Editor's note: The Chembur Fine Arts Society, one of the foremost cultural organisations in Mumbai, is going places with its innovative and pioneering efforts in promoting and propagating Indian music and dance. The recent thematic annual conferences on Carnatic music have certainly caught the imagination of the music-loving public. The last few years have witnessed detailed discussions and demonstrations on the Musical instruments of Carnatic music. The first conference, on String instruments, was held in February 1999. The conferences in 2000 and 2001 covered Wind instruments and Percussion instruments respectively. Each conference featured top-notch exponents of the respective instruments.

Carnatica already featured the papers from the String instruments conference (click to read those articles). Now, we move on to the papers presented in the Wind Instruments conference, held in 2001.





By Kadri Gopalnath


The story of the induction of the Saxophone to Carnatic music concert platform will necessarily run parallel to my story on joining the Carnatic music fraternity as a professional musician. Because I claim, humbly and justifiably, that the effort to place Saxophone on the concert platform has originated from and been spearheaded by me. My success is due to God's grace, the blessings of my father, that of my mentor, Vidwan T V Gopalakrishnan, who took particular interest in my Saxophone playing, and the other vidwans who taught me music. 

The First Experiments:

  • I had learnt the Nadaswaram for 5 years under my father Sri Taniappan. Our family was residing then in the borderland between Karnataka and Kerala.    
  • I came across the Saxophone in 1965 when I was fifteen and took a fancy to it. Though my father did not think it was an apt instrument for chaste Carnatic music, he did not suppress my urge. In fact, he bought me my first Saxophone from a member of the Police Band for Rs. 800, which was a tidy sum those days! It is still my favourite piece. 

The Saxophone was not unknown at that time. I myself knew the Saxophone artiste Sri Lakshminarasimhaiah of the then Mysore Palace Band, now playing in Brindavan Gardens. The Wodeyar royal family are reputed as ardent lovers of music for generations. Maharaja Krishnarajendra Wodeyar, a vidwan of Carnaticmusic,  was also interested in western musical instruments. (Some say he composed the kriti "Pranamamyaham" in raga Gowla, as opposed to some who believe that it is Mysore Vasudevachar's). The palace Band, called Nadamuni Band and familiar to old-timers, used to play select Carnatic kritis. This Band also had a Saxophone player. 

  • While I experimented with the instrument, I developed my music for 10 years under Sri. Gopalakrishna Iyer (brother-in-law of vidwan T V Gopalakrishnan), followed by Nadaswaram vidwan Gopalakrishna Pillai (of Kumbakonam). I came under the benevolent eye of vidwan T V Gopalakrishnan in 1973. He enthused and guided me in my efforts to master the instrument.

Saxophone on the Concert platform:

  • My first concert was in 1977 in the Chembai Memorial Music Centre for an audience, which included vidwan Dr. M Balamuralikrishna.
  • The AIR (Mangalore) auditioned me for Saxophone in 1978 and cleared me at B high. I attained the A level in 1980 and A-Top in 1982.
  • It was in 1980 that I received my first chance to perform at the Music Academy in Madras where I have been performing regularly since 1995. 
  • My performances abroad include those in Czechoslovakia and Switzerland (1982), UK (1986) and the US (1987 & 1995). 

Adaptations to the instrument:

The Saxophone as it is used in Western music has a range of 3 1/2 octaves. It basically produces staccato notes as required in Western music. Construction-wise, the instrument has almost been perfected, due to the high quality reeds used in the mouth-piece and general workmanship. The holes in the Saxophone are operated through metallic rods, which are manipulated by the fingers. Leather pads give an airtight coverage over the holes. But the operation of the keys which lift or bring down the pads produces distinct staccato notes. In addition, there is provision (by the operation of other levers) to open/close some holes. This enables one to traverse 3 1/2 octaves on this instrument. A good quality Saxophone (imported) will costs about Rs. 2 lakhs.

Modifications to suit Carnatic music:

During my experimentation, I realized that for the gamaka-oriented Carnatic music, the western construction will not do. Further, in our music the range is seldom more than 2 octaves. Some modifications were called for in order to produce gamaka-s and remove the superfluous attachments for enhanced range. Accordingly, I have made the following modifications to my Saxophone:

  1. Some openings which facilitate attaining base notes (mandra/anumandra) have been blocked because the levers operating them were interfering with my fingering and in any case, those notes are not needed.
  2. The rigid metallic connecting-rods which operate the keys have been replaced by tough, elastic rubber strings.
  3. The leather pads at the bottom of the keys which open/close the holes have been replaced by felt pads with a convex surface. 

Despite the substantial success achieved, I must put on record that some difficulties persist. For instance, there is a problem while playing Prati Madhyama and Sadharana Gandhara. Further, I have knowingly accepted a range reduction effectively, which I find is good enough for almost all kritis. Another feature is that I play generally on B-flat which is a convenient key on the Saxophone. All the salient features of the Saxophone as well as the modifications made by me will be demonstrated during the conference to show how the gamaka-s and other nuances peculiar to Carnatic music can be effectively produced.


Posted on July 30, 2002

Related links: More about Wind and other instruments
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