THE VIOLIN IN CARNATIC MUSIC: by Subhadra Vijaykumar*

*(scroll down for bio)

The European violin has been Indianized in many ways during the past 200 years to produce South Indian classical music.

The Indian classical violinist’s playing posture is different from that of his Western counterpart. The Western violinist stands with his feet at a right angle and holds the violin between the left collarbone and chin, the instrument at a perpendicular slant to the body. The left hand provides the other support to the instrument.

The South Indian violinist sits cross-legged on the floor and balances the instrument between his chest and the ankle bone of his right foot, on which rests the scroll of the violin. This posture facilitates the free movement of the left hand along the fingerboard, particularly in producing the gamakas (graces) integral to the Carnatic mode. It also necessitated appropriate changes in bowing technique, the changes being duly made.

In the Western system, the four strings are tuned in the order E A D G from right to left, each five tones apart. However, in the Carnatic system, the tuning is not absolute but relative. Beginning with the fourth string (the E string being the first string) the tuning is as follows: tonic, dominant, tonic octave higher, dominant octave higher (the tonic being variable in Carnatic music).

Carnatic music system revolves around vocal music. Therefore, any instrument with unique qualities can best complement vocal music. The violin, because of its unique qualities, has earned its place as an accompanying instrument and also as a solo instrument. The instrument can be tuned to any pitch that the vocalist chooses. The bow lends continuity to the instrument, a necessary ingredient for vocal music.

The tonal quality and the volume that it produces enable it to blend with the human voice. The area of operation is small, thus making it possible to play any speed to match the vocalist with ease. Its range includes 3 octaves, which is the normal range for a good vocalist. It can produce all subtle nuances, graces (gamakas), modulations, and all the microtones (srutis) which characterize our music. It can paint any musical phrase evoked by any other instrument.

The phenomenal potentialities of the instrument enable it to approximate the human voice very closely. In other words, it can kindle the bhava that the voice produces with the same intensity. So it has inspired and helped the vocalist and other instrumentalists. All these qualities have earned the violin the place it deserves and enjoys.

It must be noted that these are additional merits in comparison to other instruments, so over the years, apart from being an accompanying instrument, the violin has emerged as a solo instrument in the hands of virtuosos in no less measure than when compared to any other solo instrument.

History of the Indianization of the Violin

About two hundred years ago, during the British rule over India, the Violin first made its entry into the annals of South Indian classical music, that is, Carnatic music, chiefly through three persons. They were: Varahappa Iyer, Baluswami Dikshitar, and Vadivelu.

Varahappa Iyer, a minister of the Tanjavur Maratha court in Southern India, was a highly placed official, well-versed in English, who had an in-depth knowledge of music. On his visit to the British governor’s residence in Madras, he had the opportunity to see the various Western instruments in his collection. His close friendship with the Governor enabled him to try them out. Although he was initially awestruck at the range (spanning 7 octaves) of the piano, he instinctively realized that it was the violin that was eminently adaptable to our system of music. A brief period of practice increased his familiarity with the instrument to the extent that the governor gifted it to him. With time, he became proficient enough to provide accompaniment to vocal music. In recognition of his meritorious service, a lane in Tanjavur has been named after him.

Baluswami Dikshitar (1786-1859), son of Ramaswami Dikshitar and brother of Muthuswami Dikshitar, lived at Manali. The Dikshitar family was patronized by Manali Muthukrishna Mudaliar (Dubash – interpreter to the British governor, Pigot). Mudaliar introduced Baluswami Dikshitar to Western music at the performance of the European band attached to the East India Company. Dikshitar learned to play the Western violin for 3 years. Later, he began trying out Carnatic music on the violin and so developed his skills and playing technique that he was appointed State Vidwan of Ettayapuram in 1824.

Vadivelu (1810-1845), the youngest of the Tanjavur quartet (all of whom were students of Muthuswami Dikshitar) was a composer and a vocalist. He was the Asthana Vidwan at Travencore, during Swati Tirunal’s (1813-1837) reign. The Maharaja encouraged Vadivelu to take up playing the violin. Suitably impressed, he presented an ivory violin to Vadivelu in 1834. Vadivelu is credited with introducing short passages on the violin for classical dance performances.

Indian musical instruments were classified into 5 classes, of which Tara, or string instrument, played with the bow is of relevance. In those days, though bowed instruments like Ek Tar, Dilruba, and Esraj were prevalent, only instruments like Flute, Sarangi, Vil-yazh, and Veena were used in South India to provide support to the voice. The timbre, potentiality of the violin, and its ability to blend with the voice gave the instrument an edge over all other instruments as the most ideal accompanying instrument.

After the introduction of the violin by Baluswami Dikshitar and others, the efforts of the next generation of violinists, like Tanjavur Sivaramakrishna Iyer, Annaswamy Sastri (grandson of Shamma Sastri), Fiddle Subbarayar etc. helped the role of the violin to grow further. Gradually the violin took precedence over all others as the main melodic accompanying instrument to vocal music and has come to stay.


Subhadra Vijaykumar comes from a family with rich musical traditions. She holds a first class diploma in Carnatic violin from the prestigious Bharatiya Music and Arts Society’s Music College in Mumbai, India. She is presently under the guidance of internationally renowned soloist and maestro, Professor T. N. Krishnan. She has performed in major venues across, Toronto, the far East, and England. With over ten years of teaching experience, Ms. Vijaykumar now teaches at the Mississauga campus of The Royal Conservatory of Music.

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The Royal Conservatory of Music
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