A saxophone wizard (1949-2019)

It was a chance visit to the Mysore Palace at the age of eight that kindled in a young Kadri Gopalnath an abiding interest in the musical instrument, the saxophone that was being played by the Palace Band. He pursued his passion right through life, earning name and fame and plaudits galore for adapting the saxophone, an instrument most suited for jazz music, to Carnatic music.

Kadri Gopalnath was born in a village named Sajeepa Mandi in the Bantwal district in Karnataka on the 6 of December 1949. His father Thaniyappa was a nadaswaram vidwan of repute and Kadri took to music like a duck to water at a very young age. He was put through his paces initially by Vidwan Gopalakrishna Iyer but his musical career received a distinct fillip after he shifted to Madras (now Chennai). Fortunately for the young Kadri, the accomplished mridangist and vocalist T V Gopalakrishnan took him under his wing and it was under his tutelage that Kadri really picked up the ropes and mastered the ragas and kritis that would eventually enable him to take rapid and giant strides in the firmament of classical music.

Kadri Gopalnath was one of the earliest vidwans to adapt the saxophone to Carnatic music. The task was doubtless an onerous one and Kadri took over two decades to study the intricacies of the instrument and to attain enough proficiency to mould it to belt out Carnatic tunes. After that his career began to touch the dizzy heights. Senior musicians who had carved their niches in classical music watched with awe and admiration the rise of Kadri Gopalnath and no less a person than a doyen of Carnatic music, the late Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer hailed his accomplishments and rated him high dubbing him a true genius. Kadri’s first concert was at the Chembai Vaidyanatha Iyer Festival in 1980 and after that he never had to look back.

The artiste gained immense popularity in Tamil cinema after he collaborated with music director A R Rahman in the Tamil musical ‘Duet’ directed by K Balachander. The story of the film revolved around a saxophone player and both Balachander and Rahman felt that the only musician around who could do justice to the score was Kadri. Kadri however had a tough time in coming up with the right tune and raga that would impress Rahman but his invaluable contribution to the chartbuster Anjali Anjali Pushpanjali vindicated the faith that both Rahman and the director had placed on Kadri.

His career having reached its peak, Kadri Gopalnath travelled extensively and participated in highly prestigious concerts across the globe. He became the first Indian classical music exponent to be invited to play at the Royal Albert Hall, London in the BBC Promenade concert in 1996. Kadri was an integral part of several international Jazz festivals. He also collaborated with musicians from the West and his album with jazz flautist James Newton ‘Southern Brothers’ and the US based saxophonist Rudresh Mahantappa ‘Kinsmen’ won plaudits for their originality and the rhythm and lilt of the music. Kadri’s genius was also amply evident in an audio visual presentation wherein he had juxtaposed the classical kritis of the revered composer Saint Thyagaraja with the compositions of Beethoven. Closer home his jugalbandis with ace flautist Pravin Godkhindi turned out to be a major draw. Among his accompanist Kadri Gopalnath always rated the reputed violinist Kanyakumari very high and she remained a regular at most of his concerts in India and abroad.

Kadri Gopalnath served as the asthana vidwan of the Kanchi Kamakoti Mutt, the Sarada Sringeri Mutt and the Ahobila Mutt as well. He was also the recipient of several honours and titles including the Padma Shri. The highly acclaimed musician also attracted attention with his sartorial tastes which contrasted sharply with most of his contemporaries. Colourful designer kurtas, several bead necklaces round the neck and the gold nuggets suspended from his saxophone characterized his appearances at concerts.

Kadri Gopalnath passed away on 11 October 2019, leaving a legion of fans to mourn his loss.

C.V. Aravind

C.V. Aravind is a Bangalore-based freelance journalist.