I was listening recently to a rendition of a Kalyani raga alapana followed by the kriti “Birana brova ide” by the peerless T. Brinda on Vaak, a YouTube channel that carries music of past masters of Carnatic music.
The rendition is riveting for her tunefulness, the supple vocalisation of phrases, and the tight build-up of structure, where less is more. She is accompanied by Vegavahini on vocals and T. Ranganathan on the mridangam. Interestingly, there is no violin, that near-inevitable part of a Carnatic ensemble.
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The comments below the video observe that the music is particularly lovely because of the absence of the violin accompaniment.
This is not likely to be received well by a large segment of the Carnatic music community and might be seen as somewhat unfair to our great violin masters, past and present. Nevertheless, and without denying that violinists are among the best musicians in the Carnatic world, one might reflect upon the aesthetics of violin accompaniment in Carnatic music.
“Accompaniment” is a translation of pakkavadyam (Carnatic music) and sangat or saath (Hindustani music). Pakka literally means “on the side of” and seems to refer to the physical proximity of the violin and mridangam players vis-a-vis the lead performer. The sense of support, as in pakkabalam,also seems implied. Saath and sangat mean “going along with”. The performance tradition recognises the varying quality of such “going along” and uses “sangat” to indicate a more sensitive going-along than “saath”, which may be desultory and mechanical. In Carnatic music we speak of superior accompaniment as one that nourishes the whole performance (poshikkaradu).
Reminiscing on his first tour with Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Zakir Hussain recalled the master’s response to a query about his accompaniment. Panditji merely observed: “You are not looking at me during the performance.” A stunned Zakir Hussain rectified this in the next concert and discovered the profound impact this simple reorientation made on the music.
Accompaniment demands engagement with more than just the ears, when all senses are cued in and some vital connection flows between the performers. The jazz composer Chuck Israels says that an accompanist “must live in the body of whomever has the lead voice… the accompanist experiences every breath, every nuance of muscle tension and timing, and every dynamic change in the music of the “lead” musician.” In light of these observations, the comment about the sublime quality of Brinda Amma’s sans-violin performance is thought-provoking.
The violinist’s task in a Carnatic concert is challenging; she has to anticipate and shadow the lead performer’s music without obvious lag. There are the other challenges of keeping up with stylistic variations, korvais, and complex pallavis, and the violinist often does not have previous warning about any of these.
- The violinist’s task in a Carnatic concert is challenging; she has to anticipate and shadow the lead performer’s music without obvious lag.
- The question that needs to be probed is: what does the violin accompaniment actually contribute to the music?
- The violin’s place as accompaniment in a Carnatic concert is so well entrenched that a critique of its role can be unsettling.
Role of violin
Granting the difficulty of the task and the undeniable musicianship of many among our violinists, the question that needs to be probed is this: what does the violin accompaniment actually contribute to the music? The excitement offered during exchanges between the lead performer and the violinist during swara prastharam and neraval might seem enough to vindicate its role.
But the question here is of its role when it plays along with the lead performer and not only in the repartee segment.
The ideal for melodic accompaniment is imagined like a shadow, following the lead performer, strengthening and supporting her. Since our music is not vertically organised—we do not have chords and harmony—the violinist has to play what the lead performer sings or plays. And there are different ways this can be achieved: it can be a literal reproduction or a suggestive one. And we do have varying styles among our violin accompanists. The role of the violin then is to shadow, support the singer, and fill the gaps.
A widely prevalent strategy is to play the tail end of the melodic phrase that the singer executes, the point of which is puzzling. The harmonium or the sarangi, one might note, does not do this while accompanying a khayal performance.
Gaps and silences
A typical Carnatic performance, therefore, projects a continuous sound where the violin fills all gaps in the performance. But why? Gaps and silences make for a greater musical experience, as Brinda Amma’s Kalyani shows us. Repeating the phrase the lead performer has just performed is unexciting at best and absurd at worst.
Not only is it unexciting, but a degree of shoddiness is also inescapable. There is an inevitable time lag in the violin’s reproduction of the lead performer’s phrases, leading to clashes—to which the Carnatic audience seems to have become desensitised. The less seasoned a violinist, the more obvious the clash, but even otherwise, some clash is near inevitable.
The absence of such discord because of the absence of the violin is also why the experience of that Kalyani was so riveting.
Many musicians today also see the tedium of the violinist essaying an alapana in the same raga immediately after the lead performer has finished essaying hers.
The fundamental question here is, why does the voice need a shadow following it? Why do we not get to hear the sheer voice against a well-tuned tambura in a Carnatic concert? That would, of course, necessitate a much greater effort to cultivate the voice than what we find among today’s singers. Dare we say that the violin is also used as a crutch during a performance? Such is the hold of the violin on the Carnatic ear today that even instrumental soloists have it as an accompaniment—something that was not done even a generation ago.
No doubt, the violin accompaniment offers the lead performer some rest during the concert. And its role during exchanges of kalpanaswarams and neraval is also granted. But the artistic value of playing along with the lead performer in all sections of the concert certainly merits reflection and debate. If we were outsiders to this music, what would we think about our violin accompaniment?
There is a long history of geeta and vadya coming together, some of which is seen in the Carnatic concert today while others have perhaps been lost in practice. In a masterful essay, the eminent musicologist Dr Mukund Lath explores the history of this coming together through a criss-crossing study of Natyasastra, Abhinavabharati, and Sangeetaratnakara.
Sangeetaratnakara speaks of three kinds of going behind the song (geetaanuga): one of them aspires to follow every aspect of the song, another only some of them, and the last, while it still follows the song, charts new directions.
Ultimately, as Dr Lath observes, the raga demands that the musician goes it solo. It flowers best in the music of a kevali—he who will explore the raga unfettered by any accompaniment. But the demands of concert performances are somewhat different.
The violin’s place as accompaniment in a Carnatic concert is so well entrenched that a critique of its role can be unsettling. But it helps to remember that the violin as accompaniment is a phenomenon not much older than 150 years, and the circumstances in which it emerged in this role do not apply today.
Lakshmi Sreeram is a vocalist in both Carnatic and Hindustani traditions. She is a faculty member in Ahmedabad University.