HAVING completed 50 articles in my blog, I thought the time was right to start a monthly series on Indian musical instruments. The idea is two-fold: one, to make Indian readers aware of certain artistes they may not have heard before, and two, to expose those who haven’t really followed Indian music, specially those staying abroad, to the melodic or rhythmic beauty that various instruments offer.
The first question, of course, was: Which instrument to begin with? Initial thoughts focused on the stringed instrument sitar, because of its popularity in the West, thanks mainly to the efforts of Ravi Shankar. Then, I thought of the percussion instrument tabla, because of the glamour and genius of Zakir Hussain, who’s very popular both in India and abroad.
However, 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, Karen Briggs, Alison Krauss, Boyd Tinsley of Dave Matthews Band and Vanessa-Mae, to name a few, have made a mark across different 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 boasts of 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 blog 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.
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 (picture on right), TN Krishnan, Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan, and brothers MS Anantharaman and MS Gopalakrishnan (picture on left) spread the instrument’s popularity. TV Gopalakrishnan made a mark as a vocalist, violinist and mridangam player, besides teaching the great music directors Ilayaraja and AR 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 GJR Krishnan and Lalgudi Vijayalakshmi (son and daughter of Lalgudi Jayaraman), M Narmadha (daughter of MS Gopalakrishnan), the brothers’ duo of Kumaresh and Ganesh, Jyotna Srikanth, Viji Krishnan and Sriram Krishnan (children of TN Krishnan) and Vittal Ramamurthy. As an accompanist, S Varadarajan is a class of his 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 compositions in different raags 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 (see earlier blog: India’s most versatile classical musician). Other luminaries include Gajananrao Joshi, who also made a mark as a vocalist, VG Jog, DK Datar and N Rajam, sister of Carnatic genius TN Krishnan. The great MS Gopalakrishnan also practised Hindustani violin successfully.
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 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.
L 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 is one of the talents to watch out for.
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 SD 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. RD Burman, Kalyanji-Anandji and Laxmikant-Pyarelal continued the trend, with Pyarelal himself being an accomplished violinist. Other violinists from the Hindi film industry are Uttam Singh and Amar Haldipur, who have made a name as music arrangers, and Surendra Singh.
In the south, film music directors like Ilayaraja and L Vaidyanathan have used the violin extensively. Ghazal artistes like 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’.
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’. Folk music from various states of India uses the instrument 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.