european musical instruments in India

Vidyasankar Sundaresan vidya at
Thu Mar 27 17:09:12 EST 1997

On Thu, 27 Mar 1997, Jacob Baltuch wrote:

> One point I didn't see mentioned re: the adoption of violin (and not
> of other European instruments). Maybe what also favored it was the
> fact that it can play in any tuning, not only the equal-tempered one
> (unlike say the guitar or European wind instruments)? Sure, individualities
> are key, but one can also ask, why did only the violin find such
> individualities while other Euro. instruments didn't. Note the violin is
> also the only European instrument adopted into classical Arabic music.

Tuning according to just intonation or equal temparement is only part of
the story in Indian music. The ancient theory of 22 Srutis is known more
on paper than in practice. A stringed instrument with a fretted board can
be easily adapted to Indian music, with minimal changes in the positions
of a few frets. As for wind instruments, the clarinet and saxophone have
both been recently explored in Carnatic music, with fairly decent results.
Of course, the fact that the violin does not have frets is very much in
its favor. 

More important than the system of tuning are certain other features of the
violin. The continuity of its sound is a distinct advantage. At the same
time, it can blend in with the voice quite well, without swamping the
voice with its intensity. Finally, the rise of the violin's popularity
in Carnatic music goes hand in hand with the rise in the numbers of public
concerts in large auditoria. For one reason or the other, south Indians
prefer their music to be fairly loud. Plucked string instruments like
guitars and the Veena cannot deliver great intensities of sound, without a
large amount of high fidelity amplification, something that was not
available at the turn of the century. 

Addressing Max Langley's point about the scratchiness of the bowing of
many Indian violinists, may I point out that even the greatest vocalists
have not been particularly noted for the sweetness of their voices? Indian
audiences throng to vocal concerts by Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, or D. K.
Pattammal or Gangubai Hangal. On their best days, these vocalists can
produce rasping sounds. The last named lady has such a manly voice
that she is often jokingly referred to as Gangubua Hangal. The male
vocalists would also do such things as snort snuff on stage, or blow their
noses into handkerchiefs, or cough and audibly clear their throats, all
these actions being constantly amplified by the mikes in front of their
faces. Typically, north Indian musicians tend to be more sophisticated
with these things than the south Indians, which probably accounts for the
greater popularity of Hindustani music in the West. But then, south Indian
audiences look past these things, and look for musical genius or ingenuity
or innovation. Consequently, scratchy sounds from violins are tolerated to
a greater extent than one might expect. Finding musical genius and a
mellifluous voice in the same individual can be a rare event. Personally,
I would prefer a raw, earthy voice with all its blemishes if it belongs to
a musical genius to the sweet, sanitized one of a mediocrity. The same
thing goes for an instrumentalist. And if the public image of Carnatic
musicians is any indication, most afficionados have similar views. 

> I would assume (although I couldn't myself say) that Indian violinists
> take advantage of this capability & play the ragas correctly, which they
> don't do on electronic keyboards. (Although if they really wanted to go
> thru the headache they could. There are MIDI keyboards which can download
> tuning tables from say a computer or a sequencer. Or maybe in the styles
> of music which would tend to adopt synthesizers one shouldn't expect
> musicians to worry too much about shrutis)

Yes, the MIDI keyboards might help, but unless the player is prepared to
do constant pitch-bending, it is impossible to render any of the really
Carnatic ragas properly. But as I said earlier, the tuning is only one
part of the story. The harmonium used to be a much reviled instrument
once (All India Radio even banned its use for some time), but it is
ubiquitous in Hindustani vocal concerts nowadays. And Hindustani musicians
are well-known, even in south India, for paying the utmost attention to
Sruti fidelity. The real reason is not that a keyboard would have problems
with Srutis, but that good Carnatic music is not very amenable to a

> And one can also ask, was there a specific empty niche the violin found in
> Carnatic music? Was it experimentation for the mere joy of experimentation?
> (With then lasting results)

Of course, the answer to the second question is yes, but there was a niche
into which the violin fit admirably - namely, that of accompaniment to
vocal music. Although Carnatic instrumental music revolves around vocal
music conceptually, none of the south Indian instruments (barring
percussion ones) is really suited for an accompanying role. The wind
instruments like the flute and the nadaswaram are too loud and can be
fickle in their pitches, the Veena is not loud enough, and in the hands of
an average player, can be quite staccato. Note that only an average player
would typically fit the accompanist's role, the maestro preferring to be a
soloist. And then, in the colonial context, there was the added challenge
of asserting one's own cultural independence, by mastering a white man's
instrument and bending it to your will! The violin was an apt candidate
for all these requirements. 

S. Vidyasankar

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