european musical instruments in India

Vidyasankar Sundaresan vidya at
Thu Mar 27 04:04:16 UTC 1997

On Thu, 27 Mar 1997, Jacob Baltuch wrote:


> Re: early (1800s) violin "technology" found in Carnatic violin. Is the
> bow different from the usual bow? Bow type changed radically in Europe
> around 1820.

The earliest south Indians to play the violin used the "fiddle" that came
with the English martial bands. Since then, south Indians have generally
used violins as designed in Europe. The post-1820 bow is what is used by
Indian musicians. The violin did not enter Carnatic music in a very big
way till the mid-19th century. It still has to impact Hindustani music to
the same extent. I don't think the technical requirements of Indian music
are any "easier" than those of Western music. As the underlying philosophy
behind the two systems are so completely different, Indian musicians tune
the instrument differently, and the left-hand fingering technique has
developed over the years. Indian experimentation with the violin has taken
many forms. One musician from Karnataka, Mysore Chowdiah, even tried to
put seven strings on the violin, with quite disastrous results. In recent
times, there is the double-violin of L. Shankar. In more mainstream
Carnatic music, people have been content to use violins, bows and strings
as designed in the West, and have limited their experimentation to 
fingering techniques. One can even describe three or four different 
schools that are prevalent.

While musicians have been experimenting with the instrument, I find it
disturbing that Indians have not really learned the art of making violins,
even after more than a century of using it widely. Good violins are made
even in Japan, but not in India. Quite often, a potentially good violinist
is ruined by a bad violin. This might be part of the reason for the
scratchy, "non-vocal" sound attributed to Indian violinists. Unless of
course, the musician in question was actually playing on a Stradivarius,
and still producing scratchy sounds!!

On the subject of Western instruments being used in Indian music, I
propose to call the recent fad for electronic synthesizers as a
"MacDonald's effect", a competitor of the "pizza effect" in Indian music.
The pizza effect explains why musicians like Ravi Shankar and L.
Subramaniam are more popular in India than their colleagues in the music
profession. The MacDonald's effect is more elementary than that. It is
based on the simple idea that a thing is good simply because it comes from
the West. This syndrome affects almost all Indians who never set foot out
of the country. Those Indians who live in the West probably get immune to
it! For example, one modern guru has taken a fancy to the synth, and 
Carnatic musicians whom I credited with better musical sensibilities are
vying with one another to accompany him on the flute, violin, mridangam
etc. Another instance is the widespread use of the synth and the electric
guitar in ensembles of bhajan and ghazal singers. 

S. Vidyasankar

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