Profile: Dr. Kadri Gopalnath, ‘benevolent ruler’ of the Carnatic saxophone

Dr. Kadri Gopalnath, the pioneer of Carnatic classical saxophone, sadly passed away in October 2019. He had first found his curious calling at the age of eight, becoming enraptured by the sax after hearing one at his local temple in Mysore.

The temple’s band were personally sponsored by none other than the region’s Maharaja, himself a keen composer, consequently enjoying global connections and easier access to new musical technology. The young Kadri walked up to the mysterious musician and asked him what he was playing – and soon after he resolved to bring the sax into his own South Indian idiom, working tirelessly for decades to achieve his quest. 

However, his path to mastery was beset with setbacks, obstacles, and difficulties. The standard, ‘equally-tempered’ tuning of the Western sax wasn’t designed to handle Carnatic music’s intricate sruti microtones, and its keying system made many distinctive raga articulations awkward. Gopalnath, originally a student of the double-reeded nagaswaram, had to tinker with its design, subtly reshaping its mechanisms and air chambers through careful trial-and-error.

He learned Carnatic classical music from Gopalakrishna Iyer in Mangalore and Balakrishna Pillai in Kumbakonam, before further study with T.V. Gopalakrishnan (‘TVG’) – a disciplined but open-minded guru, hailed for his deep knowledge of both North and South Indian raga.

To the teenage Kadri, the physical difficulties of his instrument were only one part of the performing puzzle: “In the early days of my career, I began to play with full enthusiasm and the (over)confidence typical of youth. I was lost in my own world, oblivious of the audience response. Halfway through a concert, my guru…leaned closer and whispered, ‘Are you aware that the audience is not responding to your music?’. I was startled, but also realised the truth in his observation”.

Gopalnath sought to refine his approach, pouring more focus into the fine melodic detail (“I put my heart and soul into its every nuance”). He soon gained popularity for appearances on All India Radio, and eventually became known nationally after a startling, abrasive contribution to the soundtrack for Duet, a 1994 film by K. Balachandar and A.R. Rahman about a swashbuckling saxophone player (below). He has also collaborated with jazz musicians for decades – notably Texan multireedist John Handy and Indo-American altoist Rudresh Mahanthappa.

In his later years, fellow Carnatic elders bestowed him with the honorary title Saxophone Chakravarthy (‘benevolent ruler of saxophone, with moving wheels’), and the great vocalist Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer described him as a “genius”. In late 2018, just a year before his untimely death, he received the Sangeetha Choodamani award, being gifted “a cash award, a gold medallion, a scroll, and a shawl” before performing to an enraptured crowd. Perhaps some of the young attendees there will be inspired to take up his instrument too – the great pioneer is already sorely missed by the Carnatic community, as well as many outside it.

● Read nextImprovising away from discrimination: how jazz was thriving in 1920s India – the remarkable first wave of ‘Indo-jazz’ saxmen, over a century ago

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