european musical instruments in India

Vidyasankar Sundaresan vidya at
Wed Apr 2 01:02:23 UTC 1997

On Wed, 2 Apr 1997, J.Napier wrote:

> I am quite interested in the last point. One assumption often made is that 
> because the accompanying instrument ideally today blends with the voice, 
> that the aim of accompaniment has always been to do so.

In recent times (100-150 years), in Carnatic music, the aim of
accompaniment has typically been to follow the vocalist like a shadow. The
Tamil term used is "nezhal pOla". Many Carnatic musicians use the word
"follow" synonymously with "accompany".

> The North Indian rudra vina or bin previously accompanied dhrupad. Though 
> built to have a very long decay to its sound, it still remains a plucked 
> instrument. We must also remember that Zia Mohiuddin Dagar seems to have 
> introduced the idea of playing without plectra (the absence of which 
> will produce less attack) only in the second half of this century. Add to 
> this the low volume of the rudra vina relative to the voice, which suggest 
> that if the instrument was to make any contribution to he total sound of 
> the performance, it must have been played quite assertively ie plucked very 
> hard.

North Indian khayaal singers seem to prefer saarangii or harmonium
accompaniment. And khayaal has been steadily replacing dhrupad as the
most widespread genre since the times of Tansen. 

> In addition, several North Indian musicians have suggested that the use of 
> an instrument (even the sarod) with a strong, crisp attack for accompanying 
> certain types of performance, such as the nom-tom of dhrupad, and tarana. 

This suggestion makes a lot of sense. Certainly, a plucked stringed
instrument can accompany non-tom in dhrupad, or the taanam in Carnatic
music extremely well. 

Actually, the use of the Veena to accompany vocal Carnatic music is not
entirely unknown. There is a recording of Smt. M. S. Subbalakshmi
accompanied by Sri K. S. Narayanaswamy on the Veena. The famous Veena
Dhanammal used to sing and play the Veena at the same time. However,
one perceived problem in Veena accompaniment to vocal music in modern
times is one of pitch. The Veena used to be tuned to G or G# at the turn
of the century, but the preferred pitch has come down to D# or E, which is
too low for female voices and probably too high for most male voices.
Also, modern audiences have gotten used to violin accompaniment, and there
seems to be a great inertia against switching to anything else. 

Another experiment that has been tried recently is one by Dr.
Balamuralikrishna, who has sung concerts with flute accompaniment. 

> In searching for a blend with the voice, and a perfect legato (sorry to use 
> the Italian/European word, please provide Indian equivalent!), two other 
> factors may have been underplayed in searching for the ideals of 
> accompaniment: the idea of timbral contrast, and the idea of comparable 
> attack. 
> Is it possible that the aims of accompaniment have changes over centuries, 
> and such changes might be causally linked to choice of accompanying 
> instrument.

Yes, these things have changed over time. In fact, the history of Carnatic
music in the 19th and 20th centuries is one of rather rapid change in many
things. One factor that has changed the aims and preferences of
accompaniments in recent times is the shift in venue from an intimate
private room to a public auditorium. 

S. Vidyasankar

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