It takes an exceptionally original artiste to create a distinctive style. If he is also a passionate guru with a large following, the style expands to a school over decades.
Very few artistes can lay claim to the distinction of taking this to a whole new level and impacting musicians from diverse schools, creating a bani (gharana).
That Lalgudi Jayaraman had the distinction of accomplishing this within two decades of his arrival into the concert arena speaks eloquently about his legendary calibre. The Lalgudi bani was up and running by the mid-1960s with traces of his approach and technique visible in violinists from many schools. Today, it is one of the most admired banis in the field.
It would be no exaggeration to state that the Lalgudi-impact has extended well beyond the violin.
Not many artistes have achieved a larger-than-their-area-of-specialty status, influencing vocalists, other instrumentalists as well as composers. The sheer weight of his contributions as musician, pedagogue and composer is stunning.
The Lalgudi style was formed as much by constant intellectual introspection as by discipline, focus and regular practice over years. It is marked as much by grammatical correctness as by aesthetic elegance, anchored as much by rigour and variety in repertoire as by imagination and inventiveness in improvisation and is a statement of consummate artistry.
The distinctiveness of his bowing as well as left-hand fingering technique created a whole new signature in Indian music, bringing in elements of vocalisation without short-serving instrumental beauty.
His thorough knowledge of lyrics, meanings and spirit of compositions enabled him to project them in a manner that served as a salutary example even to vocalists.
His grasp of the Carnatic tradition led him to innovate within the boundaries of tradition with a freshness that was not merely a product of novelty.
His command over the violin was such that he never needed to indulge in cross-cultural forays to gain international attention. A pure Carnatic recording was all it took to earn him a number one ranking among 77 music recordings from all over the world.
A stunning ability to absorb complicated melodic phrases and inconceivably intricate rhythmic structures in a matter of seconds and reproduce them with aplomb, set Lalgudi apart as an accompanist. Not content with this, he challenged himself to grasp the individual styles and spirit of the artiste he teamed up with — be it Ariyakkudi, GNB, Semmangudi, Madurai Mani Iyer or the Alathur Brothers.
This enabled him to alter his own responses to suit the occasion instead of merely playing in a generic style throughout his career.
Brilliant concert planning, rigorous rehearsals (with sister Srimati or children Krishnan and Viji), exemplary choice of compositions, compelling improvisation, exciting cadences, command over speeds, range and dynamics were some of the hallmarks of Lalgudi solos. As he himself told me once, “A good artiste must be a margadarshi (model artiste) and strive to not only entertain but also to educate.” This mindset ensured that his recitals provided instant appeal as well as take-home value.
The very fact that a large number of non-violinists also queued up to learn from Lalgudi is the biggest testimony to his overall musicianship. His depth of knowledge, analytical skills, clear communication, wit and exemplary execution inspired many and shaped several careers.
Lalgudi’s pieces stand tall for their original approach to melody and rhythm as well as accessible lyrics. His creations — especially varnams and thillanas — have become automatic choices of leading musicians and dancers the world over. Lalgudi Jayaraman was not just a musician of an era — he was an era by himself.
(The author is a Carnatic musician and composer, and plays the 21-stringed chitravina)