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It should have been the viola

By sheer chance, it fell upon the violin to be the accompanying instrument in Carnatic music. However, there is a strong case for the deeper toned viola.

M. Balamuralikrishna: The charismatic vocalist also plays the viola.

IT IS a quirk of fate that Balaswamy Dikshitar noticed the violin with the British band rather than the viola. This was at the dawn of the 19th Century. As explained in the last article about the viola, it carried the tag of the instrument of the `failed violinist' who was relegated to playing the viola. I really wonder if there was a viola in the band that Dikshitar listened to. If there was, I assume that the resident violists were not all that good. Had they been, I am fairly certain that the viola, rather than the violin, would have taken the pride of place for Dikshitar's choice of the Western instrument to be adapted to the needs of Carnatic music.

Was the cost of the viola too high compared to that of the violin? Or did it larger size, coupled with thicker bow and strings, deter him? Whatever be the reason, there is a strong case for argument that it is the viola and not the violin that should have been the ideal accompanying instrument for Carnatic vocal music.

Let me try to explain why. After the first patrons of the violin in India co-opted it into Carnatic music, they changed the tuning from the originally higher pitched tone of the Western violin. This was done so that the accompanist dared not go above the pitch of the singer in the higher registers. Most of the singers in the 19th Century who were patronised by the royalty and aristocracy were men. Even if you take range of a female singer, the combined total ranges of their voices were generally two to three octaves around the middle C. This is the exact range of the viola, around 50 or so notes, whether it was a woman singing in the highest pitch acceptable to the Indian ear, or the lowest pitch of the male voice. Had the viola been adopted instead of the violin, there would have been no necessity to retune the instrument, although tuning of each string could have been altered slightly without losing the tone. Retuning per se is not the issue. When the violin was tuned to a lower pitch, it lost its volume to a certain extent. If the viola had been adopted, this problem would have not manifested itself in such a big way; and I wonder whether the great violinist T. Chowdiah would have had to take the trouble of crafting a seven-stringed violin.

On the other hand, it would have been more interesting to fit the three sympathetic strings to the viola, had this instrument been adopted instead of the violin. Perhaps one must try it and see how the sound gets enhanced even further.

In India, the viola co-exists happily with the violin in film studios. In studio orchestras, violins usually outnumber violas by a factor of three. That is the ideal number to keep the harmonic balance stable, since violas are that much louder than violins, instrument against instrument.

No less a personality than leading vocalist M. Balamuralikrishna has championed the cause of the viola. Apart from being blessed with a resonant voice, he is India's foremost violist in the Carnatic arena. He plays the instrument with a flourish, but does not give concerts on the instrument too often. Like all string instruments, viola too is difficult to master, and each performance requires days if not weeks of practice.

There are other violists too. All of them belong to Chennai. Chittoor Kumareshan, R. Hemamalini, and V.L. Sudarshan have handled the viola quite creditably. All said and done, the Indian ear has become used, if not biased, to the tone and the voice of the violin. The deeper tone of the viola requires some getting used to, and besides, most youngsters start on the violin and do not even consider the other option after they have spent years to master the violin. It requires some effort to make that switch, although a good violinist can pick up the viola and play it just as well if one were to practise on it for a few months. Moreover, a very good teacher for the instrument is almost impossible to come by in most of the South.

As time rolls on, I have a feeling that this bigger brother of the violin is bound to get noticed more and more, and we may find regular solo concerts featuring this instrument.


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