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“Learn music for your sake, not for your parents sake” – Udupi Gopalakrishnan

VIDWAN UDUPI GOPALAKRISHNAN IN MANGALORE, INDIA, MARCH 2018. BY SUSHMA P MAYYA. PHOTOGRAPHS BY SUHASINI PATAWARDHAN & SUDARSHAN NATEKAR. SPONSORED BY WORLD OF ARTCARDS.

Vid. Udupi Gopalakrishnan, a father figure in the Carnatic music field, is presently settled in Bangalore. Born in Uppinangady of South Kanara District, he traveled the thorny path to glory. Pushed into the music world due to his father ’s dreams, he went through the Gurukula to be a new age student. His musical student life is spread from Kanchana to Trichy Alathur and finally landing in Chennai. A close associate of Vid. S Kalyanaraman and Vid. P.S. Narayana Swamy, Udupi Gopalakrishnan is having many star performers as students. His voice modulation techniques and guiding techniques are very much impressive. Blessed were we to have Vid. Udupi Gopalakrishnan Sir as our resource person for our 5th Swaralaya camp of  February 2018.

Interview with Vidwan Udupi Gopalakrishnan | Beauty Wall Spot

At 5th Swara-Laya - full day special violin practice camp, Vid. Udupi Gopalakrishnan spoke to Beauty Wall Spot's Sushma P Mayya in Mangalore. In front of 100+ students and parents, Vid. Udupi Gopalakrishnan spoke about his experiences of learning Carnatic Music from various Gurus, the importance of practicing with Manual Tanpura, and other aspects of musical life.


"Do not learn music to give a performance on the stage.  When the opportunity comes utilize it. You should not ask for lessons for the competitions and win the prizes.  Consider your musical knowledge as an asset. If you learn music well you can perform and also teach music to a few students in the coming days."

- Vid. Udupi Gopalakrishnan


SUSHMA P MAYYA:  Namaskara. It is nice to have you with us for the interview today 🙂
UDUPI GOPALAKRISHNAN: Namaskara. Same here…. I too love to be among children.

SUSHMA P MAYYA: That is wonderful… Sir, can you tell us about your first steps into the world of music?
UDUPI GOPALAKRISHNAN: I started learning music at the age of 5. Initially, I was not very keen on learning music nor I had any idea about it. But my father insisted that I learn music. That's how I continued. I took the first step into the world of music when my father asked Nagaswara artiste Giriyappa, who used to play the instrument at a temple in Uppinangady, to accept me as a student. He then used to sit with me with a harmonium and taught me 10 'Sarala Varases’. However, my lessons stopped here abruptly. Even then, my father had a dream to send me for 'Gurukula Vasa’ at Kanchana. I had been in ‘Kanchana’ for 7 long years. Here too, I was learning music due to my father's wishes and I was a reluctant learner.

Vid. Udupi Gopalakrishnan | Beauty Wall Spot

SUSHMA P MAYYA: How was your journey ahead from this point?
UDUPI GOPALAKRISHNAN: It took me about a year to learn just the basics of music as nobody in our family was acquainted with music. I used to take about a month’s time to complete a new lesson in music. In a ‘Gurukula’ system, lessons were according to the whims of the Guru. Corporal punishments were common. We used to cry sometimes as there was no way out from the punishment. Sometimes we used to cry even before being punished, which helped in avoiding punishments. To avoid the punishment I learned a little bit of music. I continued learning music in Kanchana till I was about 12 years old and then on I got a taste of music. I had then become a senior student of Kanchana Subrahmaniam Iyer. From that stage, I started learning to sing 'Manodharma Swaras’ for Keertanas and give concerts. For the concerts, Kanchana Subbarathnam would accompany on the violin and Vishnumoorti Hebbar would accompany me on the mridangam. Thus a team was created.

Moreover, I used to do the characters of Purandara Dasa or other characters of the Ramayana in plays. In these plays, I was required to sing behind the screen. I used to also sing for other characters like Purandara Dasa’s wife Saraswati, Rama’s wife Sita and Lakshmana as well when I was playing the role of Vali’s wife Tara. I used to sing in Shruti A and thus could sing 'Tarasthayi’ Panchamam with ease. However, due to some misunderstanding between Kanchana Subrahmaniam Iyar and my father, my Gurukula lessons came to an abrupt halt. I left for Bangalore right away and for a month, I used to while away my time in parks. For a year, I shared a room with violinist Prabhakar Pathak, who had learned music in Kanchana and Vishnumoorti Hebbar. After a year had passed, I decided to learn music from Alathur Brothers in Trichy. However, my expectations dashed to the ground and my three years of stay there were not all that pleasant.

SUSHMA P MAYYA: That’s disappointing for any budding musician. But I think they became your stepping stones in your life. We would like to know about your experience. Please explain…
UDUPI GOPALAKRISHNAN: We have been taught to respect our gurus and taught about the greatness of 'Guru Shishya’ relationship. However, when a student comes to a guru leaving behind his family and comforts of life, the guru must understand his situation and be compassionate. During my ‘Gurukula-vasa', I never had food properly even once in a day. I do not blame my gurus, as it was me myself who approached the gurus to teach me music.

The Alathur Brothers were Vid. Sivasubramania Iyer a.k.a. Subba Iyer and Vid. Srinivasa Iyer. While Vid. Subba Iyer was the son of Vid. Alathur Venkatesa Iyer, Vid. Srinivasa Iyer was the student of Vid. Alathur Venkatesa Iyer. It was Vid Trichy Raghavan Iyer, a mridangam artiste, who advised me to approach Vid. Alathur Srinivasa Iyer to learn music. I stayed with my guru for two-and-a-half years and Vid. Subba Iyer had no inkling of me learning music from my guru as both of them were not in talking terms. When I once met Vid. Subba Iyer, he asked me how much I had progressed in music in two years. I told him that I had learned a Sri raga varnam. This infuriated Vid. Subba Iyer and he was disappointed that I was being neglected to such an extent. He advised to return to my village for the time being and also gave me an option to learn from him. However, I was scared to leave my guru because of the severe punishment and I was in a dilemma. So I requested my father to visit me. When my father approached my guru and told him that I wanted to be a disciple of Vid. Subba Iyer, he flew into a rage and came to hit me. However, my father stopped my Guru by telling him to not hit his son in front of his own eyes.

Subsequently, I approached Vid. Subba Iyer for music lessons. I felt blessed, but unfortunately, Vid. Subba Iyer’s health was failing. Though he was suffering from a heart problem, he used to give concerts. He was in the twilight of his life and I decided to be at his service till the end. He used to stretch on an easy chair and teach a complete 'Keerthana’ in the span of a night. But learning from Vid. Srinivasa Iyer was a harrowing experience. Hitting, throwing things around, spilling water etc. were common scenes. Music lessons were few and far between - maybe once in three months. The lessons would start at 10 pm, when I was sleepy and tired after a whole day’s work at the guru’s house. When I could not get the lessons right, I usually got hit. At that point, my guru’s wife would interrupt and my class would end.


SUSHMA P MAYYA: That would have been quite a difficult experience. How would an ideal ‘Guru- Shishya’ relationship be like, sir?
UDUPI GOPALAKRISHNAN: A ‘Guru-Shishya’ relationship should be even stronger than the father-son relationship. If a guru really loves his student, he can ask the student to be at his service. When a pupil comes to a Guru, he must not be considered as a servant but must be looked at with compassion, as he does not have his family around. In my student years, a pupil was considered equivalent to a servant who works without any pay.

SUSHMA P MAYYA: You still persisted and became proficient in music. How was that possible?
UDUPI GOPALAKRISHNAN: I had not learnt much from Vid. Alathur Srinivasa Iyer. As for Vid. Alathur Sivasubramania Iyer, he taught me about 3 to 4 'Keertanas’. He expired within four months of me approaching him. Then I came to Chennai and requested Vid. Ailoor Krishnan to accept me as a student. But I had already decided that I will not continue with 'Gurukula vasa’. He was a good person and taught me whatever he knew. I learned a lot from him and began to be recognized as a vocalist in Madras. Eventually, I got introduced to Vid. S Kalyanaraman. He was a repository of knowledge about Carnatic music. He used to compose music and I became his good friend apart from being a student. But learning from him was not easy as I could not match him in his knowledge. He used to correct me and guide me like a brother. He even arranged for my marriage. When we used to practice, it used to go on for hours together at a stretch.  We would never realize the time flying past from 7 am to 1 pm. He would sing just one raga for hours together and find out what could be done out of that just one raga. Even while teaching, he would want his students to sing just as the way he sings, which was not an easy task. He was a creative person and is very much comparable to Abhishek Raghuram.

Musicians must be creative. They should not copy anyone. Students as well must understand what the guru teaches him or her and must not absorb everything like a blotting paper. No two persons can be exact copies. A father and son may have similar looks, but they cannot be carbon copies. The same thing applies to music. A person need not sing exactly like another person. Have students of Tyagaraja Swami sung exactly the same way as their guru or have their students sung the same way? Who has sung the right way - is it Madurai Mani or GNB or Semmangudi? They have sung with variations. Which one is 'Paatantara’ and which one is the tradition? Traditions have been created by us. But there is no rule that we have to sing the same way. Traditions require that one has to sing according to the rules of the raga. It should not go against Shastras.

If we look back, many years ago, Keertanas did not have so many sangatis. Every singer added an extra sangati. For example, if I teach an extra sangati that I like, to two of my students, one student may sing it with Gamakas at a faster pace while the other may sing the Gamakams at a slower pace. Then they sing only the gamakas that they want. Vid. T N Seshagopalan sings with extraordinary Gamakams. But when Vid. S R Janakiraman sings, he incorporates only one or two sangatis. He used to tell that he does not like singing many sangatis. Ha Ha (laughs). He used to wonder how Tyagaraja Swami could sing so many sangatis when he had to roam around a lot with his tanpura and Chembu. Vid. T.K. Murthy used to joke that if Tyagaraja Swami would take his Chembu and tanpura and sing so many sangatis, whatever he is holding in his hands might fall down. Ha ha (laughs). Classical music refers to an art that allows people to enjoy their time. It is an art that allows people to forget their worries and give them peace of mind.

Vid. Udupi Gopalakrishnan @ Beauty Wall Spot

SUSHMA P MAYYA: Yes, definitely... Classical music has a soothing effect on the mind. Tell us about your association with Vid P S Narayana Swamy.
UDUPI GOPALAKRISHNAN: During my association with Vid. S Kalyanaraman, I got in touch with Vid. P.S. Narayana Swamy. He is a very rare knowledgeable person. Those keen on learning music, young or as old as 80 years, all can easily learn from him. No matter who requests him to teach music, Vid. P.S. Narayana Swamy enthusiastically takes the Shruti box and starts teaching. He has taught me too. Though I did not have money to pay the fees for the music classes, he never made me slog like I was made to work during the 'Gurukulavasa’. I along with violinist V.V. Ravi used to learn from him. He used to get up early in the morning and get ready for our class by 7.30 am. He never used to hurt his students. Hence everyone loved and admired him. He was lovingly called 'Piche’. He usually attended all functions and rarely had any enemies. He was an exemplary Guru, musician and a great human being without parallel. He used to be playful sometimes and if anyone got angry, he would just look at the person and they would laugh together. He had such a powerful personality. No matter who comes to him with a request to sing, he would sing straightaway. If he was asked something that he did not know, he would learn it himself and present it the next day itself. There is a lot of difference in the way music was taught during earlier times and now. Earlier we used to learn only what our guru taught and never asked any questions. If we asked our guru to teach a Keertanams of our choice, we would be banished from the class. Now if we request the same with our teachers, they will ask us to pay and record the Keertanas. It has all become commercial. Earlier, things did not look like this. If Vid. P.S. Narayanaswamy commenced classes at 6 pm, it went on till 10 pm till the student gets tired. I enjoyed his association a lot. He used to ask all students to gather and make them sing together. He is not keeping well now, but if someone sings, he will correct them unfailingly.

SUSHMA P MAYYA: Sir, you have been teaching music all your life along with singing. How was your experience?
UDUPI GOPALAKRISHNAN: I started teaching music at the age of 13 years. During that time Violin Maestro Vid. Vittal Ramamurthy’s mother Krishnaveni amma used to be my student. All my students were elder to me. Teaching experience is very unique. We too learn new sangatis in the process of teaching. However, teachers need loads of patience. Starting from the age of 13 years, till the age of 73 years, that is a span of over 60 years, I have continued teaching.

SUSHMA P MAYYA: Nowadays, Shruti box is becoming ubiquitous in concerts.  Can you explain the importance of manually using Tanpura instead of a Shruti box? 
UDUPI GOPALAKRISHNAN: Manually setting the Shruti of a Tanpura is in itself a very important subject to be learnt. Only a knowledgeable person can set the Shruti of a Tanpura. A mediocre person cannot do it. Even certain eminent artists do not know to set the Tanpura. When a Shruti is properly set on a Tanpura and we play the note 'Sa Pa Sa’ , while plucking the Panchama string, the Chatushruti Rishabha will be heard as feedback. When Mandra Shadja is played, Antara Gandhara is heard as feedback. Hence the Jeevala of the Tanpura must be adjusted properly.

When Shruti is being set on the Tanpura, there should be no other disturbance. In a concert, when the vocal artist sets the Shruti of the Tanpura, if the mridangam artist or the violin artist set their instruments, the Tanpura Shruti cannot be properly set. Similarly, in some concerts, when the Shruti is being set, the artists start exchanging greetings saying 'Hello, how are you?' Should the vocal artist answer him or set the Shruti at that time?

Some people joke that playing Tanpura is like just manually pulling some rope. But playing Tanpura is an art in itself. When you play Tanpura it must be like butter. The strings should not make unpleasant sound. When you play with a Tanpura which has been set well, your vocal rendition sounds melodious. The melody of Tanpura is unique. The Shruti of Tanpura and the electronic Shruti box cannot blend at all. When you play the Tanpura, it takes you to a different world. Now it has become a trend to play both the Tanpura and the Shruti box in concerts. But it does not sound good, because Tanpura produces natural sound while electronic Shruti box is a gadget. When one sings with the Tanpura, the mind and the ears are in harmony with the sound emanating from the Tanpura. If our Shruti wavers during a rendition, the Tanpura Shruti takes us in the right direction. This is not possible with the Shruti box. The feeling we get while singing with the Tanpura is totally different and it cannot be explained in words.

Audience listening to Vid. Udupi Gopalakrishnan | Beauty Wall Spot

SUSHMA P MAYYA: Which is your favorite Raga and Shruti?
UDUPI GOPALAKRISHNAN: My favorite Raga and Krithi……..[thinking] If you ask me my favorite Raga and Krithi, it is difficult for me to say [laughs]. My preferences change from time to time. I used to like Todi Raga a lot. My mind used to always be immersed in the Raga. Later I started liking Shanmukhapriya and eventually I started liking Shankarabharanam. If an artist gets immersed in any Raga, he enjoys it completely. I like all the Ragas. I enjoy listening to any Ragam that anyone sings.

SUSHMA P MAYYA: Sir, what is the method for students to develop Manodharma in singing?
UDUPI GOPALAKRISHNAN: To teach students about Manodharma, they must be first taught simple Melakarta Ragas. Instead of difficult ragas with many Swara's missing, simple ragas must be selected for teaching. Then their creativity in those ragas must be slowly developed. When they initially sing, instead of just one person singing, they must be asked to sing in groups of four or so. When students sing in groups, they get inspired from each other and try to be creative by avoiding singing the same swaras which the other person has sung. Thus they get new ideas. Moreover, they must intently listen to concerts. If they have to come in the mood of singing, they must listen to one or two live concerts in a month. This helps them a lot.

SUSHMA P MAYYA: Did anyone give you any particular advice that you followed for a long time? 
UDUPI GOPALAKRISHNAN: I don't think anyone has given me so very important advice on which my life is based. I have learnt my lessons in a hard way, not through advices. I left home at the young age of 7 or 8 years. Thus, there was no advisor as such in my life. I have acquired the qualities of politeness, humility required for an Artist through my association with Vid. S Kalyanaraman and Vid. P.S. Narayanaswamy.

SUSHMA P MAYYA: Once a person has attained a certain level in the music field, how should he conduct himself?
UDUPI GOPALAKRISHNAN: A musician should never feel proud of his achievements and about his knowledge he has acquired. No matter how great an achiever he becomes and how big crowd he pulls during his concerts, he must be devoid of pride. He must know that there is a lot more to learn. Only then he can be a fine artist.

SUSHMA P MAYYA: How is it possible for you to stay immersed in music all the time?
UDUPI GOPALAKRISHNAN: I do not want to lie that I remain immersed in music all the time. Sometimes I enter into the world of music and other times I will be thinking of jokes. Most of the day, about 9 to 10 hours in a day, is spent in teaching music to my students. When I teach music to children, I never feel tired. Actually, I do not know anything about music. God has given me music as alms. If you ask me more and more questions I may get nervous. What I have learnt is too negligible. But I have one wish- to be involved in music all my life.

SUSHMA P MAYYA: Having seen three generations of artists how do you think music has changed aesthetically?
UDUPI GOPALAKRISHNAN: I have listened to some concerts of Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar and Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer. Similarly, I have listened to 7 or 8 concerts of G.N. Balasubramaniam and many concerts of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Madurai Mani Iyer, and Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar.  Everyone sings in their own style.  Some concerts turn out to be very good.  Many people sit through the concerts listening and enjoying.  We cannot say whose music is better and whose music is of a lesser standard. That was a generation.  These musicians have contributed to the field of music through their work and achievements.

Thereafter I have listened to T.R. Subramaniam (popularly known as TRS), S. Kalyanaraman, Voleti Venkateswarulu, Ramnad Krishnan and T.N. Seshagopalan.  They are of a different generation and are brilliant. They have made contributions and achievements filling the gap of their previous generation. As per my opinion, these stalwarts have contributed more to the music world than their earlier generation. These are highly creative personalities and can be called genius. After the period of these musicians, a small gap has occurred. It is not that easy to fill that gap. For that, you need highly brilliant people. One has to excel the contributions by TRS, SKR, TNS during their time. It is very difficult because all the major works are completed by them.

Of late, I have started to attend some concerts. Among the new generation of musicians, Abhishek Raghuram stands out as a brilliant Artist. I had loved his music some years back itself. That day itself I felt, here is a brilliant musician born to fill the gap and in a few years time, he will be known as a great musician. I am happy, God Almighty has fulfilled this wish. Similarly, there is another disciple of P.S. Narayanaswamy - Kunnakudi Balamuralikrishna, he also sings very well. He is also a brilliant Artist.

If an artist does not have a good voice, people may not like to listen to him. S. Kalyanaraman used to comment [laughs] Onno Mande Veno, illame Thonde Venu” meaning,  a singer either should have brains or an exceptional voice. Brainy in the sense that a vocalist must be brilliant at singing sangathis. [laughs] Having a good voice refers to voice like that of Maharajapuram Santhanam. All his concerts were pulling a very good crowd. People get fascinated by his voice. Similarly Madurai Mani Iyer also. For his concerts, even the Rickshaw drivers enthusiastically came and sat on treetops or the compound walls while they listened with interest. His concerts lasted for 3 to 4 hours.  Those days the concerts were held in Asthika Samajam in Alwarpet. There were no stage or platforms. Concerts were held in open grounds. After 9 pm he used to sing English notes and thukada. People used to rush to the venue to listen to this even an hour before the concert commenced and reserved their seats on treetops or the boundary walls. ‘Iyer is singing, Iyer is singing’ is the only motivation for them to flock. Listening to him gives an inexplicable pleasure. Audience prefers his music. Hence it is said either you should have a good voice or a brilliant brain.

In case of many artists, those with good voice may not have the brains and those who are brilliant ones may not have a melodious voice. If both qualities exist in one artist, he will be a success. Abhishek Raghuram has both of these qualities. You give him any subject in music and he will present it wonderfully. People also like Abhishek’s concerts. I have met many artists. Abhishek is better amongst them. I am not joking. He has shown his capabilities. I have observed him for the past 10 years. He has the capacity to perform the most difficult musical sangathis given to him just like any other sangathi. He has music in his blood. He plays the Nades and Pallavis in a simple and easy way. Among the young artists, there are good singers like Ramakrishnan Murthy and others. But I like Abhishek Raghuram very much.

SUSHMA P MAYYA: Can you describe your experience as a choir singer?
UDUPI GOPALAKRISHNAN: I was a participant in Madras youth Choir under Music Director M.B.Sreenivasan. I learned a lot while being a member of this Choir. In that, first thing was discipline. Discipline in the sense, being on time, sitting at the right place in the rehearsal and concentrating only on the music director. Even for a second if we lose our concentration, the whole swara’s can go wrong. In a choir, there will be at least 20-22 members. Frontline consists of 10 ladies, and the next line consists of 10 more people. Some people would sing "Sa..Pa..Sa" in base voices while the others sing "Ni.. Ri..Sa.." in higher notes. The choir is different from Nama Sankeerthanam where all the people would sing Govinda together. In Choir we would have to wait for our turn to come. As soon as our turn comes we should sing immediately as there is no time to waste. If our voice doesn’t match with Shruthi then we lose cords. If we sing very loudly just so that our voice can be heard, then it wouldn’t be a choir but it would be a crime. [Laughs]

We have to blend our voices so that it matches with the choir and we have to give our full-fledged concentration while we sing. Overall we learn a lot while we perform in a Choir.

SUSHMA P MAYYA: What is your message to the future generation of musicians?
UDUPI GOPALAKRISHNAN: My message with love to the children is learn music for your sake, not for your parents' sake.  Seeing your regular practice your parents should ask you to stop the practice and take some rest.  It should not be the other way round, where parents beg you to practice every day. Remember that if you work hard, you will definitely get the rewards.  Do not learn music to give a performance on the stage.  When the opportunity comes utilize it. You should not ask for lessons for the competitions and for winning the prizes.  Consider your musical knowledge as an asset. If you learn music well you can perform and also teach music to a few students in the coming days.

SUSHMA P MAYYA: Thank you very much for being with us today and sharing your musical experiences with the audience. It's really a fantastic interview!!
UDUPI GOPALAKRISHNAN: Thank you for inviting me to this wonderful Swara-laya - full day violin practice camp and God Bless You All!!

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