Singular devotion to the double violin

Neyveli S. Radhakrishna seen with his stereoscopic double violin during his visit to Tiruchi.

Neyveli S. Radhakrishna seen with his stereoscopic double violin during his visit to Tiruchi.   | Photo Credit: M. SRINATH

Neyveli S Radhakrishna on how the rare instrument has shaped his career in music

What does it feel to play an instrument that is one of only a minuscule number in the world? For Neyveli S Radhakrishna, who is an exponent of the unique 10-string, stereoscopic double violin (the only one in Asia), it was literally, an opportunity that arrived in a parcel.

“I was touring the United States and Canada with sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar, accompanying him as violinist during the ‘Festival of India’ in 2005/’06, when I received a parcel after a concert,” recalls Radhakrishna in a telephone interview. The artiste was in Tiruchi this week for a lecture-demonstration and concert at the invitation of the Kalai Kaviri College of Fine Arts.

“It felt like a musical instrument, so I called up Panditji, and requested him for permission to drop by his room so that he could bless the parcel before I opened it. He agreed, even though it was past midnight. So, we opened the parcel, and there it was … the double violin. It was a golden moment for me.”

At around 2am, Ravi Shankar asked Radhakrishna to play him a mohanam on the new instrument. “I was a little reluctant because I felt I had to tune it first, but anyway, we played together for 10 minutes. Later that morning, after breakfast, Panditji called L. Shankar, the renowned violinist and inventor of the double violin, and told him that he had found a notable successor to play the instrument. I was elated, and overawed by my guru’s words,” says Radhakrishna.

Breaking a 40-year hiatus in the story of the custom-built instrument that incorporates the range of violin, viola, cello and double bass, Radhakrishna has made the double violin a symbol of the transcendence that classical music is capable of. He has played the same double violin for the past 11 years.

Learning, adapting

Born in Andhra Pradesh March 16, 1966, and raised in Neyveli, Tamil Nadu, Radhakrishna formally started learning music at the age of 7, at the behest of his parents.

“I started vocal and violin lessons simultaneously one Vijayadasami day from my gurus Chembai Vaidyanatha Baghavathar and S. Vimala respectively in Neyveli. And soon my violin and vocal lessons, along with daily practice, became part of the family routine,” he says. The flipside, he adds, was that he had to sacrifice his love for cricket to keep up with his music lessons.

At the age of 13, Radhakrishna won the All-India Violin Competition, and later received a Government scholarship to study music.

Further tutelage followed under violin maestros M N Ganesa Pillai and M Chandrasekaran.

“Playing and singing for the local enthusiasts and participating in music competitions and sabhas was fun at that time. I also used to listen to lot of radio and live kutcheris,” says Radhakrishna, who did his B.Com and Diploma in Computer Science before migrating to Chennai, where he completed his Master’s degree in Music. He is currently pursuing a doctorate in Music Studies.

Introduced to Western music after he started working for film orchestras, Radhakrishna is also adept at playing other instruments like the electronic keyboard, guitar and veena. “I learned how to play the harmonium from my father. If you can play one instrument, the rest is easy,” he says. “But these days I tend to concentrate on the double violin.”

Among his earlier experiments with a different sound, (as reported in Fiddler magazine in 2006), was to master the playing of a spare violin that had been fitted with cello strings.

He had first seen a picture of L. Shankar’s double violin in a magazine article, and eventually went to own a newer version of it (made by John Jordan of Concord, Massachusetts) in 2006.

“You need to think a lot before you play the double violin,” says Radhakrishna. “In the regular violin, you play 2.5 octaves, but here, you play 7 octaves, that you cannot repeat.”

‘Music is music’

Fans of ‘hardcore’ Carnatic may not approve of the double violin’s presence in a concert, but it is still important to make technology work in the music world, says Radhakrishna.

“In Indian music, most of the compositions are designed only for acoustic instruments. Electric violins came to us only around 50 years ago. The double violin is the next step. We can show the aesthetic appeal of the electrical instruments only by mastering them,” he says.

In 1999, he co-founded the world music group Ahimsa with German guitarist Matthias Muller. R Yogaraja (mrudangam, kanjira), Dominique Di Piazza (bass) and Morgen Agren (percussion) are the other members of the group that has so far released 2 albums, and performed at prestigious venues all over the world.

Radhakrishna has performed solo concerts and violin accompaniment across India to the cream of Carnatic musicians notably M Balamuralikrishna, N Ramani, T V Gopalakrishnan, T K Govindarao, T N Seshagopalan, O S Thiagarajan, Kadri Gopalnath, Ravikiran, Sudha Raghunathan, Sowmya and percussion giants T K Murthy, Vellore Ramabadran, Umayalpuram Sivaraman, Tiruchi Sankaran, Yella Venkateswara Rao, Guruyaur Durai, Srimushnam Rajarao, Aridwaramangalam A.K. Palanivel, Kalaimamani Tanjore Govindarajan, Tanmoy Bose and Sivamani.

“Music is music. The notes Sa Ri Ga Ma Pa Da Ni or Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti are not different, just from different regions. Our music is a personal interpretation of these notes,” replies Radhakrishna when asked how he moulds his Carnatic sensibility to Western music while performing with Ahimsa.

A solo album on the double violin has been a long-elusive project for Neyveli S Radhakrishna. “I travel a lot, so there’s no time to make a solo album, even though there have been many requests for it. I want it to be really special, so I’m still jotting notes on how to go about it.”

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Printable version | Apr 7, 2020 7:22:09 AM |

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