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Music: The Singing Violin of Kala Ramnath

By Shuchita Rao Email By Shuchita Rao
December 2012
Music: The Singing Violin of Kala Ramnath

Maestro Kala Ramnath talks about her passion, and its subtleties in the realm of Hindustani and Carnatic music.

“If Mozart had been transported to the South Asian subcontinent this is what he and improvised Western classical music might have sounded like. This comparison is not thrown in to befuddle or impress. Kala Ramnath is a musician of giant-like qualities.”

This was a glowing excerpt from a review of Kala’s music, appearing in the magazine Jazzwise Review. But then it shouldn’t come as a surprise considering this prodigy is a seventh generation classical musician from the famed Mewati Gharana, an institution of Hindustani (North Indian) music. And that she started playing violin at the tender age of three.

Today, her stature as a classical violinist of global reckon has had her performing not only in most major music festivals in India, but also in many international ones. Her violin “voice” is quite unique and identifiable, similar yet distinct from her aunt, Dr. N. Rajam’s style; her technique is said to move the instrument closer to vocal music, earning her violin a description of “the singing violin.” She has performed in concerts at prestigious venues such as Carnegie Hall in New York, Queen Elizabeth Hall – London, and the Sydney Opera House.

Her forays in crossover genres have had her collaborating with Brittany Hass and Jazz violinist Billy Contreras. “One of the things I really admire about Kala is that she was very interested in all the things that Bluegrass and American Roots (including jazz) fiddlers work on, which includes playing through shifting harmonic landscapes, learning thousands of individual tunes, and using recently invented rhythm techniques,” comments Bluegrass fiddler, Darol Anger.

Kala has played with the renowned Eduardo Niebla who plays Spanish Flamenco music on the guitar, with Eyvind Kang and his new age music, and with the classical orchestra in Bologna. As part of the Raga Africa group she has created unique Indo-Afro jazz music. She also has a band called Global Conversation along with Jazz saxophonist George Brooks.

“Her fusion performances with world class musicians from many genres are popular, although I enjoy her pure Hindustani classical improvisations and her accompaniment in Pandit Jasraj’s concerts,” says Amitava Sen, a violinist from Atlanta. “I’m currently enjoying her latest album ‘Aavartan’ which has twelve short vocal bandishes in Mewati gharana style in ragas performed at various times of the day from dusk to dawn,” adds Sen.

Kala started the Pandit Jasraj School of Music in Atlanta in the year 2000. Her recent duet concerts (jugalbandi) with South Indian Carnatic violinist Lalgudi Vijayalakshmi across several U.S. cities were received extremely well by audiences.

She believes that music is the highest form of worship and spoke to Khabar about her journey with the violin and her dream of working with young children and infusing a love for music in them.

Can you comment on the violin in the context of Indian classical instruments?
The violin’s origins are in India. Even today, in Rajasthan, India, you will find an instrument with a hollow body on a 22 inch long fingerboard and one string which traversed three octaves. It is called Ravanhatta and is played with a bow. The Arabs who came from Persia for trade in 6th and 7th century A.D. took it back to their country where it became known as the Rababeh. In the 10th century, the instrument traveled to Spain. There it got transformed first into the viol, then the viola, and later it became the violin as it travelled to Europe. The violin in its present form has 4 strings on a finger board 5.5 inches long. It covers the same three octaves and becomes an easily portable instrument.

What are key differences in the way Indian violin is played from the way Western violin is played?
The key difference is that in Western music, the emphasis is on the notes, whereas in Indian music, the emphasis is on continuity, on the music in-between notes, thereby bringing a totally different vision as far as the playing technique is concerned. The tuning of the instrument in the Western and Indian systems is different. Western violinists hold and play the violin in a standing position while Indian violinists hold and play the violin in a sitting position, with one end of the violin near the tail piece resting underneath the collar bone and the scroll resting on the right ankle. The position allows for the bow to be moved freely by the right hand and the neck becomes free from holding the violin—this method of holding the violin becomes particularly suitable for creating ornamentations using glides and slides specific to our Indian musical system.

Is the North Indian Hindustani style of playing the violin very different from that in the South (Carnatic)?
There’s not much difference in how we hold the instrument or our approach to playing music which lies between notes. The main difference is in the musical ornamentation in the two music systems. One other difference is that Carnatic music is played in around the same tempo whereas in the Hindustani style, we can play in differing tempos—in very slow tempo, medium, fast, and very fast tempos.

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Was your musical training in the Hindustani style right from the beginning? Who were your gurus and music heroes?
As a young child, I may have started learning the basics in the Carnatic style but since the time I started understanding music, I have been learning and playing in the Hindustani style. My grandfather Shri A. Narayana Iyer initiated me into music. I also learned a bit from my aunt, the reputed Hindustani violinist Dr. N. Rajam, and thereafter I underwent intense training for a number of years under the doyen of Mewati Gharana, Pandit Jasraj ji. I was attracted to Pandit Jasraj’s music when I was a young child, found his musical ornamentations and emotions particularly powerful, especially to express through my instrument. However, over the years, I have developed my own style. Some signature aspects of my self-developed individual style include controlling the bow movement to sound out syllables of compositions in a specific manner, in playing fast melodic movements (taans) in a continuous manner (where no one can really tell when I changed the direction of the bow), in long winding slow movements (alaaps) using technique of the fingers of the left hand and the bow to sound as if it were one continuous breath (like the voice), and also some distinct bowing techniques from the West adapted to suit our fast paced Jhala movement.

What would you say are your strengths as a violinist? Do you consciously emulate vocal techniques in your style?
My aunt Dr. N. Rajam was a pioneer in bringing vocal techniques into violin playing. It is called “gaayaki ang.” Violin is a very unique instrument as it can carry all nuances of vocal and instrumental music. When I play, I use both the vocal and instrumental techniques in my music. I have not left any aspect untouched: whether it is bringing aesthetics (rasa), emotion (bhaava), or instrumental (tantrakaari) techniques, I bring it all into my music. I try to be a complete musician.

You recently gave several jugalbandi performances with reputed Carnatic violinist Lalgudi Vijayalakshmi. What compromises did such collaboration call for?
Generally speaking, jugalbandis and fusions are limiting because an artist will need to adjust his capability to match the capabilities and style of the other artists in the jugalbandi or group. When playing a jugalbandi, in a fraction of a second I must think of an answer to a musical phrase my partner has rendered. It causes a break in my own thought process all the time (and vice-versa for my partnering artiste, too)! We need a longer time to understand each other’s approach and sometimes that may never even happen! Audiences of course enjoy jugalbandis and fusion for the “novelty” aspect of the setting and get excited about seeing two or more artists perform together at the same time.

What are your impressions about the electric violin? Is it suitable for playing Indian music?
Electric violins are suitable for loud music, particularly of the Western pop, rock, and sometimes Jazz kind. One can import traditional technique when playing the electric violin, but one cannot hear the sound from the electric violin when it is played unless it is amplified. At times, I have used a contact microphone to amplify the sound but for playing Indian classical music, I prefer the traditional Indian violin.

What do you like about Western violin technique and what do you think Western violinists could take away from our system?
I like the Western bowing technique. I just finished doing a workshop with Bluegrass fiddlers where I heard rhythm being played with the bow, which amazed me. Western violinists can gain by studying Indian musical ornamentations and the art of spontaneous improvisation.

What is your dream in life?
I want to work with children, especially the underprivileged, the ones with autism and other serious ailments and disorders because music is good for child development in many different ways. I want to take Indian classical music to every corner of the world and make it fun for young children to learn music.

Shuchita Rao is a Hindustani vocalist from Boston, Massachusetts. She enjoys freelancing on subjects related to Indian music, art, and culture.


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