I have been singing since the age of 4, and have trained in Carnatic classical vocal music for over 15 years. But it wasn’t until this evening in Chennai when I begun to think about the how the violin, an instrument of European descent, has transformed itself into being a mainstay in orthodox Carnatic classical music over the years!! Come to think of it, it is not the first and has not been the last musical instrument that is not of Indian origin to have adapted to the Indian classical scene, be it Hindustani or Carnatic styles, but is by far the only one that has not only withstood the test of times and resistance, but has in fact become the mainstay of a traditional classical performance.
Subsequent research led to me to understand that the violin was first introduced in the court of Travancore during the regime of Maharajah Swati Tirunal. The violin in its advent to India was a direct import from the European make by way of its shape but differed in execution and presentation, adapting itself to the style of presentation in Indian music. There were a few adventurous and gifted musicians of the 18th and 19th Centuries who are credited with the introduction of the violin in India. Of them, Vadivelu and Baluswami Dikshitar were perhaps the pioneers. Introduced by Manali Muthukrishna Mudaliar (an interpreter to the British Governor) to Western music at a performance of the European orchestra (or band as it was called), attached to the East India Company, Balaswami trained for three years on the violin.
I also learnt that around the time that the violin made its humble trysts with Indian classical music, there were also attempts made by some well known musicians of that time to introduce the piano with its seven octaves to this genre. But many of that brigade settled down to learn the violin, which they felt could be best adapted to Carnatic music traditions. You could not play gamaka on a piano.
The person who really popularised the violin to the extent that it became a totally accepted instrument in the rendition of Carnatic music was Vadivelu (1810-1845), of the Tanjore Quartet (all of whom were students of Muthuswami Dikshitar). Vadivelu had the good fortune of being appointed as the royal bard in the court of the composer-king Swati Tirunal. His encouragement and patronage saw the violin being performed not only as an accompaniment to the voice, but also as an instrument that even played solo passages during a dance performance.
Significantly, in spite of being a Western instrument with technique developed to suit playing Western classical music, the instrument could be adapted to the needs of Carnatic music. Many Western techniques redundant in Carnatic music were simply overlooked and later discarded.
The first of these was the basic way the violin was tuned, held and played. Carnatic music required the violinist to sit cross-legged on a platform. The violin was, therefore, balanced between the chest and the scroll held by the anklebone of the right foot. The posture felicitated the free flow of the left hand along the fingerboard. This necessitated appropriate changes in the bowing technique, which were duly innovated. Western techniques like colegnio (using the wooden side of the bow instead of the horse hair), marcellato (hammering), and even pizzicato (plucking) were not of much use to the Indian violinist.
We could perhaps say that the story of the adaptation of the violin from being a stylish European instrument to one that has become an essential part of a traditional Indian culture is one of the early examples of “glocalisation” in the truest sense!!!!