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Strings, Winds & Beats – The Violin

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India has so much variety, and as is said, unity in diversity. Educational values, religion, caste, political ideology, sport, language, dialects, folk traditions and more.

Its music too. The genres are multiple – film music, Hindustani classical, Carnatic, devotional, regional, fusion, Indipop indie, party dance. One binding factor being the musical instruments we use. And we are talking of the natural form, and not the synthesised ones.

Indian musical instruments make up for an ocean. Like western instruments they fall in the same categories – string, wind, keyed, percussion. Some originate from Europe, some from the Middle East, some from within our borders. It’s a fascinating subject and that is the purpose of this series.

Many would have expected me to begin with the sitar or tabla, thanks mainly to the efforts of Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Zakir Hussain. There have been others spreading the reach of the sarod, bamboo flute known as bansuri, santoor, shehnai, mridangam, sarangi, et al. So where to start?

 

I decided to begin with the violin, mainly because it is one instrument which is used across cultures globally. Abroad, it’s played a crucial role in western classical music, having been used prominently in symphonies, concertos, string quartets and solo recitals. It’s also used in country music, folk, new age and world music, and to a lesser extent, in jazz and rock. Names like Niccolo Paganini, Yehudi Menuhin, Jascha Heifetz, David Oistrakh, Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, Stephane Grappelli, Jean-Luc Ponty, Jerry Goodman of Mahavishnu Orchestra, David Cross of King Crimson, Regina Carter, Nigel Kennedy, Joshua Bell, Karen Briggs, Alison Krauss, Boyd Tinsley of Dave Matthews Band and Vanessa-Mae, to name a few, have made a mark across different western genres.

In India, the violin, which is an adaptation of the western model, finds a very prominent place in the south Indian classical Carnatic tradition, which has a large number of talented musicians. It is also used in north Indian classical music, known as Hindustani music, and in Indian film music, folk music and Indo-jazz fusion.

This article will look at the violin in different genres of Indian music, and to listen to the names mentioned, one can always take the help of YouTube. By and large, I will make only a basic reference to technicalities of playing, as the main idea is to create basic awareness of various styles and performers. And while I have named quite a few performers and tried to cover the main names in each genre, the lists mentioned are by no means exhaustive or complete.

Carnatic music: Though the basic instrument is the same, the Carnatic musician’s position, grip and manner of fingering is different from his western classical counterpart. The musician sits on the stage, and holds the violin perpendicular to the chest, with the scroll (end of the neck) pointing downwards.

Carnatic music

 

In Carnatic music, the violin is used both as a solo instrument or as an accompaniment to a vocalist.

When played as a solo instrument, the musician adapts the compositions, which are originally written for vocals and are based on raags, the melodic modes used in Indian classical music. He is normally accompanied by the tambura (a stringed instrument providing a drone sound) and percussion instruments like the mridangam (a two-sided drum), a ghatam (which resembles a pot) and kanjira (which is held in one hand and played with the other).

While accompanying a vocalist, the violinist usually plays phrases to coordinate with the singer. Here, he must have perfect mastery over the composition, and also an individual style to embellish the solo passages.

Among the violinists, Baluswami Dikshitar, brother of famous composer Muthuswamy Dikshitar, is believed to have introduced the instrument to Carnatic music. The early trendsetters included T Chowdiah, Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu, V Lakshminarayana and Parur Sundaram Iyer.

From the 1950s onwards, artistes like Lalgudi Jayaraman, T.N. Krishnan, Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan, and brothers M.S. Anantharaman and M.S. Gopalakrishnan spread the instrument’s popularity. T.V. Gopalakrishnan made a mark as a vocalist, violinist and mridangam player, besides teaching the great music directors Ilaiyaraaja and A.R. Rahman, saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath and percussionist Sivamani.

From the 1970s, L. Subramnaniam and L. Shankar helped popularise Carnatic music in the West, by collaborating with foreign artistes. Yet, they continued to play traditional Carnatic music. Besides his Carnatic recitals, Mysore Manjunath is known for his collaborations with Hindustani musicians.

Those performing regularly today include A. Kanyakumari, Nagai Muralidharan, Lalgudi G.J.R. Krishnan and Lalgudi Vijayalakshmi (son and daughter of Lalgudi Jayaraman), M. Narmadha (daughter of M.S. Gopalakrishnan), the brothers’ duo of Kumaresh and Ganesh, Jyotsna Srikanth, Viji Krishnan and Sriram Krishnan (children of T.N. Krishnan) and Vittal Ramamurthy. As an accompanist, S. Varadarajan and Akkarai Subhalakshmi are a class of their own.

Hindustani music: Compared to Carnatic music, Hindustani music finds lesser use of the violin. Yet, there have been some notable performers, both solo and as accompanists.

Hindustani music

 

Hindustani compositions in different ragas could be written either for voice and adapted, or could be primarily for the instrument. Here too, the performer sits on the stage, though the grip and technique is different from the Carnatic practitioner.

The legendary multi-instrumentalist Baba Alauddin Khan was a master at the Hindustani violin. Other luminaries include Gajananrao Joshi, who also made a mark as a vocalist, V.G. Jog, D.K. Datar and N. Rajam, sister of Carnatic genius T N. Krishnan. The great M S. Gopalakrishnan also practised Hindustani violin successfully. Minoti Khaund, disciple of V.G. Jog, has had great admiration in north-east India.

Those practising today include Sangeeta Shankar (Rajam’s daughter), Kala Ramnath, Milind Raikar and Johar Ali Khan. Though Hindustani vocalists normally prefer accompaniment from a harmonium or sarangi, some use the violin too. Pandit Jasraj is often assisted by Kala Ramnath and Kishori Amonkar was often accompanied by Milind Raikar.

Fusion: The violin, specially the Carnatic style, has been used in many projects fusing Indian music with jazz, western classical and popular music.

Yehudi Menuhin, Stephane Grappelli

 

Subramaniam collaborated with a range of western artistes like violinists Stephane Grappelli, Yehudi Menuhin and Jean-Luc Ponty, flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal, keyboardists Herbie Hancock and Joe Sample, and bassist Stanley Clarke. His son Ambi Subramanian has been a torchbearer who is also much into teaching youngsters. Sangeeta Shankar’s daughters (N. Rajam’s grand-daughters) Ragini and Nandini Shankar are taking both Hindustani and fusion forward. Mumbai-based Narayan Raman is another talent in the field.

In the 1970s, violinist L. Shankar was an integral part of fusion supergroup Shakti, along with guitarist John McLaughlin, tabla wizard Zakir Hussain and ghatam maestro Vikku Vinayakram. He also created a custom-made double violin. Later, besides many projects with violinist Gingger, he has played with greats like Peter Gabriel, Sting, Elton John, Frank Zappa, Lou Reed and Eric Clapton.

Other genres: The violin is also played in film music, popular non-film music and Indian folk music.

Most of the older music directors from Naushad and Shankar-Jaikishen to S.D. Burman and Salil Chowdhury used the instrument in compositions, primarily in the large orchestras that were in vogue those days. One of the great film violinists those days was Anthony Gonsalves. Music directors R.D. Burman, Kalyanji-Anandji and Laxmikant-Pyarelal continued the trend, with Pyarelal himself being an accomplished violinist who composed the legendary violin part in ‘Ek Pyar Ka Nagma Hai’ in Shor.. Other violinists from the Hindi film industry are Uttam Singh and Amar Haldipur, who have made a name as music arrangers, and Surendra Singh. Jatin-Lalit used the instrument prominently in Mohabbatein.

In the south, film music directors like Ilaiyaraaja and L. Vaidyanathan have used the violin extensively, often with symphonic arrangements. V.S. Narasimhan played memorable tunes with Ilaiyaraaja back in the 1980s.

Deepak Pandit, Sunita Khaund Bhuyan and Sharat Chandra Srivastava

 

Ghazal artistes Jagjit Singh and Pankaj Udhas have used the instrument as accompaniment, though here, the emphasis is mainly on the singer. Deepak Pandit is one violinist who has played with ghazal stars and in film music, besides releasing the album ‘Miracle’ some six years ago. Even today, his touch and feel are perfect, and he collaborated with Udhas on the Ghazal Symphony concert two years ago.

Fusion band Swarathma has a talented violinist in Sanjeev Nayak. Sharat Chandra Srivastava, who plays for the band Mrigya and has guested for the group Parikrama, has also recorded Indian versions of popular western classical tunes. Then, there’s Sankarshan Kini of the acoustic group Whirling Kalapas, who plays violin, mandolin and percussion.

On the folk front, violinist Sunita Bhuyan has blended music from the north-east Indian state of Assam with classical and rock styles on her album ‘Bihu Strings’. She is a prolific artiste today, and has even collaborated with Scottish musicians, besides doing numerous shows across India. Folk musicians from various states of India – Rajasthan, Gujarat and Punjab specially, use the instrument and its adaptations too.

Naturally, the violin has had a major role in Indian music overall. Unlike many instruments which are suited to specific genres, it has a pan-India appeal, and can easily be grasped by global audiences. But that’s the beauty of the violin, which fits into any kind of music.

Now a teaser, while you check some of these names on YouTube. Will recommend the album ‘Conversations’ by L. Subramaniam and Stephane Grappeli or any album by Lalgudi Jayaraman or N. Rajam or the tune ‘Face To Face’ by Shakti to begin with. In the next part, we move on to the sitar. That’s another delightful story.

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Narendra Kusnur

Author: Narendra Kusnur

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