Different styles, different attitudes... two violin recitals heard at Hamsadhwani gave food for thought.

While rasikas find the sonic innovations exciting, they also applaud the spiritual tradition

The violin has been such an indispensable element of the orthodox and spiritual tradition of Carnatic music throughout the 20th century that it is difficult for us in India today to imagine its being an alien instrument at all. And it is in this alien land of ours, not in its own native Europe, that the violin has acquired a fascinating new dimension, enabled by our musicians to generate a smooth and continuous flow of sound which can be a graceful echo of the undulating human voice in music. In a world-wide perspective, this highly innovative alignment with the singing voice marks a significant advancement in the art of playing the violin, which has won the admiration of Yehudi Menuhin, the legendary Western violinist. But quite paradoxically, that's precisely what has made the glorious instrument assume a subordinate role in Carnatic music (like the much less sonorous sarangi in Hindustani music), because normally it is expected only to echo and enrich the vocal element and is not assigned an independent role like that of the flute, nagaswaram or veena. However, because of its inherently powerful tone and vitality, the Carnatic violin does have great potential as a solo instrument, and it invariably tempts its most versatile exponents to stray from the vocal track sooner or later.Traditionally some of the greatest Carnatic violinists had been inclined to give solo recitals only very rarely, perhaps fearing that too many excursions of this kind might adversely affect their popular image as accredited accompanists to towering vocal masters. And whenever they did perform as soloists, they invariably invoked the worshipful spirit they had absorbed from the divine music of those great singers. To this category of eminent violinists belong Lalgudi Jayaraman and T.N.Krishnan. Of course, the frequency of their solo recitals tended to increase with the passage of time, as the elder vocalists sadly passed away one by one. But other versatile violinists followed different paths. L. Subramaniam learnt Western music, and not only introduced beautiful Carnatic colours in jazz and symphonic music as a composer, but also imported dazzling western technical effects into Carnatic music as a soloist, with a clear accent on sound rather than spirit. And Kunnakkudi Vaidyanathan introduced an extremely humorous element in Carnatic music, performing spectacular trapeze acts and acrobatics with his solo violin.Normally such divergent attitudes and adventures have their own specific logic and justification, and do not raise serious questions of right and wrong. The significant point is that while most rasikas find the sonic innovations refreshing and exciting, they also respect and applaud the spiritual tradition, which is one of the main reasons why Carnatic music is able to get progressively so diversified without losing its soulful vision.

Twin concerts

These reflections have been prompted by two recent instrumental concerts held in Hamsadhwani. One of them (Jan. 16) featured A. Kanyakumari, Mambalam Siva and Mudicondan Ramesh playing the violin, nagaswaram and veena respectively, accompanied by Satish Kumar (mridangam) and Vaikom Gopalakrishnan (ghatam). Kanyakumari is best known for her flashing responses on the violin in the company of Kadri Gopalnath who has a way of spraying kaleidoscopic sound effects in Carnatic music with his saxophone. But Siva and Ramesh having a far less daring style, she had to exercise considerable restraint on this occasion.As a result, the main landmark, a raagam-taanam-pallavi in which each player took up a different raga for individual and contrasting exploration (Revathi, Mohanam and Hindolam), lacked the elan and exuberance expected of such an unusual and technically challenging exercise. Earlier in the concert, the well-aligned trio playing in unison were like a pleasant vocal chorus, but if the real purpose of such an unusual combination of instruments was to make a thrilling excursion into a colourful world of sound, the exercise was not successful.

Lalgudi legacy

The other concert (Jan. 21) was a violin duet by Lalgudi G.J.R. Krishnan and his sister Vijayalakshmi, accompanied by Umayalpuram Sivaraman on the mridangam and V. Suresh on the ghatam. The wonderful legacy which violin maestro Lalgudi Jayaraman has handed down to his gifted children is a streamlined style of producing a luminous crystalline sound and the spiritual vision he had inherited from the great vocal masters he had accompanied long ago. The serene recital, which featured the ragas Sankarabharanam for the main song and Saraswati for the raagam-taanam-pallavi which followed, left you with a warm and glowing sense of satisfaction almost as if you had just heard a superb vocal concert in the good old days.All the percussion instruments were played extremely well in both concerts, but that would be an understatement so far as Sivaraman's mridangam is concerned. Perhaps a separate essay is necessary to review the phenomenon properly, but it can be summed up in a few words: now silk and velvet, now lightning and thunder, that's all!