It is always a mixed feeling to be meeting someone you are a fan of; more so when that person happens to be a legend in his own right. It was with a similar combination of trepidation and excitement last Sunday that I went backstage at the Redbridge Town Hall when LIAF artistic director Jyotsna Srikanth offered to let me have a short chat with Kadri Gopalnath. The conversation couldn’t have been farther from what I feared it would turn out to be. For starters, the man switched to Malayalam when he realised I am from Kerala (even started with that quintessential question Malayalis are branded with – “naattilevideyaanu?”, meaning “where are you from, in Kerala?”). The chat was mostly musical of course – about his multiple experiences of playing to the London crowd starting in ’86, the BBC Proms in ’94 – quite clearly he was excited about his first performance at LIAF. The maestro spoke about his love for Malayalam and Marathi film music for being the only ones to consistently have a raga base in a lot of their compositions even as the proportion is on a downward trend in other industries. Though Kadri is swamped with concerts at this point (the compere for the evening Ashanti Omkar said at one point that he plays up to 28 gigs in a month of late), he said that he plans to work on his long-pending fusion album with his son, composer Manikanth Kadri. And then Jyotsna walked in to say that it was time for the soundcheck.
In another twenty minutes I was witnessing my first ever live concert of the saxophone maestro. And it was as good as a live concert could get. Kadri stuck to the more popular ragas and compositions for most part, those that the audience connected with quite easily. The opening devotional piece was possibly the least common of the lot (based in tilang raga, Ashanti told me). Kadri presented a good mix of songs – happy and dark ragas, devotional and Carnatic – so at one point he was playing hamsanandi-based Paavana Guru, and he followed it up with the delightful Raghuvamsha Sutha in kadanakuthoohalam raga. Similarly, Maruthamalai Maamaniye from the 1972 movie Deivam and Purandara Dasa’s sindhubhairavi-based Venkatachala Nilayam played out back to back. The musician even catered to a request that Ashanti Omkar put forth earlier – the kalyanavasantham raga based theme he famously played for AR Rahman in the movie Duet – by playing a bit of that theme piece, though he then moved on to a Carnatic composition in the same raga.
It must be mentioned at this point that while each song was being presented in an incredibly nuanced fashion on the sax, the support being given by the accompanying musicians was also brilliant. Kadri’s complexities were effortlessly matched by Jyotsna Srikanth on the violin even as Kalaiamaamani Thanjavur TK Govindarajan and RN Prakash were on an engaging trip of their own, on the percussion front (thavil and ghatam respectively). The central piece of the evening was the Kharaharapriya composition by Thyagaraja, Chakkani Raja, where the audience got to hear each of the artists with their individual performances, which they excelled at, unsurprisingly – the thaniyaavarthanam (jugalbandi/jamming if you will) between Govindarajan and Prakash was particularly fun! The individual brilliance and the choice of raga made this song literally the centrepiece of the evening. And it was only fitting that Kadri closed the concert, and the festival, with the auspicious Bhagyada Lakshmi in a raga commonly chosen to close concerts with, madhyamavathi.
Thus came to a close another season of London International Arts Festival. It is a pity I could not attend every gig that happened, but I thoroughly enjoyed the ones I attended. A tip of the hat also to Pandit Nagaraj Rao Havaldar Rao and Pandit Omkarnath Havaldar who performed just before Kadri Gopalnath, on Sunday. I could hear only one song by them, a raag yaman based rendition. Even in that one song the vocal prowess of the two singers and the chemistry they shared was clearly evident. So here’s hoping that LIAF celebrates many more seasons and brings many more talented musicians to London.