Master of the kanjira – K.V. Gopalakrishnan

It is only the 2nd of January 2016, but he has already accepted two concerts for the next December Season, twelve months away! He performs nearly every day of the year, is constantly travelling within the country and abroad, and has played with nearly all the stars and veterans of today. Yet when you ask him for an interview, he responds promptly and with warmth — making your respect for him increase multi-fold. A disciple of his father Shri K.V.R.S. Mani and Sangita Kalanidhi Dr T.K. Murthy, he is quick to acknowledge the role that other musicians and veterans have played in his career. Meet K.V. Gopalakrishnan, the unpretentious and amiable master of the kanjira.

What are your earliest memories of music?

My father Shri K.V.R.S. Mani is a kanjira player, so I grew up listening to music. Though he didn’t play the kanjira as a profession, he played a lot of concerts when I was young. Many musicians would come to our house in Madurai. So that was how I was initiated into music.

KVG with mom and brother K.V. Subramanian

A young K.V. Gopalakrishnan in 1985/86 with his mother Smt. V. Singaralakshmi and brother Shri K.V. Subramanian in the backyard of their Madurai home

When did you start learning from your father? 

I started learning the mridangam from him when I was six. I didn’t actually formally learn the kanjira much. Since my father plays the kanjira, I had access to the instrument. I was always intrigued by the sound produced by the kanjira, so I started playing pretty much randomly. Then my father taught me some basic lessons.

I learnt predominantly by listening to and observing my dad, my dad’s guru Shri C.K. Shyam Sundar, Shri G. Harishankar and Shri V. Nagarajan. Also, learning the mridangam from Dr T.K. Murthy has helped me a lot in playing the kanjira.

I am lucky that my dad was my first guru — till date, he is ready to teach me 24 * 7 and whenever I have a query.

When did you move from Madurai to Chennai? 

We moved to Madras in May 1989. My dad was working with the Public Works Department (PWD) of the Tamil Nadu state government. He wanted to move to Madras, asked for a transfer and got it.

This is a picture of you receiving your first 1st prize in a competition, in 1992. Do you remember any more details – who organised it, what did you play, who were the judges, etc.?

K.V. Gopalakrishnan receiving his first 1st prize from Sangita Kalanidhi Prof. T.N. Krishnan, in 1992.

K.V. Gopalakrishnan receiving his first 1st prize from Sangita Kalanidhi Prof. T.N. Krishnan, in 1992.

The competition was organised by Indian Fine Arts Society. I don’t remember what I played in the competition but I remember the judges were Shri Madras A. Kannan and Shri M.N. Kandaswamy.

When did you start performing? When, where and with who was your first concert?

My first performance on the mridangam was on 30th September 1992. That was my arangetram. I accompanied Shri Palghat K.V. Krishnan (vocal) along with veteran musicians Shri C. Lakshminarayanan (violin), Shri C.K. Shyam Sundar (kanjira) and Shri Umayalpuram Narayanaswami (ghatam).

K.V. Gopalakrishnan at his mridangam arangetram, with Shri Palghat K.V. Krishnan (vocal), Shri C. Lakshminarayanan (violin), Shri C.K. Shyam Sundar (kanjira) and Shri Umayalpuram Narayanaswami (ghatam)

My first public performance on the kanjira was at “Murugashramam” in West Mambalam. I played with my good friends Kunnakkudy Balamuralikrishna (vocal), Akkarai Subhalakshmi (violin), B. Sivaraman (mridangam) and N. Guruprasad (ghatam).

When did you start learning from Shri T.K. Murthy? What was the difference in learning from your father and learning from Shri T.K. Murthy?

I started learning from Murthy sir in 1993. That was after my arangetram. My first proper guru was Madurai Shri Pushpam who is the son of veteran mridangam player Shri Kutthaalam Viswanatha Iyer. I started learning from Shri Viswanatha Iyer after we moved to Madras. After my arangetram he asked me to learn from Dr T.K. Murthy.

There was no difference learning from my father and from other gurus, except that if your father is your guru you tend to take liberties — at least I did!

What made you choose the kanjira over the mridangam? 

I didn’t actually choose one over the other. It is about what works better for you — and for me the kanjira worked better.

K.V. Gopalakrishnan in concert with Shri Palghat Raghu. No prizes for identifying the vocalist and violinist!

K.V. Gopalakrishnan in concert with Shri Palghat Raghu. No prizes for identifying the vocalist and violinist!

Many good things have happened to me because I play the kanjira. It has taken me to many countries. It has given me the opportunity to share the stage with almost all the star Carnatic musicians of today. If I were playing only the mridangam, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to play with mridangam legends like my guru Dr T.K. Murthy, Shri Palghat Raghu, Shri Umayalpuram Sivaraman, Shri Trichy Sankaran, Shri Vellore Ramabadran and many others. I consider that a great blessing.

Playing both the kanjira and mridangam regularly is tough. So I think I made a good decision in picking the kanjira as my main profession.

Listen to K.V. Gopalakrishnan accompany vocalist Visakha Hari on the mridangam in this video, with Nagai Sriram on the violin.

When did you get the opportunity to start performing with “top” artists?

K.V. Gopalakrishnan in concert with Shri Sanjay Subrahmanyan

K.V. Gopalakrishnan in concert with Shri Sanjay Subrahmanyan

I started playing the kanjira in concerts regularly in 2002. And it was in 2002, when I was still a nobody, that Shri Sanjay Subrahmanyan called me to accompany him in two of his December Season concerts — at Narada Gana Sabha with Shri R.K. Shriramkumar and Shri K. Arunprakash and at Kalarasana with Shri Mysore Manjunath and Shri Mannargudi Easwaran. He was the first star musician to accommodate me regularly in his concerts. That’s how people started noticing me. I owe a lot to him — thank you, Sanjay anna!

Over the years, what has your practice schedule been like? How many hours have you practised per day? What did you practise during your learning years?

When I was young (I still am!), I used to practise at least six hours a day. I was playing the mridangam then. I used to do the basic lessons and patterns. We call it “paadakkai”.

Given your tight concert schedule now, do you still practise every day? 

I don’t practise every day now. But I still practise whenever I get time and whenever I find people to practise with.

Having become one of the most sought after musicians in Carnatic music today, how do you ensure you don’t stagnate?

I listen to a lot of music, and not just Carnatic. There are lessons everywhere. You have to look for them in whatever you listen. You have to keep improving and updating yourself no matter how much sought after you are.

How many days in a year do you travel on average? Does that take a toll on health, food, sleep, etc.?

The travel schedule changes every year. 2015 was crazy — I toured the US in spring and again in fall. I had a short tour to Singapore for 4 days. That made a total of 217 days away from India! Additionally, I had concert trips within India. On average though, I used to travel 100 to 150 days every year.

It doesn’t take a toll on health or food, but does to an extent on sleep what with the different time zones.

Did you know from a young age that you wanted to become a performing musician? Did you consider any other career choices at all?

I decided early that music would be my profession. As early as when I was in my 10th standard. So there was no question of considering other career choices at all.

To become a successful musician, have you had to make any sacrifices that you would not have had to make if you had chosen another profession?

I have made no sacrifices. As I say often, I love what I do and I do what I love. It’s a win-win for me.

K.V. Gopalakrishnan receiving the Yuva Kala Bharathi in 2007

K.V. Gopalakrishnan receiving the Yuva Kala Bharathi in 2007

K.V. Gopalakrishnan with music director Ilaiyaraja

K.V. Gopalakrishnan with music director Ilaiyaraja

Have you played in films? 

Yes. I’ve played the kanjira for the songs “Agandhayil Aaduvathaa” sung by “Isai gnani” Ilaiyaraja and Sriram Parthasarathy and “Abhinayam Kaattukindra” sung by Sudha Raghunathan and Bombay Jayashree (listen to the song here) in the movie “Uliyin Osai” under the music direction of “Isai gnani” Ilaiyaraja.

I have also played re-recordings for music directors Ilaiyaraja and Vidyasagar.

You’re a foodie and love trying different cuisines; you like photography, travelling, cricket; you adore music director Ilaiyaraja — correct? What other interests do you have?

Yes, that is right! My other interests are cooking, reading writer Sujatha’s novels and listening to Shri M.S. Viswanathan’s songs.

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