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 Dr. Sriram Parasuram


It is quite an uncontested fact that the origin and evolution of Indian classical music over the past many centuries has been primarily centered around the human voice. Today, to a great extent, Indian music has voice and vocal music at its core. Unlike Western classical music, where the music has evolved primarily around instrumental idioms, ensembles and forms, Indian music from very early on has been a vehicle for poetry and lyric and hence has been mainly voice-based. Though this premise holds true in both the Hindustani and Carnatic systems, it seems to be more irrefutable in the case of the latter. 

The musical sound emanating from the human voice is basically seamless, its continuity determined mainly by the expanse of the breath. If an instrument has to emulate this basic feature of the voice, it too must possess the ability to give out continuous sound. From this purely acoustic principle point of view, among the instruments in practice in the recent past, only the violin and the wind instrument family (flute, nagaswaram etc) qualify for "vocal" music. Even though the Vina is the most sacred and one of the most important of musical instruments in Indian music, the musical note (the sound generated by the "meetu" or plucking) dies down quickly and one has to pluck the string again after two/three/four seconds to generate the note again. Where gamaka (or meend in the Hindustani system), srutis and microtonal inflections form the essence of the musical sound, it is imperative that the musical instruments, just as the voice, have the ability to produce continuously varying frequency, and not just discrete notes. Many instruments, which do not have this ability (keyed instruments like Clarinet, which have recently entered into Indian classical music), have been evolving technique to simulate (give the illusion of) or approximately approach this requirement of classical music sound.

In the light of this brief background, I have an opinion. An opinion that I wish to substantiate and demonstrate. That the violin is the only instrument that is capable of coming close to "making music", Indian classical music, the way the human voice does, in terms of its timbral closeness to the voice, international and dynamic range, and virtuosi tic capabilities paralleling and sometimes even exceeding that of the human voice. This is not exactly a new claim. It has been stated before.

The idea of "singing on the violin" has essentially three related compartments. The first is the area of instrumental technique, where the instrumentalist masters the instrument in all its facets and possibilities of bowing, fingering, intonation, tone control, speed, precision etc. The second is the area of the voice - mastering intonation, culturing its timbral possibilities and intricacies. The third is the area of the music itself - a thorough understanding of its complexities, subtleties and sensibilities. In my presentation I shall elaborate as to how these three categories could be understood and worked on independently and how when working in tandem, they help achieve "singing on the violin". To be successful in this pursuit entails a lot of things, most importantly understanding and feeling the music. Though I shall mainly deal with Carnatic music, I shall also touch upon Hindustani music on some points relevant to this pursuit. With the help of examples (specific lines of kritis, rakti prayogas of ragas, virtuositic improvisational aspects etc.). I shall endeavour to present and explore further this idea of "singing on the violin".

Editor's note: I was present at the Conference and remember that Sriram Parasuram gave a wonderful and memorable demonstration of all the aspects discussed above.
Related links: Other articles from the Chembur Conference
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