european musical instruments in India

Vidyasankar Sundaresan vidya at
Thu Mar 27 04:48:00 UTC 1997

On Wed, 26 Mar 1997, David R. Israel wrote:


> Still, I don't know if these cases of practice quite solve the 
> mystery raised by Chandan -- and one imagines there must have been 
> some manner or route of justifying the seeming gesture of disrespect 
> -- whether in case of violin or sitar.

One just does the easy thing, without bothering too much about ritual
purity. For example, saliva is polluting, which is why many Indians
prefer to wet the gum on an envelope with water, rather than using their
tongues. But this ritual impurity associated with saliva does not stop
Indians from playing the bamboo flute or the shehnai or the nadaswaram.
Saliva necessarily touches these instruments in the act of playing. And
the flute is Krishna's instrument, while most festivals are incomplete
without shehnais or nadaswarams. No justification is offered. The
nadaswaram is quite openly described in Tamil as "echchal (saliva) 
vAdyam (instrument)", although it is also considered an auspicious

> Another note about the violin in Indian music.  L. Subramaniam 
> alluded to me some of the Tanjore court history discussed in some 
> detail by S. Palaniappan.  But he *also* refered to the belief 
> (probably a prevalent belief) that the violin has ancient antecedents 
> in the so-called *ravana* [or some cognate word?] -- a legendary 
> bowed-string instrument associated w/ the Lord of Lankha, of epic 
> fame (&/or infamy).  The general sense of this reference by the 
> musician seemed to be a suggestion that South Indians were 
> predisposed to favor such a bowed string instrument as the violin due 
> to this ancient history -- and/or, a sense that it's something they'd 
> seen before that had thus been re-introduced by the Dutch folks.

This certainly is a prevalent belief nowadays, the instrument of Ravana
being called rAvaNAstra. But this seems largely mythical, and partly
motivated by a misguided need to claim an ancient Indian history for the
violin. If there was any ancient Indian history for a bowed instrument,
south Indians were not aware of it in the 18th-19th centuries. 

Take the contemporary Carnatic musician, Mandolin U. Srinivas. He rose to
fame within a couple of years since he started performing in public. One
might argue that south Indians were predisposed to plucked string
instruments, and give the south Indian Veena as an example. But if you
take into account that the south Indian Veena typically ends up as a
beautiful item in a showcase in a drawing room, and that there are more 
flute and violin concerts than Veena concerts in a typical music festival
in Madras, you have to wonder what such a predisposition means. You also
have to wonder why such a predisposition does not manifest itself in terms
of other plucked string instruments like sitar, sarod, guitar, balalaika

Rather, the story of the violin in Carnatic music is the story of
influential individuals like Baluswamy Dikshitar, the Tanjavur Quartet,
and the rulers of Tanjavur, Travancore, Mysore, Ettayapuram, Pudukkottai
etc. The early players, encouraged by the rulers, developed the concept
that the violin is a good accompaniment to Carnatic vocal music, and it
has come to stay. In fact, till quite recently, it was generally felt that
the violin is suited only for an accompanying role, and should not be
played solo. But the individualistic nature of Carnatic music is beginning
to assert itself, and increasingly, a violinist who is mainly an
accompanist is deemed to be of lesser status than a violinist who plays

S. Vidyasankar

More information about the INDOLOGY mailing list