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 G J R Krishnan


The Violin that we see today is a triumphant symbol of centuries of history, evolution, research and man's quest for perfection in simulating the human voice. The bow and the violin, though inseparable now, have independent histories of their own and interestingly, India has made its contribution to each of the above in some way.

The Bow:

The Violin indisputably owes its indomitable position to the bow. The bow, as acknowledged by Western musicologists, is the contribution of Hindustan. Engel (1874) has observed that bowling existed in India as far back as 2000 years ago. Sanskrit scholars inform that names for the bow, like Kona, Garika and Parivada existed in Sanskrit and are at least 1500 to 2000 years old. Evidence is also available of the fact that the musical bow was used in South Africa and China. The latter played on the Chinese fiddle or the Hu-ch'n.

Precursor to the Violin:

According to Sonnerat (1782), a French scholar, a bowed instrument by name Ravanastron existed in India about 5000 years ago. The Ravanastron, in its simplest form, consisted of a long cylindrical block of wood covered with a skin. It had 2 strings and was played with a curved bow. Ravanastron is considered to be the invention of Ravana and is still played by Buddhist monks. The street singing mendicants of Gujarat are said to have sung with the accompaniment of Ravan-hath (Ravanahastaka).  

Evidence in ancient sculptures:

The oldest part of Nataraja temple at Chidambaram has figures of musicians. One of the figures in the panel plays a bowed instrument resembling the violin. The sound box shaft and neck of the instrument can be distinctly seen. The difference from the modern violin is that the ribs are not marked out and the shape of the sound holes is not the same. The slides are represented by a smooth curve.

Another example of a similar instrument in the sculptures is found in Agastiswaram temple at Tirumukkoodai, near Mysore. The probable dating of the sculptures would be about 12th century AD.

The Mallikarjuna temple at Vijayawada carries a sculpture portraying an instrument played with a bow amidst other musicians playing flutes, drums and cymbals as they accompany a 'Kolattam' dance by a group of women.

Music Treatises:

Music treatises like the Sangeeta Ratnakara speak of the Pinakavina played by a bow, and also another similar instrument by name Nissanka Vina. Encyclopaedia Britannica talks of Rebec, a bowed instrument of the early middle ages and which is referred to as the predecessor to Viol. Viol again is the immediate predecessor to the Violin.  

To sum up, the Ravanastron, like Buddhism, though of Indian origin, left India and migrated to other countries. In the expert hands of instrument makers it evolved through different shapes and names, until it eventually reached a form closely resembling the violin under the name of the 'Viol' from which emerged the violin.

Entry into South India:

About 200 years ago, during the British rule over India, the Violin first made its entry into the annals of South Indian classical music, i.e., Carnatic music, chiefly through four persons. They were Varahappa Iyer, Balaswami Dikshitar, Vadivelu and Krishnaswami Bhagavatar.

Varahappa Iyer, a Minister of the Tanjavur Maratha Court was a highly placed official well-versed in English who had an in-depth knowledge of music. On his visit to the British Governor's residence in Madras, he had the occasion to see the various western instruments in his collection. His close friendship with the Governor enabled him to try them out. Although he was initially awestruck at the range (spanning 7 octaves) of the piano, he instinctively realized that it was the Violin that was eminently adaptable to our system of music. A brief period of practice increased his familiarity with the instrument to the extent that the Governor gifted it to him. With time, he became proficient enough to provide accompaniment to vocal music. In recognition of his meritorious service, a lane in Tanjavur has been named after him.

Balaswami Dikshitar (1786-1859), son of Ramaswami Dikshitar and brother of Muthuswami Dikshitar was lived at Manali. The Dikshitar family was patronised by Manali Muthukrishna Mudaliar (Dubash (i.e., interpreter) to the British Governor, Pigot). Mudaliar introduced Balaswami Dikshitar to western music at the performance of the European Band attached to the East India Company. Dikshitar learnt to play the western violin for three years. Later he began trying out Carnatic music on the violin and so developed his skills and playing technique that he was appointed State Vidwan of Ettayapuram in 1824.

Vadivelu (1810-1845), the youngest of the Tanjavur Quartette (all of whom were students of Muthuswami Dikshitar ) was a composer and vocalist. He was the Asthana Vidwan at Travancore during Swati Tirunal's (1813-1847) reign. The Maharaja encouraged Vadivelu to take up playing the Violin. Suitably impressed, he presented an ivory violin to Vadivelu in 1834. Vadivelu is credited with introducing short passages on the Violin for classical dance performances.

Krishnaswami Bhagavatar was the son of Walajapet Venkataramana Bhagavatar. Both father and son were two of the chief disciples of Tyagaraja. Believed to be highly proficient, Krishnaswami Bhagavatar is said to have had the honour of providing violin accompaniment to Tyagaraja at his Bhajana singing. On other occasions Krishnaswami Bhagavatar himself used to sing along as he played, like the Vainikas of his time. His disciples include fiddle Munuswami Appa of Bangalore, guru of Bangalore Nagaratnamma who was an ardent devotee of Tyagaraja.

Indian musical instruments were classified into five classes of which Tara, or stringed instrument, played with the bow is of relevance. In those days, though bowed instruments like Ek tar, Dilruba and Esraj were prevalent, only instruments like Flute, Sarangi, Vil-yazh and Vina were used in South India to provide support to the voice. The timbre, potentiality of the violin and its ability to blend with the voice gave the instrument an edge over all other instruments as the most ideal accompanying instrument. After the introduction of Violin by Balaswami Dikshitar and others, the efforts of the next generation of violinists like Tanjavur Sivaramakrishna Iyer, Annaswamy Sastri (grandson of Syama Sastri), Fiddle Subbarayar etc helped the role of the violin to grow further. Gradually the violin took precedence over all the others as the main melodic accompanying instrument to vocal music and has come to stay.

Indianisation of the instrument:

The violin has been Indianised in many ways to achieve the end - produce South Indian classical music.

The Indian classical violinist's playing posture is different from that of his western counterpart. The western violinist stands with his feet at a right angle and holds the violin between the left collarbone and chin, the instrument at a perpendicular slant to the body. The left hand provides the other support to the instrument. The South Indian violinist sits cross-legged on the floor and balances the instrument between his chest and the ankle-bone of his right foot, on which rests the scroll of the violin. This posture facilitates the free movement of the left hand along the fingerboard, particularly in producing the gamakas (graces) integral to the Carnatic mode. It also necessitated appropriate changes in bowing technique, the changes being duly made.

In the western system, the 4 strings are tuned in the order E A D G from right to left, each 5 tones apart. However in the Carnatic system, the tuning is not absolute but relative. Initially the tuning was in the order of Sa Pa Sa Pa from right to left (higher octave to lower octave). Annaswami Sastri is said to have followed this mode. Subsequently the tuning was changed to Pa Sa Pa Sa - the first two strings from the right aligned to the middle octave and the third and fourth to the lower octaves.

Carnatic music system revolves around vocal music. Therefore, any instrument with unique quality can at best complement vocal music. The violin because of its unique qualities has earned its place as an accompanying instrument and also as a solo instrument. The instrument can be tuned to any pitch that the vocalist chooses. The bow lends continuity to the instrument, a necessary ingredient for vocal music. The tonal quality and the volume that it produces enable it to blend with the human voice. The area of operation is small thus making it possible to play any speed to match the vocalist with ease. Its range includes three octaves which is the normal range for a good vocalist. It can reproduce all subtle nuances, graces (gamakas), modulations and all the microtones (srutis) which characterise our music. It can paint any musical phrase evoked by any other instrument. The phenomenal potentialities of the violin enable it to approximate the human voice very closely. In other words, it can kindle the bhava that the voice produces with the same intensity. So it has inspired and helped the vocalist and other instrumentalists. All these qualities have earned the violin the place that it deserves and enjoys.

It must be noted that these are additional merits in comparison to other instruments. So over the years, apart from being an accompanying instrument, the violin has emerged as a solo instrument in the hands of virtuosos, in no less measure than when compared to any other solo instrument.

Violin in the 19th century:

It is well known that Carnatic music became richer in content and variety in the 19th century owing to the compositions of the Trinity - Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri. This period also witnessed the culmination of the structure of the compositions. Earlier on, the Kanni format (Shazas/Couplets) permitted variation only in text (lyrics) and not in tune. Subsequently, compositions had a Pallavi followed by one or more Charanams where the tunes were repetitive, except for the Pallavi.

Pallavi, Anupallavi, Charanam(s) form of composition, though in vogue in the 16th century reached perfection in the hands of Tyagaraja who explored it fully. This essentially enabled the listener to differentiate musically between each section of the composition, i.e., Pallavi, Anupallavi and Charanam. This perhaps was the biggest milestone in the history of instrumental music, paving way for instrumental solos.

As seen earlier, the violin (known as "fiddle" then) entered the Carnatic music scenario during the 19th century and by the end of the century earned its place as an accompanying instrument. Violins that were played during this period were basically what came through the immigrants from Britain and the rest of Europe. 

Violin in the 20th century:

The violin during the early 20th century established itself as an indispensable accompanying instrument thanks to stalwarts like Tirukkodikaval Krishna Iyer (1854-1912), Valadi Radhakrishnan Iyer (1840-1908), Malaikkottai Govindasami Pillai (1878-1931), Rajamanickam Pillai (1898-1970), Papa Venkatamaiah (1901-1972) and others.

Basically music concerts till the 1940s were performed without the aid of microphones. Vocal music, during this period also saw many a great musician. The violinist as an accompanist had to meet the improving standards of vocal music within the limited facilities and he did his job creditably well. With recording facilities not being available in the first quarter of the century, the achievements of some of the above-mentioned can be collected only through newspaper reviews and the word-of-mouth information given by the disciples, family members and listeners of these artistes. The violin owes its present day stature to all these artistes and it will be appropriate to mention the contributions made by them.

Tirukkodikaval Krishna Iyer (1854-1912): He was a greatly respected accompanist and a soloist. Thanks to his efforts, the violin gained status and emerged as a solo instrument even during his times. He is said to have implemented the technique of "Izhai vasippu" (ascending and descending glides) using a single finger. He could play an Ata tala Varnam on a single string. His guru Sattanur Panchanada Iyer was considered to be the greatest exponent of Tanam in the earlier century. Krishna Iyer's Tanam playing was greatly inspired by him.

Valadi Radhakrishna Iyer (1840-1908): He was a good violinist, having accompanied stalwarts like Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer and Patnam Subramanya Iyer and was also a soloist. It was he who laid the foundation for violin in the Lalgudi family and this tradition has continued for the next three successive generations.

Malaikkottai Govindasami Pillai (1878-1931): He was an eminent accompanist and soloist and is said to have bought in the innovation of the full-bowing technique . His rendering of Tanam using the full bow with pressure and accents was a treat to the ears. Visually too, he presented a unruffled aesthetic demeanour with the composure of a yogi transported by the 'nada' he produced. Once Tiruvkodikkaval Krishna Iyer reportedly complimented Govindasami Pillai's technique as being one of 'lavagha' (ease).

Dwaram Venkatasami Naidu (1893-1964): His style of playing was marked by suddha swaras (plain notes) and his masterly bowing technique enabled him to produce a rich body of sound. He incorporated ideas from Western and Hindustani styles without distorting the Carnatic idiom. He earned special kudos when he stopped accompanying others and established himself as a soloist with a style of his own.

Mysore T Chowdiah (1895-1967): He was a successful accompanist and a soloist. His accompaniment enhanced the quality of the concert and assured its success.  He is credited with having introduced the 7-stringed violin. Mikeless concerts and vocalists with powerful voices like Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar reigning centre-stage necessitated this innovation to give the violin additional volume and audibility. In this violin, the first, second and third strings each (from right to left) had a corresponding parallel string tuned to the respective lower octaves. This involved applying greater pressure on the fingers of the left hand and also firmer bowing, thereby restricting the incidence of gamakas. Perhaps this was the reason why this violin was not in continued usage after V Sethuramiah.

Kumbhakonam Rajamanickam Pillai (1898-1970):  His style was chaste, dignified and true to tradition. His use of gamaka was noteworthy. He was a much sought-after accompanist. His pleasing personality and mellow temperament enabled him to create an instant rapport with artistes and audiences alike.

Papa Venkatramiah (1901-1972): He was a polished accompanist and a good soloist. His style was developed along the lines of vocal music. He was known for his effective use of the Mandra string. Like his guru Govindasami Pillai, he specialised in Tanam playing. His technique deployed tonal modulation and his playing was unhurried. 

The growth of any instrument is not only contributed by the practitioners but also by the gurus who may not have been in the limelight. In the context of the violin, the 20th century saw many such gurus of whom Lalgudi Gopala Iyer, Narayana Iyer and Parur Sundaram Iyer deserve special mention.

Thereafter the instrument developed in different ways in the hands of illustrious violinists like T N Krishnan, my father Lalgudi G Jayaraman and M S Gopalakrishnan. The work has been continued by leading violinists like M Chandrasekharan and V V Subramanyam.

All through the developments in Carnatic music, the violin has been handled in different ways. The different ways of exploitation of the vast potentialities of the violin, depending on the research, hard work, the inner urge to create and express, perception and the aesthetic sense of the artistes have resulted in various banis. For example the Lalgudi bani is a combination of judicious use of gamakas, dignity, focus on continuity, effective use of fingers and the bow, bhava, laya, accent on melody and everything within the framework of tradition.

In spite of the prevalence of varied techniques in the Western violin, the Carnatic violinist has carefully chosen only those which enrich the music. Violin techniques have improved remarkably in the last forty years. In the case of those violinists who were both complete musicians as well as instrumentalists with total mastery over their instruments, their invaluable contribution greatly enriched the glory of Carnatic music. The art of accompanying as well as that of solo performance have attained a degree of finesse. Electronic aids like audio and video tapes, apart from helping preserve music in its original form, have helped the aspiring violinist both as a teacher and as a critic. The postural aspects and presentation have enormously improved over these years.

Many experiments featuring the violin on the concert stage with different instruments were performed during this period. Among the successful ones, the combination of violin-venu-vina, a brain child of my father deserves mention. This was a combination of bowing, blowing and plucking instruments. This laid before the listener both the individuality and complementing ability of each instrument.

The quality of violin playing on an average has rather improved greatly now. Better auditoriums, improved public address system comfortable travel facilities, sophisticated accessories and their easy availability, greater reach via the media and increased opportunities across the globe are some of the positive developments which puts the violinists of today on a fast track.

Today, the 4-stringed violin is the most popular one in use. Occasionally the 5-stringed instrument to cover the Ati Tara Sthayi with ease is used. Various devices like contact mikes are used for sound amplification. Despite other advantages, the sustenance of such device will depend on how best it can bring out the original sound of the violin.

In the recent past, indigenous manufacturers have started making good quality violins and strings. This perhaps is one of the reasons for the proliferation of violin students now. Even the average performer of today has easy access to good quality foreign instruments due to frequent visits abroad.
The violin is ubiquitous on the Indian concert scene. Violin Solos, duets or trios are quite common nowadays. Whether it is a vocal or an instrumental (Vina, Flute, Mandolin, Chitravina, Guitar or Saxophone) concert, the violin's presence enhances the overall concert effect. Increased cross-cultural exchanges like Jugalbandi or jazz fusion concerts have helped the South Indian violin transcend many social, political and cultural barriers. Such occasions demand a different degree of competence which the violinist as a good calibre accompanist is already familiar with.


What the latest electronic advancement like the internet and the CD-ROMs will unfold in the context of the development of violins will be known only with the passage of time. 

The composition and content of our music have undergone a healthy evolution over these years. Lyrics, which are cardinal to our music have enriched the art form. At the same time, it is a constraint in a limited way. Absolute music is one which is devoid of lyrics, and attempts to popularize this have been made by the Vadya Vrinda of the All India Radio. Instrumental music as an independent system with Carnatic music as the base is an avenue yet to be exploited fully.

We the present generation of violinists have a great responsibility in carrying on the precious art which has been handed over to us by our elders with the same fervour. The violin has witnessed improvements over each generation and hence it is our job as present day violinists, to assiduously attempt to preserve and better the quality of the art.


Related links: Other articles from the Chembur Conference
                     Musical Expressions