O ne of the sought-after violinists in Carnatic music circuit in Kerala today, R. Swaminathan initially learnt Western music and was part of an orchestra. Later, he was trained in Carnatic music by renowned violinist M.S. Anantharaman at the Government Music College, Chennai. Swaminathan has been active in the field for the last 26 years and has accompanied all the top-ranking musicians. One of his more notable traits is his unusual willingness to accompany up-and-coming youngsters without any reservations. A B-High grade artiste of All India Radio, at present, he is working as an assistant professor in violin at Swathi Thirunal College of Music, Thiruvananthapuram.
Excerpts from an interview…
I hail from a musical family in Kollam. My grandfather Kilimanoor Venkateswara Iyer used to sing for Kathakali programmes. My father, K.V. Rajagopala Iyer, was proficient in vocal music and the veena. He was good at notation and had assisted famous composer Muthiah Bhagavathar in notating the compositions of Swati Tirunal. My father conducted regular music classes at home and I grew up listening to his music. This facilitated me in acquiring ‘swarajnanam’ and rhythmic knowledge at a young age. One day, finding a violin at home, I simply started playing (my sister had learnt the violin) and continued doing it regularly. Once, during a temple festival, I was asked to play the violin for a drama; I played Malahari raga, which won me accolades. I was 13 then.
Training in Western music
Spotting my talent, Edward Meyn, an exponent of Western music, asked me to play choir music on the violin. Happy with my performance, he took me along to play the violin at several church festivals. This continued for some time. Thereafter, I underwent training in Western music under violinist Manuel Peter. I joined an orchestra and regularly played the violin in various programmes for about two years. After completing class 10, I worked in a mill and simultaneously played the violin at ganamelas, Mappila music programmes, dramas, ballets, and so on. I also got a few opportunities to play for film recordings under legendary music director Devarajan master.
Turning to classical music
Complying with my brother Venkateswaran’s advice, I went to Chennai for advanced studies at Government Music College. In the admission test held there, I played the Ada tala varnam in Bhairavi and ‘Vaataapi Ganapathim’ in Hamsadhwani. Eminent musicians K.V. Narayanaswamy and T.N. Krishnan, who was the principal then, were part of the selection panel. Impressed with my performance, they permitted me to join the first year course straightaway, waiving the requisite pre-Vidwan course. This was a golden period in my musical career. I was fortunate to be trained by celebrated violinist M.S. Anantharaman. T.N. Krishnan also took classes. Renowned musicians were my tutors for vocal and theory. All those classes were informative and interesting.
Exposure to vintage music
Staying in Chennai gave me plenty of opportunities to attend the concerts of stalwarts. Listening to maestros such as Anantharaman, M.S. Gopalakrishnan, Krishnan, Lalgudi Jayaraman and other famous violinists such as M. Chandrasekharan, V.V. Subramanyam, and so on enriched my erudition, enabling me to sharpen my skills. This ‘kelvijnanam’ has played a big role in shaping my career.
The Parur style
I was very much influenced by the style of M.S. Anantharaman and M.S. Gopalakrishnan. Their unique fingering and bowing techniques grabbed my attention and I started practising in this style. Since I trained under Anantharaman, following the Parur style (violin maestro Parur Sundaram Iyer was their father) was not a problem.
I returned to Kollam after my studies. On April 24, 1983, I was requested to step in for for violinist Subramanya Sarma to accompany Mukhatala Shivaji. This was my first public concert and it was well received.
Tenure as lecturer and memorable concerts
In 1986, I was appointed as a lecturer in violin in Chembai Memorial Government Music College, Palakkad. During my tenure at the college – about 24 years – I have trained innumerable students, many of whom have become performing artistes.
The role of an accompanist
An accompanist should adhere to certain ethics – follow the main artiste faithfully in the same style, not exceed the limits and adopt a sense of proportion, to name a few. I am willing to accompany promising youngsters and I do not hesitate to perform as a substitute. My guru M.S. Anantharaman has advised me to follow these principles.
Advice to young aspirants
The violinist should have a thorough knowledge of the sahitya of the kritis. While practising, one should first play the song in swaras and then in sahitya. The learner should practice ‘triswara prasthara’, ‘chathuswara prasthara’, and so on – create combinations of three swaras, four swaras and the like. This helps in playing kalpanaswaras with ease. Niraval and kalpanaswaras should be practised vigorously.
Presently, I am doing some research with regard to the teaching of violin in the approach to gamakas – how to connect the fingers for gamakas (jaaru), such as shifting fingers and improvising techniques. I have been successfully teaching the above methodology to students.
I am willing to accompany promising youngsters and I
do not hesitate to perform as