Song of Surrender

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Pocket guide to Carnatic music

The violin
 
One of the major legacies of the British Empire in India has been the gift of western music, starting mainly with church music and military and police bands. It was through this route that Indian musicians started playing western instruments, first as members of western music orchestras or bands, and later as innovators who borrowed some of these instruments such as the violin and the clarionet for use in Indian music.

Baluswami Dikshitar (1786 – 1859), musician, scholar, composer and a brother of the great vaggeyakara Muthuswami Dikshitar, introduced the western violin to Carnatic music, learning it from a European.
 
Baluswami Dikshitar, who could also play the veena, sitar and mridangam, adapted the violin to the Carnatic style, playing it seated on the floor, cross-legged and cradling it between his ankle and chin. That it could produce the nuances of gamakas, the continuity across microtones that distinguishes Carnatic music from other forms, encouraged Dikshitar, and generations of musicians after him to invest a western instrument in concept and construction a distinctly Indian character.
 
The Carnatic violin, like other Carnatic stringed instruments, applies modal tuning that changes with the pitch (sruti) that is constant for a concert. The strings are tuned to the panchamam and the shadjam and their lower-octave counterparts.

By the end of the 19th century, the violin had become the prime instrument accompanying vocal music in a concert. It continues to be so. With the arrival of the next generation of violin virtuosos in the early 20th century – Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu, Tirukkodikaval Krishna Iyer and T. Chowdiah, to name a few –the violin, or fiddle as most musicians here used to call it, also began to make its presence felt as a solo instrument.
 
The quite amazing violin techniques in vogue today—in particular that of playing it to closely resemble the human voice (the gayaki style of violin playing) as opposed to the earlier manner of playing relatively discrete notes—were largely developed by the great artists of the 20th century, at least three of whom are still with us: T.N. Krishnan, Lalgudi G. Jayaraman, and M.S. Gopalakrishnan. They are musicians of contrasting styles and temperaments, but all of them are of the highest calibre and pedigree.

T.N. Krishnan, a child prodigy, learnt his art from his father Tripunitura Narayana Iyer, a martinet of a teacher. Krishnan’s talent was burnished by long association with the great vocal masters of the era. He is known for his ability to present the most complex nuances of Carnatic music with disarming simplicity, and his strong bowing technique that produces ringing clarity and purity of sound.
 
Lalgudi G. Jayaraman, musician, teacher and composer par excellence, is another violin great of impeccable pedigree. The son of Lalgudi Gopala Iyer, a masterful figure of his time, for whom music was a mission, he built on his father’s meticulous, regimented training, through the perfection of his own quite extraordinary creative instincts. The perfect accompanist of his era, Lalgudi in time developed an altogether more flowing, lilting style.
 
M.S. Gopalakrishnan, legatee of yet another violin tradition handed down from father to son, is proficient in both Carnatic and Hindustani music. He too learnt his art from a strict guru who was also his father. Parur Sundaram Iyer was an extraordinary pathbreaker who introduced the violin to Hindustani music. MSG is known to play long passages on the same string, essaying intricate passages of beauty with accuracy.
 
Senior violinists like M. Chandrasekharan and V.V. Subrahmanyan have built upon these techniques to evolve their own styles.

The Carnatic violin continues to evolve, with its electric counterpart and a double-headed version making appearances at classical concerts. Contact microphones are changing the way the violin sounds.

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