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The final adjustment

Despite having its pitch changed, the violin could still not produce an impressive sound. Until Chowdiah re-invented it with seven strings, which gave the instrument a new status in India.


T. Chowdiah: Imaginative pioneer.

TO SUIT the demands of Carnatic music, the tuning of the violin — combined with the altered pitch, posture, and bowing — brought forth its own problems for the Indian violinist. Although, unlike in the West, the solo violin in a concerto did not have to soar over the sound of 60 other instruments of the orchestra, accompanying a booming voice with the percussion doing its bit, required real effort.

The altered pitch did affect the tone of the violin, going down to levels that the original makers did not intend for the instrument. The volume of sound that the violin created under these circumstances came down.

In most part of the 19th Century, when indigenous violin technique was just evolving, the instrument was more of a curiosity. It was used mainly for accompaniment for the voice. But once the style started developing and bright young students began learning and improving the technique, the problem of the volume of sound started to manifest itself. Exposing of Carnatic music to larger audiences meant playing in larger rooms or halls, where the Carnatic violinist found himself at a big disadvantage. Moreover, the beauty of the sound of the violin playing by itself started catching on.

Unless the hall itself had great acoustic qualities, the sound of the violin became more and more muffled by the time it crossed the centre of the hall. Even during accompaniment, the violin was sometimes no match for a well-trained voice that adequately reached all corners of the hall. Remember, there were no amplifiers or loudspeaker in those days.

Enter Chowdiah, and he devised a unique method of enhancing the sound of the violin. He crafted a violin with seven strings. What the additional strings did was to resonate along with the string being played upon. This gave the Carnatic violin a greater volume in sound. He also developed a technique of playing it.

Under the 20th Century Carnatic violinist, the violin was thus transformed into a totally different instrument, almost unrecognised in its technique and sound production from its Western counterpart. There is a joke that is doing its rounds that when Yehudi Menuhin was told about this seven-stringed innovation, he remarked: "I find it so difficult to play the violin with just four strings. I wonder how he manages seven of them."

Jokes apart, Menuhin had almost a reverential attitude towards Indian music and violin technique. He is said to have presented a few good instruments to some prominent violinists in India.

Even Chowdiah's innovations started losing their relevance to the audience and to the violin after the advent of the microphone, amplifier, and the speaker. It also brought down the necessity of owning an expensive high quality instrument. Whether that is a tragedy or not can be debated for years on end. What it did though was significant. The feeble sound of an indigenously manufactured cheap instrument posed no problems for the violinist on the stage, whether he was playing solo, accompanying another singer, or as an instrumentalist. Even the process involved in the manufacture of violins was downgraded, thanks to the amplifier. As Jerome Davis, who looks down at these violins through his nose, puts it: "Even firewood can be used these days to manufacture violins." But the "Urvashi Shapam" of the amplifier is really an "Upakaram" for the normal amateur and the junior studio professional. It really brings the violin closer to the masses, owing to its price.

Not that the Western technique in India has died out. Many competent Carnatic Violinists, especially professionals, flocked to learn the Western technique long after they had mastered the Carnatic technique. This was to enable these violinists get lucrative assignments in film studios, where alas, you required to know something about Western harmony, notation, and play the violin in the Western style. This used to be the norm from the mid 1930s to as late as the 1990s, till another electronic monster — the synthesizer — started replacing the strings. So far it has not been able to mimic the solo violin, but it is just a matter of time. That goes with the job.

Today, thanks to all these events, both styles exist in India. Competent violinists such as V.S. Narasimhan (of Chennai) or Jyotsna Srikant (of Bangalore) are comfortable playing in a Western chamber orchestra or squatting on the platform for Carnatic music. They are the blessed kind who are erudite, learned, and can enjoy both Western classical and Carnatic music, with the ubiquitous violin as the common bond.

SATISH KAMATH

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