Hindustani violinist Sangeeta Shankar on connecting with classical music. Nita Sathyendran

Legendary violinist N. Rajam caused a revolution of sorts in Hindustani classical music by introducing the ‘gayaki ang' – a technique of violin playing that captures the intricacies of vocal music – into the genre. Dr. Rajam's daughter, Sangeeta Shankar, is a torchbearer of the tradition, having learnt to play the violin at her mother's knees. Sangeeta, who grew up in Benares (where her mother taught violin at Benares Hindu University), started giving solo concerts in her mother's signature style when she was 16 years old. Today, she is an accomplished violinist in her own right and a regular performer across the country and the world, most often with her mother. Apart from being a violinist, Sangeeta is also a composer, an entrepreneur, a professor of music at Whistling Woods International Film Institute and a motivational speaker. “I am a people's person. I love connecting with people through music and connecting them to music,” says Sangeeta. She is currently half way through an educational project titled ‘Milaap,' which in the long run aims to cultivate an audience for classical music. The Mumbai-based violinist was in Thiruvananthapuram for a workshop organised by the Department of Violin, Swati Tirunal College of Music. Excerpts from an interview with the violinist…

Lessons that mother taught

Having a renowned violinist as a mother has its advantages. Apart from having my mother as my guru, at a young age itself, I had the opportunity to travel to so many places, learn about different cultures and music, meet a lot of interesting people… But mother knew where to draw the line. She could decide when she was a mother and when she was a guru. So I always had to maintain that level of respect with her that you would give to a guru. She was pretty strict as a guru. She insisted that I practice every day. I began learning the violin at the age of three and it got so ingrained into my life and routine that it just had to be done. Her style of teaching, though, was a little different. Till date I don't recall her ever having sat down with a violin to teach me. It was always via vocal instruction. She would sing and I would play, correcting me whenever she felt the need to. That's a teaching style that has been passed on for generations in our family; something that continues even today when either she or I teach my daughters, Ragini and Nandini.

As a torchbearer of an illustrious family

I am very fortunate to be born into such a family and I'm immensely proud of my musical heritage. It's a heritage that goes back seven generations. My grandfather, A. Narayana Iyer, was a visionary musician. He trained my mother in Hindustani music and my uncle, violinist T.N. Krishnan, in the Carnatic tradition. The result? Two Padmabhushan awardees in the same family! It's a lot to live up to. I have been trained in the N. Rajam's ‘gayaki ang' tradition of Hindustani and I am doing my best to carry it forward. The most rewarding experience is when my mother, my daughters and I perform the violin together. It's something we often do nowadays.

Women and the violin

Is there such an issue with gender? I for one have never found gender to be an obstacle in anything that I set out to do. Then again prejudice is never a collective feeling. Prejudice always pertains to an individual rather than a group.

And secondly, if somebody is an outstanding musician then his/her music will always touch hearts. In the end, it's your attitude to/respect for your profession that rubs off on others. If you believe in yourself and ignore detractors then others will too. That's human nature.

The place of the violin in Hindustani music

In North India, the violin is never used as an accompaniment in concerts because there has always been two distinct traditions in Hindustani classical – vocal and instrumental, unlike the integrated tradition in Carnatic music. When violin came into the scene in Hindustani music, it was integrated into the instrumental style. So no one even thought of using it as an accompaniment. I was trained to think of the violin as a solo instrument rather than as an accompaniment and that is what I continue to do.

Project ‘Milaap'

In most places where I have given concerts, I have noticed that the audience mostly consists of people not below 40 years old. That got me thinking. What is the guarantee that there will still be an audience 10, 20 years down the line? We can't just leave it to fate. It is up to us to create an audience for the future. Back in 2000, I created a series called ‘Swar Sadhana' for Doordarshan meant for creating awareness on classical music among the public.

In a sort of a continuation of this, ‘Milaap' aims to impart values and mantras of success to school children (from age six to 15) through a fun and games combination of classical music, poetry and stories. It is a set of 11 DVDs and 99 Audio CDs, in which celebrities such as actors, playback singers, musicians, artists and so on will educate children on music.

That means by the time a child is 15 years old he/she would have learnt 99 ragas along with 99 moral values. And there you have it – the audience of the future. The project will go live in 2011.