, storyteller and lifelong fan of Carnatic music. More from her here.

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