In conversation Ace violinist Mysore Manjunath says instrumental music has a universal appeal as it speaks the language of emotions. Saraswathy Nagarajan
Ace violinist Mysore Manjunath’s hands and fingers seem to be as eloquent as his words – they help him punctuate a point, emphasise a view and describe the abstract charm of a raga. Perhaps it comes from being a top-notch violinist whose fingers create flights of melody and sketch melodious ragas. Along with his elder brother Mysore Nagaraj, he has mesmerised audiences in India and abroad through concerts, fusion programmes and jugalbandhis, and as accompanists too. Manjunath says if he has been able to tune in to all genres of music without losing his musical identity, it is because of his father, Mahadevappa, and the firm foundation of Carnatic music in which he has been trained in.
“I have been able to adapt and gell with musicians around the world thanks to a complete and complex system of music called Carnatic music. There is rhythm, ragas, gamakas and numerous other subtleties. Once a person knows Carnatic music, it becomes easy for him/her to appreciate or understand other systems of music. As a violinist it helps me play minute gamakas, intricate sliding patterns and raga phrases,” he says.
Pointing out that the violin is perhaps the only musical instrument that is almost universal in its appeal, he explains: “In addition to Western classical music, the violin is there in jazz music, folk music like the Flamenco, for instance, and in Carnatic music and many other streams of music around the world. In some places, like India, it was introduced by the British and soon it became an integral part of Carnatic concerts.”
The violin is perhaps the only Western musical instrument that has become such an indispensable feature of a Carnatic music concert. He says that the instrument came to the fore during the latter half of the nineteenth century and it soon replaced the flute and the veena as the predominant accompanying instrument in Carnatic music concerts. However, he admits he is puzzled why the instrument did not figure in Hindustani concerts although a handful of greats such as Pandit Jasraj had given concerts with the violin. “Strangely enough, many Hindustani vocalists use the harmonium, again a Western instrument, but one which plays mainly flat notes.”
Manjunath feels that Hindustani music has found wide acceptance due to maestros like the late Pandit Ravi Shankar, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Amjad Ali Khan, Ali Akbar Khan and so on who all happen to be instrumentalists. “Instrumental music breaks through barriers of language. It conveys a mood and a melodic journey that appeal to all irrespective of culture. Emotions are the same all over the world and instrumental music speaks that language. Carnatic music has many lovely compositions and rich lyrics. But the beauty of the lyrics is lost on a person who does not know the language. It so happened that in Carnatic music, it is only now that instrumentalists are coming into their own. Perhaps that is why Carnatic music is not as popular as Hindustani music in other countries,” he reasons.
A faculty member of the Mysore University, Manjunath is more into research than actual teaching. He says with a smile that he is a cultural ambassador of the University. And, happily, Manjunath is in the big league without shifting from Mysore to Bangalore or Chennai. “Mysore is a green and gracious city that is impossible to forget. So, though my hectic schedule has made Bangalore airport my second home, I prefer staying in Mysore to any other city. It is what has made us what we are,” says Manjunath, a trifle sentimentally.
Agreeing that the number of violinists from Kerala in the top league had dwindled over the years, he feels that a talented young lot are waiting in the wings to make their music heard. “As every one knows, maestros such as T.N. Krishnan, the late M.S. Gopalakrishnan and even L. Subramaniam have their roots in Kerala. I am confident that it is only a matter of time before the best of the present generation of violinists find their own space in the music scene.”
Although Manjunath has top-ranking students who have made it big on the concert circuit, he is reluctant to call them his students. “I still see myself as a learner. I prefer to call them my father’s students, whom I also teach. You must remember that it was my father’s discipline and unwavering dedication to music that have made us what we are today. He would make us practise for eight to 10 hours every day and even illness, much to my mother, Kamalamma’s anxiety, was not a reason to cancel or postpone a concert or a practice session. My father belongs to the Bidaram Krishnappa school in the lineage of Tygaraja and he had to leave home to learn music,” recalls the musician.
For Manjunath, the key to success lies in practice and more practice. It is the long hours of practice that enables them to improvise and play a duet without ever planning a concert. “We are able to anticipate and understand each other. While playing a duet, my brother and I challenge and complement each other. Similarly, in a fusion or a jugalbandhi, the musicians compete with one another and complement each one too.”
The maestro was in Thiruvananthapuram for a scholar-in-residence programme of the Swathi Thirunal College of Music that was conducted by the Department of Violin. He says that he was “very much impressed” by the students of the Swathi Thirunal College of Music. “I made them play ragas and varnam and gave them a hard time by introducing some complications in the raga. But they did well,” he says with a smile. He adds: “Kerala is one of the few places where there is so much of respect and acceptability for Carnatic music, even among youngsters. That is why out-station musicians like myself enjoy coming here again and again.”
“On October 19, my elder brother Mysore Nagaraj and I were playing in San Diego in the United States in 2012. We were accompanied by Srimushnam V. Raja Rao. Suddenly we noticed Pandit Ravi Shankar enter the room in a wheel chair with a puppy on his lap. We played Hindolam since it is one of his favourite ragas. He was keeping time and stayed till the end of the concert. It was unforgettable. After the concert, we met him and he blessed us. Later, we were told that it was his last public appearance. He was a maestro who had high regard for Carnatic music,” says Manjunath.