It was a chance visit to the Mysuru Palace at the age of eight that kindled in Kadri Gopalnath an interest in classical music. The palace orchestra was belting out popular numbers and the amazed boy's attention remained focused on the saxophone, an instrument that he was setting eyes on for the first time. He decided then and there that he would turn into an instrumentalist and the saxophone would be his chosen instrument.
There was a slight hitch however. The young Kadri was keen on a career in classical music but the saxophone was a western instrument used largely in jazz music. A carnatic musician giving saxophone concerts was unheard of in those days and it had not found favour even as an accompaniment by vocalists of the time. It took more than two decades for Kadri Gopalnath to master the intricacies of the alien instrument, but all the hard work paid ample dividends and even the toughest ragas became child’s play for the maestro.
Kadri Gopalnath was born in a village named Sajeepa Mandi in the Bantwal Taluk of Dakshin Karnataka. He was drawn to music at a very young age as his father Thaniyappa was a nadaswaram vidwan. His father was his first tutor and he later came under the tutelage of renowned carnatic musician Gopalakrishna Iyer who put him through his paces. But as Kadri had acknowledged in his interviews, it was the shift to Madras (now Chennai) that really provided a fillip to his career as a budding musician.
Renowned mridangist (who later turned vocalist) TV Gopalakrishnan (who was also guru to Ilaiyaraaja) took the young Kadri under his wing, spotting his talent and diligence and it was from TVG that Kadri received a good grounding in classical music. This helped him considerably in widening his repertoire when he began to give his saxophone recitals.
His first concert was at the Chembai Festival in 1980 and since then, Kadri never had to look back. Aficionados of carnatic music cottoned on to him in a big way as he was a pioneer of sorts and a classical saxophone concert was something that was a novelty in those days. Much later, a child prodigy U Srinivas would take a leaf out of Kadri’s book and introduce the mandolin, another western instrument to the world of classical music. Srinivas however passed away prematurely at the age of 45.
Most of his contemporaries admired Kadri’s prowess in classical music and foremost among them was the doyen of classical music, the late vocalist Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer who lauded Kadri’s contribution and hailed him as a true genius.
The credit for introducing Kadri Gopalnath to the world of celluloid goes to ace director K Balachander. KB’s film Duet had two protagonists, both musicians and one of them was a saxophone player. Both KB and the film’s music director AR Rahman opted for Kadri and the maestro composed over thirty ragas for Rahman who finally settled for the raag Kalyanavasantham. Almost all the numbers in the film had a saxophone instrumentation and all of them were composed and performed by Kadri. One particular song ‘ Anjali Anjali Pushpanjali’ which still remains evergreen gained popularity largely due to the brilliant accompaniment on the saxophone by Kadri Gopalnath.
The saxophone wizard travelled extensively abroad and had performed in almost all parts of the world. He holds the distinction of being the first Indian musician to be invited to perform at the BBC Promenade Concert in 1994 and had the privilege of enthralling audiences at the prestigious Royal Albert Hall in London. Kadri was a regular at most music festivals abroad and had performed in Jazz festivals held at Prague, Berlin, Mexico and Paris.
Another sphere of music in which Kadri excelled was in collaborating with western artistes to create albums, cassettes and CDs. His collaboration with the jazz flautist James Newton resulted in the album Southern Brothers. US based saxophonist and composer Rudresh Mahanthappa and Kadri brought out an album Kinsmen which was well-received.
Kadri also played an integral part in putting together an audio - visual presentation East West which was a fusion track with the krithis of Saint Thyagaraja blending mellifluously with the compositions of Beethoven. Back home, the jugalbandhis with flautist Pravin Godkhindi who considered Kadri his guru always drew capacity crowds.
Kadri Gopalnath was at different points of time the Asthana Vidwan of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam, the Sri Sringeri Sarada Peetam and the Ahobila Mutt. A recipient of the Padma Shri, Kadri, during his long tenure as a classical musician received several honours and titles including ‘Saxophone Chakravarthy’ ‘Saxophone Samrat’ and‘Nada Kalaratna’.
The Karnataka Government recognised his contribution to classical music by awarding him the Karnataka Rajyotsava and the Tamil Nadu government honoured him with the prestigious Kalaimamani. Other distinctions that came in the way of Kadri were the Kendriya Sangeeta Nataka Academy award, the Karnataka Kalashree and Doctorates from Universities in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
Unlike most carnatic personalities who are always spotted in spotless white at their recitals, Kadri Gopalnath’s sartorial elegance was a sight for sore eyes. Kadri was always clad in colourful and eye catching kurtas with several strings of attractive beads round his neck adding a touch of glamour to his overall persona. The saxophone exponent who held audiences both in India and abroad in a thrall for several decades passed away in Mangaluru on the 11th of October at the age of 69 after suffering a cardiac arrest. One of his two sons. Manikanth Kadri has carved a niche for himself as a music director. In Kadri’s passing, the world of classical music has lost one of its most outstanding talents, an innovator and a pioneer who took Indian music to the far corners of the world.