Kadri Gopalnath 1949-2019

Vatapi Ganapathim Bhaje, a Sanskrit kriti by poet-composer Muthuswami Dikshitar that is well known for over two centuries now, is often played in Carnatic kutcheris and has even made its way into Hindustani classical music. The ode to Vatapi Ganapati, an avatar of Ganesh worshipped in Uthrapathiswaraswamy Temple of Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu, is based on Raga Hamsadhwani and is traditionally played at the beginning of a classical concert. In the 1980s, Kadri Gopalnath, dressed in a veshti and a kurta, would walk up on the stage in various auditoriums in Tamil Nadu with his saxophone, and play this Dikshitar hymn on the brass woodwind instrument used mostly in military and jazz bands. “Be it any festival, the shubharambh had to be with Gopalnath paying an ode to Ganesh on the saxophone,” says friend and colleague Aruna Sairam.

Kadri Gopalnath, the name synonymous with saxophone in India and who raised the bar of Carnatic classical music by playing it on this western instrument with all the gamakas (a precise technique of ornamentation) and microtones in place, passed away on Friday after a brief illness. He was 69. Gopalnath was admitted to AJ Hospital and Research Centre on October 10 after he complained of back pain, and died of cardiac arrest. He is survived by wife Sarojini, sons, composer Manikanth Kadri and Guruprasad Kadri, and daughter Ambika.

It is not often that a musician devotes a lifetime integrating a western instrument into an extremely traditional and strict system of classical music. Gopalnath took along with him the rigid system of Carnatic classical music and improvised alongside, just like a jazz saxophonist would. The spontaneous inventions of melodic solos along with the classical gamakas and microtones were new to those who heard, and in a while readily accepted. Gopalnath hit the headlines in the 1980s and became the toast of the Carnatic music world.

“There was a lot of hard work involved in taking a western classical instrument and bringing out those microtones that form the basis of Hindustani and Carnatic classical music. Another bit was to get accepted by the people. The instrument sounded very different on the proscenium stage. It called for a different kind of artistic excellence to be able to find that appreciation from people,” adds Sairam. Born into a family of Nadhaswaram players at Sajeepa Mooda village in Mangalore, Gopalnath’s training began in Nadhaswaram. He also studied vocal music. He was 15 when he first saw a saxophone. It was being played at the Mysore Royal Palace by a British band. The shiny instrument caught his eye, and his father bought him one for Rs 800 from a police band. Over the next 20 years, Gopalnath figured out its workings and learned how to incorporate it in the world of classical music.

In the western system, saxophones are played standing up. But Gopalnath sat on the ground and played it like a classical musician. He took its staccato notes and stretched them by modifying the instrument. “He expanded the horizon of Carnatic music like no other artiste has. He also inspired many saxophone players. So many musicians in the Carnatic system are taking up saxophone as their instrument of choice,” says Kumeresh of the violinist duo Ganesh-Kumaresh.

Gopalnath was the first Carnatic musician to be invited for the BBC Promenade concert at the Royal Albert Hall at London in 1994. He performed at jazz festivals abroad, including the Jazz Festival in Prague, the Berlin Jazz Festival, the International Cervantino Festival in Mexico and the Music Hall Festival in Paris. He also composed music for Tamil films. Virtually a cult figure, Gopalnath was fondly called Saxophone Chakravarthy.