Tulsidas Bhajan (rendition by violin maestro Dr N Rajam)
About Indian Classical Violin

The violin is one of the most popular instruments in the world. A simple four-stringed instrument played with a bow, its bright, dynamic tone and the infinite variety possible on its fretless fingerboard makes it suitable for almost any kind of music. The origins of the violin are difficult to determine, since bowed string instruments have been played in many parts of the world for millennia, but the violin in its modern form was developed in Europe in the 1500s, towards the end of the Renaissance period. Over the next few centuries, the violin became one of the principal instruments in Western music, and it was introduced to Indian classical music from the West in the 19th century.

Advent to India

From the 16th century onwards, India had experienced extensive influence from various European powers. In the early 1800s, a prominent Carnatic (South Indian classical) musician and composer, Baluswamy Dikshitar (1786-1859), brother of the illustrious Muttusvami Dikshitar of the Carnatic trinity, underwent some training in Western violin and then began to play Indian music on the instrument. The violin proved perfectly suited for the music, as the gamakas (glides and oscillations through the notes – the lifeline of Carnatic music) were not only possible, but natural and intuitive on the violin. Thus Baluswamy Dikshitar is considered the father of Indian classical violin. Following him, many other artistes, such as the famous Tanjavur Vadivelu in the court of Maharaja Swati Tirunal, took to the violin and helped establish it in the field of Carnatic music.

Advances in Indian Classical Violin

The violin quickly dominated the role of accompaniment, as it proved very capable of following and responding to the music of the voice and of other instruments. In this respect, many great violinists flourished. However, another pioneer, Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu (1893-1964), brought the violin into center stage and exhibited its vast potential as a lead instrument as well. Since, many great soloists and duettists emerged, contributing in their own ways to the art of playing the violin.

The Indian Style of Playing the Violin

Although the construction of the violin is the same in Indian and Western music, the tuning, playing posture, and techniques are quite different. Firstly, the strings are tuned in the following pattern to suit the tonic note (shruti) based approach to melody in Indian music:

Thus, if the tonic note were D, for instance, the string arrangement would be A & D in two octaves.

The next major difference in playing the violin in Indian music is the posture. Indian music is performed seated on the ground, and violinists have also followed suit. The violin leans vertically on the neck or chest, with the scroll resting on the right foot. Chin rests in the Western fashion are not needed, due to the difference in posture. The bow is gripped by the wooden shaft with the thumb between the shaft and the hair, again necessitated by the change in posture.

Indian Violin Today

Today, the violin is not only ubiquitous in Carnatic music, but has also become a popular instrument among North Indian classical (Hindustani) musicians. Since the violin was adopted into Hindustani music in the early 20th century, many stalwart Hindustani violinists have emerged and captivated many an audience with their unique style of playing the violin. Indian violin has also gained worldwide popularity, with legends from Yehudi Menuhin onwards expressing their admiration for the way Indian musicians have handled the instrument.

Thus the violin, an amazingly versatile instrument, is now a true part of India’s rich musical heritage.