Meet the Hindustani violinist who has spawned a rare all-women classical musical lineage

N Rajam is surprised that you see a quartet of women violinists from across three generations of a family as an inspirational saga of feminist triumph. “Really? Things have changed now, no?” she asks, strong eyebrows raised in mild amusement.

You argue back. What about gender discrimination? Male dominance in the tradition of musical lineage? “Aisi koi pareshani nahin hai,” she says firmly in her distinctive Hindi – an assured, clipped delivery, Benaresi lilt and a whiff of the South.

At 84, Rajam, the most popular Hindustani violinist today, simply refuses to accept the pestilential idea of pareshani. On her list of virtues, the word that ranks highest is discipline. “Ammaji” to all, Rajam’s indomitable spirit is matched only by her striking persona – the angular face centred by a trademark large red bindi, the essential nosepin and bright Kanjeevarams.

Her life makes for a fascinating story – prodigious Carnatic beginnings in Chennai, her pioneering work in Benares in the 1950s, a career spanning nearly seven decades and, now, her place at the centre of the female foursome. But she herself cannot see what the fuss is all about.

At 84, Rajam is the most popular Hindustani violinist today. Courtesy: N Rajam.

There is something undeniably uplifting about watching and hearing the energetic Rajam family at work, totally prepared and effervescent. She, her daughter Sangeeta Shankar and granddaughters Nandini and Ragini began performing together over a decade ago, when the youngsters were barely in their teens. Rajam’s niece Kala Ramnath is an acclaimed violinist as well. And if you were to count the children of her brother, the late Carnatic maestro TN Krishnan, the clan has nearly a dozen violinists.

“You have to just put the violin in their hands at age three and make sure they don’t give up,” said Rajam about the family formula. “It has to be done. No negotiations.”

At Delhi’s India International Centre, Rajam’s quartet lit up the annual Festival of Lights this Diwali with the essential family fizz. As always, their violins sang in remarkable approximation of the human voice, with all its emotive embellishments like the meend and the gamak.

What they play is free-flowing, unorchestrated, and not the easiest thing to pull off as a team, a jugalbandi multiplied by four. Space has to be created, ceded, ego has to be set aside and respect given for the other’s creative strength, all the while ensuring that the music is seamless.

“We are all equally capable and so grounded in this music that it is like having a conversation – the give and take is natural,” said Sangeeta. She points to how the three generations have looked at the violin differently – her mother brought a shift in its playing technique, she herself was focused on how it is heard using technology, and her savvy daughters, digital natives both, are experimenting with how it is seen.

String theory

The violin, a European instrument that arrived in the English, French and Portuguese colonies in India in the 18th century, rules the Carnatic universe, both as a solo and accompanying instrument. But in Hindustani music, it has a very small place. It was only around the 1910s that the violin appeared as a classical instrument in Hindustani music, about a full century after it integrated into the Carnatic tradition.

The violin’s absorption into Carnatic music occurred sometime in the early 19th century. It had arrived earlier at Fort St George in Chennai as an instrument to entertain British officers. One story has it that Baluswami, brother of the poet-composer Muthuswami Dikshitar of the famed Carnatic music trinity, was enchanted by the fiddle and learned to play it from an English tutor in Chennai. Another credits the violin’s Carnatic origins to the Thanjavur musician Vadivelu, who learned it from the Christian missionary Friederich Schwartz.

Over two centuries, the violin went on to become an integral part of the Carnatic system, highly vocalised in how it was played. This evolution forms the crux of anthropologist Amanda Weidman’s book Singing the Classical, Voicing the Modern: The Postcolonial Politics of Music in South India. Weidman says the Carnatic violin became a “ventriloquizer” for the human voice because the community wanted to “create a distinctively Indian sound, a representative ‘voice’ not in danger of being confused with anything remotely Western”. So strong was the violin’s influence that the singing voice itself was amended to get the violin effect, she says.

Hindustani musicians became aware of the charm of the violin sometime in the early 1900s, estimates musicologist Suneera Kasliwal.

It was Parur Sundaram Iyer, a masterly Carnatic violinist from Kerala, who brought the instrument to the Gandharva Maha Vidyalaya in Mumbai, where he taught it while learning the Hindustani system from Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, the school’s legendary founder. (Iyer’s son, the versatile musician MS Gopalakrishnan, was to later play the violin in both Hindustani and Carnatic systems fluently.) This development produced a strong line of violinists from Maharashtra: DK Datar, Gajananrao Joshi and VG Jog, among them.

Meanwhile, another stream of Hindustani violin was evolving along the eastern coast. The legendary Allauddin Khan, who had astonishing mastery over an array of instruments, was also mastering the violin in Kolkata. His son Ali Akbar Khan speaks of how he was first taught basic violin by Swami Vivekananda’s brother Habu Datta and later refined his skills under the Goan orchestra leader Lobo Prabhu.

Allauddin Khan’s students included some great violinists, such as Jog, Rabin Ghosh and Sisirkana Dhar Chowdhury, a very private but highly gifted artiste who is considered by some to be the first woman violin player in the Hindustani tradition (she and Rajam are just a year apart in age and their careers share more or less similar timelines).

Vocal chords

Rajam arrived on the Hindustani scene in Benares at the age of 20 after already being trained in the Carnatic style by her father, A Narayana Iyer, and the vocal colossus Musiri Subramania Iyer. At age 14, Rajam famously played for MS Subbulakshmi.

Rajam was trained in the Carnatic style by her father, A Narayana Iyer, and Musiri Subramania Iyer, before she arrived on the Hindustani scene. Courtesy: N Rajam.

The predominant manner of violin playing in Hindustani at the time was gatkari or tantrakari, the plucked string style typical to sitar and sarod. It is a complex tradition associated with many gharanas, including the Allauddin Khan school, which does not emphasise sustained lingering on a note or bol – the technique that can wrest something similar to human singing.

For Rajam, the decision to switch to the vocal style of instrument playing despite the dominance of the tantrakari style was instinctive. “I was already playing the vocal style of playing the violin because that was the Carnatic tradition,” she recalled. “And I thought why not play the gayaki pattern on the Hindustani violin too. The long bow of the violin allows for the continuity of tone and you could see the ocean of difference this style could bring to music.” She has spoken elsewhere about those early years, when she was criticised for imposing the Carnatic style on Hindustani.

At 20, Rajam was offered a lectureship at the Banaras Hindu University and she left for a new life, her protective parents accompanying her to ease her life in an alien city and culture. “It turned out to be a perfect place,” she said.

Rajam makes little of the many achievements in her life. Courtesy: N Rajam.

In her attempt to vocalise the violin in Hindustani style, Rajam had the support and mentorship of two men, both “strict disciplinarians” – her father, and a giant of the Hindustani vocal field, Omkarnath Thakur. The latter, a student of Paluskar, was known to be a hard taskmaster and a temperamental man with strong nationalistic views (he is said to have sung for Mussolini at a concert in Florence). His singing was known for its use of vocal histrionics and stress on high-octane emotionalism. For Rajam, then, the need to reproduce the khayal or the thumri on her violin became a natural choice.

“I could play any vocal form on my violin – khayal, dhrupad, thumri,” she said. “You could give me any vocal passage, and I could pull it off on the violin.” Rajam actually accompanied Thakur on the violin in his vocal concerts, a very unusual privilege because khayal singers only use the sarangi and the harmonium for accompaniment. The other violinist to pull off this feat was DK Datar, who played for DV Paluskar.

Generational wealth

After she retired from the Banaras Hindu University, where both her academic and performative career thrived, Rajam moved to Mumbai and then Thane, where she now lives, as do Sangeetha and the grandchildren. Thane now, the family quip goes, is the hub of all violin playing.

“We had no choice,” said Nandini on following the family tradition. “Who is discerning at age three anyway? Just as we resisted bathing, we resisted practice. But Ammaji was a strict guru. She was a mix of the grandmother and the teacher – some scolding, some cajoling, some pointing to the birds and the teddy. But she persisted and by the time we were 12-13 we learnt to love this music.”

Rajam’s granddaughters Nandini and Ragini started learning the violin at age three. Courtesy: N Rajam.

Today, the four are so imbued with the Rajam technique that their creative discussions are quite democratic. Nandini and Ragini are venturesome with creative experiments, collaborating with other artistes and styles, and freely using digital technology to create new musical expressions.

“We talk about what we are doing with our mother and Ammaji, but our musical standard is the same, so the discussions are honest and respectful,” said Nandini, whose fusion work with her husband Mahesh Raghavan, titled The Kapi Dance, went viral in the early phase of the Covid-19 lockdown. It featured the violin and GeoShred, a music app.

And what does Rajam think of these radical shifts? “Times have changed. It’s okay,” she responded, sotto voce. “It was hard when I changed things around too. But if it has to be done, it has to be done.”

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