Song of Surrender

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Is violin accompaniment a nuisance?

Random Notes

By V Ramnarayan

"Give me an honest answer. Do you find the violin alapana response to the vocalist in a concert a nuisance?" a senior musician whispered into my ear during a recent concert. I could not give him a lucid answer as I was too close to the stage to carry on a conversation, something I have been criticising for years.  He was probably right when it came to indifferent or incompetent alapana essays by accompanists, but I have many times found the violin alapana an extremely fulfilling offering. Sometimes arriving just after the vocalist  has completed a raga alapana, I have been overwhelmed by the magic of the soulful, perfectly sruti-aligned music rendered by the violinist. On such occasions, I do not want the violin playing to end at all, until of course the artist moves into top speed, and the reverie ends. While in the past, such a divine atmosphere was created by such greats of the day as TN Krishnan, Lalgudi G Jayaraman, MS Gopalakrishnan and VV Subramanian, the tradition has been kept alive by the likes of S Varadarajan, RK Shriramkumar, Sriram Parasuram (he rarely 'accompanies' any more), Ranjani and Gayatri before they turned vocalists, Hemalatha and Akkarai Subhalakshmi. Most of these accomplished artists are perfectly capable of outshining the main artist, but restrain themselves following  the best practice of pakkavadya dharmam. Yes, I can say with confidence that I find raga alapana by the accompanying violin as fulfilling if not more so than that by the vocalist. That may be because I often choose the concerts I attend on the basis of the accompanists of the day as much as the main performer.

However the main thrust of the question the vidwan asked me was perhaps on the subordinate role allotted to the accompanist violin in concerts and the consequent fall in the standard of violin playing overall. One cannot argue with that viewpoint. There is much substandard violin playing, an alarming trend in the recent past.

The question also reminded me of an informal survey Sruti conducted among vocalists in the early 1980s. Many artists were then complaining of the damage violinists were doing to their manodharma by their lack of coordination and their creative excesses. We at Sruti then asked a few vocalists if they would be prepared to perform without violin accompaniment. Most of the interviewees said they were ready to do so, but refused to be quoted in print. One of them, however, agreed, and Sruti published a short interview with him, leading to widespread anger against the artist in the violin community. He apparently lost a few concert opportunities as a result of the interview.

Unfortunately I happened to be the author of the offending interview, though it could be said in my defence that I asked the musician to sleep over the matter and only then confirm to me that we could go ahead with publishing the interview. I did not know that it would appear in solitary splendour, as none of the other vidwans and vidushis, interviewed by other correspondents, gave their consent.

The vidwan confronted me at a wedding reception soon after, and gave me a dressing down in public view, accusing me of fabricating the interview. Displaying a measure of restraint I did not know I was capable of, I kept my cool and did not retaliate. Next morning, I went to the musician's home and played the recording of the interview for him and asked him if he still maintained his stand that I was a cheat.  He promptly apologised and made all the right noises. I was too young and inexperienced to insist on a public apology, but that is what he owed me, having shouted at me in the presence of many witnesses.­­­

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