Are violins endowed with religious significance? (was Re: european musical instruments in India)

Vidyasankar Sundaresan vidya at
Tue Apr 1 01:28:12 UTC 1997

On Fri, 28 Mar 1997, adheesh sathaye wrote:



> which we were familiar. However, when playing the violin, there is
> necessarily contact with the foot. 
> This raises a few questions:
> ** 1) Is this prohibition of 'foot contact' really as explicit as I have
> made it out to be?

I should think not. The Sitar is held diagonally over the left shoulder,
but the gourd on the right is stabilized by the left foot. For the south
Indian Veena, two postures are recognized: one in which the stem of the
Veena is held diagonally across, and another in which the left gourd rests
on the left lap. There is even a third "Urdhva" posture said to have been
used by Veena Venkatramana Das, a famous musician from Andhra Pradesh, who
held the Veena vertically up. For whatever it is worth, I can personally
testify that it is impossible to hold the Veena either vertically up or
diagonally across the left shoulder (and still play), without stabilizing
the resonator bowl with your foot. 

Among the north Indian Vainikas, only Zia Moinuddin Dagar seems to hold
the Rudra Veena on his left lap. Almost everybody else holds the Rudra
Veena diagonally across, and again the left foot is used to stabilize the
huge gourd on the right. 

Thus, by no means is foot contact either explicitly prohibited or
subconsciously avoided.

> This is basically the crux of the argument; if this rule is not explicit or
> very widespread, then there is no further debate.
> However, if it is true, then we must assume it has to do with either the
> association of the said instruments with either religious sanctity, or with
> levels of respect. (That is, the same respect is accorded to the instrument
> as is given to other people, with whom 'foot contact' is also explicitly
> prohibited.)

That is why I brought up the flute and nadaswaram. While only non-Brahmin
castes typically play the nadaswaram, there is a huge amount of religious
association with the instrument in south India. No temple procession is
complete without two nadaswarams leading it, notwithstanding a conceivably
similar prohibition against the polluting contact of saliva.  

I don't think explicit rules can be stated that apply all across India. As
far as Carnatic music is concerned, Brahmins, who tend to be the most
orthoprax about such things, have been playing the flute and the mridangam
(which could again be "non-kosher", because it uses animal hide) for close
to two centuries now. Sarabha Sastri, the flautist, and Tanjavur 
Vaidyanatha Iyer, the mridangist, both lived in the post-1850 period, when
Brahmins got increasingly involved in classical music. This is the same
period when the violin rose to prominence. Any theory that talks of the
violin being considered 'on par' with other stringed Indian instruments
in religious terms also has to account for non-stringed Indian instruments

> ** 2)  If either of these is the case, then why the discrepancy when it
> comes to the violin? 
> I suggest that if the violin was truly considered 'on par' with other Indian
> classical instruments, then there would necessarily be this same prohibition
> of foot contact, and thus in the development of the Indian playing style
> (once again a question of origins) this consideration would have to be taken
> into account--perhaps by resting the violin on a different part of the body,
> or on a cushion a la the tabla. My suggestion was, although primarily in

An intriguing suggestion, but playing a violin whose scroll rests on
a cushion a la the tabla will break your back. 

> jest, the possibility that the early players were indeed conscious of the
> disrespectful nature of foot contact, and it was a deliberate statement on
> their part....A subalternist approach to classical Indian music, if you will....

One of the earliest Indians to play the violin, Baluswami Dikshitar, was a
younger brother of Muttuswami Dikshitar, the famous composer. The entire
Dikshitar family was steeped in religious activity. I should think that if
they were concerned about the foot contact, Baluswami Dikshitar might have
preferred not to play the violin at all, rather than make some deliberate
statement about it.

> Or perhaps, more seriously that indeed the violin is not endowed with the
> same sort of sacred overtones as other classical instruments, and thus the
> aforementioned prohibition need not apply....

I disagree. All musical instruments, and for that matter, even other kinds
of instruments, are endowed with some sacred overtones in the general
Hindu mindset. On the day before Dassehra, Hindu workers in all Indian
factories ceremonially worship their industrial equipment. The military
men worship their tanks and missiles. Thus, this sort of reverence is
extended not just to books and musical instruments. The entire notion that
the violin does not have sacred overtones to it overlooks this sentiment.
Take a look at the violin and the violin case of any visiting Carnatic
musician to see what I mean.

S. Vidyasankar

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