The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- One of the most creative examples of cultural give and take

December is the most musical month of the year for Carnatic music lovers in Chennai. I lived in Chennai (then Madras) for some years when I worked in a publishing house, and one of the reasons I took up the job was to learn music and hear as many concerts as possible. So every December I too joined the enthusiastic crowds at the Music Academy or one of the numerous sabhas for morning, afternoon and evening concerts. But the climax of the music season came, as far as I was concerned, not in December, but on the morning of January 1, when Lalgudi Jayaraman would greet the new year with a violin concert. A colleague and I would take the morning off from work, and reach the concert venue early enough to get the best possible seats. The concert was invariably brilliant. A Lalgudi concert always went beyond the staples, the ragas and compositions you expect to hear in a kacheri. These new year concerts were no exception. They included several original compositions, usually tillanas in unfamiliar 'hybrid' ragas. After the concert, my friend and I would get back to the office in an exalted state. The mess on our desks was suddenly powerless. Unread manuscripts, deadlines, lost illustrations ' all these mundane details had become, thanks to Lalgudi's violin, irrelevant to real life, at least for a few hours.

I continue to be a fan of the Carnatic violin solo, and of Lalgudi in particular, though I have not been to a Chennai concert for a long time. But years after those new year concerts, I found a rather intriguing link between the violin of Carnatic music and my own writing. I have always been fascinated by the cunning and complicated ways in which knowledge travels from place to place at different points of time, undergoing certain changes as it takes root in another culture. The modern violin came to us from elsewhere, but it is an accepted, indeed an integral part of Indian classical music. We have a 'tradition' of violin soloists. And as basic accompaniment, it is impossible to imagine a Carnatic music concert today without it. The language I write in also made its way to our shores, though less musically; and so did the novel, at least the novel as we know it today.

How do cultural assets go through a process of naturalization' How, for instance, does a tale or a concept or a musical instrument cross geographical and cultural borders to become part of another system of creative expression'

The case of the Carnatic violin is a specific, eloquent example of this process of creative adaptability and synthesis. Bowed instruments have been in use in India from early times and were referred to as Dhanurvina. In fact, an early bowed instrument, called the Ravanhatho or Ravanastha, is attributed to Ravana; it is apparently still played by folk musicians in Rajasthan and Gujarat. However, the modern violin was introduced to Indian music from Europe. The entry of the violin in Goan musical tradition dates back to the 16th century. But the violin was introduced to Carnatic classical music much later. The convention is that the well-known musical family, the Dikshitars, introduced the instrument into Carnatic concert music. The story is fascinating and it raises a hundred questions, but the bald 'facts' are as follows.

Early in the 19th century, Ramaswamy Dikshitar, father of the great composer, Muthuswami Dikshitar, was working in the East India Company under a man called Venkatakrishna Mudaliar. Mudaliar engaged a European tutor, the bandmaster of Fort St George, to teach Ramaswamy's son, Baluswamy, how to play the violin. Not only did Baluswamy master the violin; he also adapted it to Indian music. Baluswamy then passed on his knowledge to a brilliant pupil of his composer-brother. This pupil, Vadivelu, in turn introduced it to the Travancore Court. Vadivelu was a member of what is called the Thanjavur Quartet ' a set of brothers who were talented composers and musicians of dance music. Vadivelu is said to have accompanied himself on the violin, a rare accomplishment. His patron, the royal musical stalwart, Swati Tirunal, was so delighted by Vadivelu's violin performances, that he gave him a violin made of ivory as a tribute to his masterful adoption of the instrument.

Within a short time, the violin replaced other instruments, such as the veena, that were used to accompany vocal performances, and the violin became the primary accompanying instrument in the Carnatic tradition. In fact, the violin is an illustration of cultural borrowing that has been indigenized with spectacular success. It is no longer thought of as an 'introduced species'.

How did this happen so quickly, and with such admirable efficiency' As the modern concert system evolved, it was clear to musicians that a good stringed instrument was necessary. The veena, with all its weight of mythological and musical associations, was there, but its inadequacies as accompaniment became even more apparent once the less cumbersome violin came into the picture. The violin's compass of four octaves, its rich tone, the facility it had for playing fast music, and its capacity to produce all the gamakas (or 'graces') and srutis (or microtones) made it wonderfully adaptable, and the ideal choice to replace the veena as accompaniment. (There are, of course, one or two apologetic explanations from orthodoxy for the practical changes culture in practice makes. One is that the veena was too dignified an instrument to be used as an accompaniment.)

The south Indian violin is almost identical to the Western violin but its use in Indian music evolved in important ways to meet melodic needs: in tuning, style and in playing position. The Carnatic violinist does not stand and play, as does his Western counterpart. Nor is his violin held by the chin rest. Instead, the Indian violinist adopted a relaxed sitting posture.

Sitting cross-legged, the scroll placed on the right ankle, the back of the violin rested on the left shoulder, the violinist's left hand was unencumbered. This was important, because the free movement of the left hand up and down the fingerboard was necessary to slide rapidly between notes, and meet the demands of various Indian musical ornamentations, including gamakas. Once the violin had proved its adaptability to Carnatic music, it won an honoured place among the family of 'traditional' instruments.

The process of adapting the violin to Indian music must be one of the most creative examples of cultural give and take. For Indian writers in English, this mutable trait in culture ' the metamorphosis of something of foreign origin to the 'Indian' and the 'home-grown' ' is especially important because their work cannot help partaking of modern Indian hybridity. We have travelled many miles from the days of G.V. Desani's All About H. Hatterr, so much so that the gullible optimists among us even believe that Indian writing in English has a corner of its own in the international marketplace.

But Desani's wry self-description continues to apply. The Indian novel in English, for all its newfound confidence, brashness and acclaim, remains a khichdi that revels in its impurity. A naturalized oddity.

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