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 three 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. Spread over two days, it highlighted in detail the various stringed instruments used in Carnatic music. Whereas the first day was dedicated to string instruments of Indian origin, like the Vina, Chitravina etc, the second day covered instruments of western origin that have been successfully adopted in Carnatic music (Violin, Guitar, Mandolin etc). The participants included top-notch instrumentalists. Wherever possible, different schools and styles were also featured. The conferences in 2000 and 2001 covered Wind instruments and Percussion instruments respectively.

In the coming weeks, Carnatica will bring you the papers presented by the participants at these Conferences.





- By N Ravikiran


The Chitravina is one of the most beautiful musical instruments in the world today. Also referred to as Gotuvadyam, it is a twenty-one stringed fretless Indian lute. It has a hollow stem made of resonant wood, about thirty two inches long and four inches wide. It has a flat top and is set on two chambers; the main sound chamber is made out of wood and a secondary resonator is made of a gourd. It contains six melody strings and three secondary strings for maintaining drone. The remaining strings are sympathetic and run parallel to and below the melody strings.

A couple of plectrums on the fingers of the right hand are used to pluck the six main melody strings; a cylindrical block, made out of ebony, is glided over them with the left hand (I have replaced this with the smoother Teflon).


The smooth singing tone of Chitravina is probably its most unique feature. As the New York Times described, the Chitravina has '...infinite capacity for micro-tonal shadings reminiscent of the human voice' . This is not only because of its fretless nature but also because of its unique string arrangement. The Chitravina is a delicate, beautiful instrument , which in the hands of a master, can express all the nuances of Carnatic vocal and instrumental music. In recent times, it has proved its versatility as a major world instrument in fusion crossover concerts too.

The Chitravina, probably one of the oldest instruments in the world, is comparatively rare, but its popularity is steadily increasing. The major credit for its respectable stature should be given to stalwarts like Tiruvadaimarudur Sakha Rama Rao , Gotuvadyam Narayana Iyengar, Budalur Krishnamoorti Sastri, Gotuvadyam Narasimhan etc. By Gods grace , I have had the honour and good fortune to share the beauty and greatness of his instrument with people all over the world. 


The earliest reference to Chitravina is in Bharata's Natya Sastra , more than 3000 years ago. It was referred to as a seven stringed instrument played with fingers and a cylindrical device (kona) . The Natya Sastra also refers to a similar instrument with 9 strings, Vipanchi Vina.

The next main treatise, Sangeeta Ratnakara by Sarangadeva, written a few centuries later also refers to both instruments in exactly the same manner , suggesting that there was no real change in between.

The Chitravina might have, since then, undergone many modifications but very little of it has been documented clearly. In all probability, the instrument really was pretty dormant as fretted instruments held sway for many centuries. The reasons for this are not difficult to fathom.

The advantage of an instrument with frets is that the margin of error is considerably reduced as the notes are fixed by means of the frets and the artiste can place fingers almost anywhere between two frets and get the right note. Thus, an artiste playing an instrument like the Vina, Sitar and Guitar has at least a few centimetres to an inch and more to play the note correctly.

On the other hand, an artiste playing fretless instruments, especially with a slide like Chitravina, Vichitravina and Slide Guitars like the Mohan Vina has got to be precise by micrometers in order to hit the right note. Even the minutest deviation from the only place will lead to a false note, which can be disastrous. Thus, a fretless instrument is infinitely more challenging than an instrument with frets. So man gradually developed various fretted instruments and since these possessed obvious advantages over fretless ones, the Chitravina may have died a natural death.


Until Srinivasa Rao came along, about 150 years back, the Chitravina was out of vogue. Srinivasa Rao was an ardent music lover and an amateur artiste himself and he started experimenting with a slide on the Tanpura. He loved what he heard and got pretty serious about it. It was his habit to play almost every afternoon with this and his son Sakha Rama Rao was drawn to this since his childhood. He saw the tremendous potential this type of instrument had and decided to give it a better shape, design and stature.

Tiruvidaimarudur Sakha Rama Rao

Sakha Rama Rao

With his high intelligence, analytical approach and hardwork, he was able to re-design this instrument like the 24-fretted Vina, with 7 strings. Thus, from a distance, his instrument looked like a Vina without frets. It had 4 strings on the top and 3 in the side for drone and rhythm.

He practised regularly for hours on end and started performing on this occasionally, delighting music lovers wherever he went. Since he was not aware of the history of the instrument, he gave it a new name - Gotuvadyam. He casually referred to the slide as Gotu and vadyam (in Sanskrit and many other languages) means instrument. Thus Gotuvadyam was a very clear and scientific name for an instrument played with a slide , according to Sakha Rama Rao. (Many years later , I went into the origins of this instrument and restored the original name.)

Sakha Rama Rao was a musicians' musician and trained many a great artiste like Gotuvadyam Narayana Iyengar (my grandfather) and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. Soon there were many others who started to play Gotuvadyam at various levels.
Gotuvadyam Narayana Iyengar

The next path blazer in this instrument was Narayana Iyengar who was a born genius. His innovations in this instrument were responsible for taking it tremendous heights and most of those innovations have come to stay. He changed the string arrangements almost totally, giving it a unique tonal depth, hitherto never heard before. A performer of the highest order and tremendous popularity , he still found time and energy to constantly refine and improve this instrument all through his life. 

He experimented ceaselessly and added 3 more strings to the 4 main strings and also brought in 12 resonance strings in a special layer below the main strings. Now the instrument had 22 strings (which has since become 21 as one of the 7 main strings have been discarded later on by Chitravina Narasimhan , another great musician and son of Narayana Iyengar).

Gotuvadyam Narayana Iyengar

The tuning of the main strings is very unique in Chitravina as it uses an arrangement of 3 tonic notes (Sa) plucked simultaneously, one of which is in an octave lower than the other two; 2 notes in the fifth perfect (Pa), again in two octaves; and 1 string which is tuned to the lower octave tonic (Sa) . This gives a wonderful singing quality. This particular tuning of octave strings was emulated by violin maestro Chowdiah who had 7 to 19 strings on his violin.  The real edge of the fretless instrument was highlighted by Narayana Iyengar, who proved that a fretless instrument could best emulate the vocal (gayaki) style because of the almost total continuity that enables infinite micro- tones to be rendered with accuracy and impact. Thus, Narayana Iyengar , literally made his instrument sing. But he was also a great artiste who could bring to face the instrumental delights like Tanam (Jod and Jhala) .

His resonance strings are again very unique . He arranged them in such a way as to give a built in Tanpura effect. Also the use of the jivalam (a small thread on the bridge which contributes to a qualitative and quantitative enhancement of the tone) for each of the 12 resonance strings made it vibrate much more steadily when music was played on top. This in turn added to the overall richness of the tone of the Chitravina.

Narayana Iyengar also designed the instrument very efficiently with a fine tuning provision for each of the 21/22 strings . The Chitravina is one of the very few instruments in the world (with more than 20 strings) and probably the only one in India, which has such fine tuning provision for each of its 21 strings.

Narayana Iyengar also standardized the pitch , the types of strings and many other things on the instrument. His innovations and overall contribution to the growth of Chitravina is unparalleled.

Chitravina Narasimhan

Son and disciple of Narayana Iyengar, Narasimhan continued on the lines of his father but also bought in his own mind when it came to modification of string arrangements, the length of the slide and other such minute details. His other great contribution was to spread the name and fame of instrument among many other fellow musicians.

I was so fascinated with the instrument from the earliest times I can remember . I took to this instrument seriously from the age of 4 or 5 and endeavored to play everything that my father Chitravina Narasimhan taught me to sing. He also saw my interest in Chitravina and taught me many instrumental techniques too. This combination of vocal and instrumental styles have enabled me to evolve a bani of my own.

I was interested in improving the tonal quality and purity of the instrument by using some other medium for the slide. I had been trying different materials including steel and glass and was none too happy with the results. In 1989, a music-lover in USA, Mr. Varadarajan , suggested Teflon as probably the smoothest material known to man. He in fact , went further and actually got me a sample piece of it and I have used it effectively in my Chitravina since 1989. Its almost frictionless surface brings out a very pure tone eliminating string slide noises which are heard when slides made of ebony, steel, stone or bison horn are used. In fact, some western slide guitarists have been so impressed with Teflon they too have started using it in place of their usual steel or plastic slides.

My firm belief that the Chitravina can 'sing' has been justified, and today the Chitravina is acknowledged as one of the most versatile and appealing instruments.

Other stalwarts of this instrument include Sangeeta Kalanidhi Budalur Krishnamoorti Sastri , Mannargudi Savitri Ammal, A Narayana Iyer, M V Varahaswami, Gayatri Kassabaum and Allam Koteeswara Rao. Of these, Budalur Krishnamoorti Shastri, an outstanding vocalist as well, was steadfast in sticking to the tuning and string arrangement of the Vina save for an extra string he added at the top, but only to rest his fingers on. He was not keen on the sympathetic resonance strings at all and many of his disciples still follow his pattern.

There is a school of thought in the USA that it was the Chitravina that inspired the Hawaiians to play the guitar with a 'slide' (which in turn probably influenced the Blues singers in the Mississippi delta later on ). Appropriately, this possible transmigration came a full circle in some of my recent collaborations with well-known international Blues singers and Hawaiians guitarists!

The demand for Chitravina has grown tremendously among music lovers and students. With the emergence of promising youngsters like Chitravina Ganesh, the future of Chitravina looks immensely bright.


Related links: Other articles from the Chembur Conference
                     Musical Expressions