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The Musical Touch

"Do you sing? Do you dance? Do you play any musical instruments? Do you know anything that is Carnatic at all??? " Well, these are questions one is likely to be asked at certain specific kinds of interviews :). And my answers to some of them would be typically "I do sing, but at rather restricted places, I do dance but with rather restricted shaking of restricted body parts".. The naked truth is that I'm not Carnatic for a few forced violin classes in early childhood.

It was the year 1992 or 1993 (Oh No, not another nostalgic one..I can hear you whine..but muster up patience and read on..). My grandfather brought home a violin from his shopping. Music was supposed to be running in my mother's family genes. Well, only later did people realise that I had inherited the paternal gene for music, but it was too late then. At first sight, the violin looked sexy ;) with its deep curves and dark complexion. (Trust me, I was only ten then..)The bow, which my grandfather said is made from a horse's tail, was pretty scary though..a sort of manly security to the curvy lady, it seemed to an exaggerated ten-year-old mind.

My mother dutifully enrolled me in a violin class after many rounds of consultations on who is the best teacher around. My teacher was an octagenerian Iyengar to whom every eligible kid in the neigbourhood reported to with a violin. He was tall, fair, had silver-white hair and was never seen without the namam. He had a very sensitive ear to music, but a not-so-sensitive ear to speech. His ruffian voice more than made up for that though.
I didn't like him at first encounter and I bet he wouldnt have liked me either.

I didn't realise it then, but he was one of the most dedicated teachers I've ever come across so far. Very few of us do justice to the profession we take up, forget being passionate about it, he was one of those rare specimens. He thought I played well, though a little too fast (that was a by-product of my natural impatience he said nail-on-head). He greeted me with a broad smile and called me "Nithi" affectionately. I didn't realise how proud he was of me until one day, when he commented to his wife "Look at how well she plays, she will win in any contest that comes up her way". Well that is something, given that he is supposed to be one of those breeds who don't appreciate students point-blank. Sadly, I didn't appreciate his appreciation either.

Call it impatience or egotism or sheer foolishness, playing the violin and the carnatic numbers didnt seem romantic to me. I played for a while because I was appreciated, played a little more because my parents forced me to, and then stopped playing. I was too busy with my class 6 newly discovered Science subjects - Physics, Chemistry , Botany ,Zoology , and wasn't able to manage time with violin classes also - was the reason I quoted to my parents.
Well, there were many such temporary breaks before the ultimate break..And I decided to continue after the first break because of this cute American cousin of mine who loved to play the violin ;). I wanted to go to the same teacher but I was scared that I had stopped sine die without prior notice. My father made up for his angry spasms with a veshti, some sweet talk. God know how many veshtis my father had bestowed upon him.

In between breaks, I progressed upto the varnas.I loved the Abogi raagam in particular,(for it is played mostly with the third string, if you know what it means) though I'm not the kind who remembers the raagas and thaalas, the arohanams or aurohanams. By then, he was kinda used to my intermittent breaks, and noted sometimes lightly, sometimes seriously "Aana oona odi poyiduva, thirumbi varumbothu appava veshtiyoda sibarisukku kootindu vanthuruva".Until the end, I didnt get the urge to stage-perform with the violin, much to the disappointment of my parents. I was more of an academic, I'd be more interested in the physics of the longitudinal waves the violin produces than the rythms of those waves, I kept re-iterating to myself foolishly. I never progressed beyond the varnas.

At high school and college, I developed a renewed penchant for the violin again. But alas, he was not there..He had moved to Madras then. I tried attending classes under a few others, but could't stand starting from the sa-re-ga-ma again from teachers who were not half as good as he was. And I seriously found it difficult to manage time. I discontinued.....

My mother wanted me to practise what I learnt from him atleast...I didn't know how to fix the sruthi without him , but still I did play with abaswarams for a while until one day when the strings themselves couldn't stand my abaswarams and broke. I didnt know how to fix them. That is the end of the musical touch in my life..Well, its just a touch, nothing further ;)....atleast till now.

Many a time in my adulthood, I'd wished if only I'd been a little more assiduous and paid heed to my parents' words, I would have played the violin with elan today. Atleast, I would have been able to recognize the raagas or be able to tell who sings how on TV in 'Indian Icon' (which is one of the topmost regrets in my life today ;). Or when I listen to this scintillating number 'Unnakul Naanae' from 'Patchaikili Muthucharam', I get those memories flooding back.

Well, I hope to take that musical touch a little deeper. When I do find time, I hope to continue my violin classes sometime in the future. As you would have guessed, the old teacher would not be there to accept me, greet me or teach me inspite of my misgivings. Sustaining the classes can be tough in this demanding corporate world. However it is one of the tributes I ought to give to a great musician and an inspiring teacher.


Divya said…
Ok, Back Iam... first to comment on this... Well, this one is completely nostalgic to me cos I have similar experiences too... My parents found that I could sing when a paatu vaathiyar taught my bro music... I would sit and listen to him sing and i would start singing automatically... So, I was asked to join classes too.. But, I wasnt fascinated by Karnatic music as a kid either.. I still remember the times when I have protested to sit for classes and fought with my mom when the music teacher was waiting for me... I always found the perfect excuses to cut classes... i always opened the varnam book, saw the swarams and sang, my music teacher never liked that... Because I had a good voice and I had the ear for music, i managed to get till the 'Pancha ratna Keerthanai'.. when I hit std 10, it was the perfect excuse for me to discontinue... and when i think of it today, i feel pathetic about my act of ignorance ! When I listen to 'Iyengar veetu azhage, that starts with the Pancha ratna Keerthanai', those musical moments of my life come flushing by... Well, I am still a musical person... I listen to Karnatic music, infact to every genre... I am thankful that I have indeed been blessed to have that musical bone in me !
sankaran said…
It is very nice that today I found your violin article in your account when I troied to post it in my favourites. It is very nice to know you were learning violin and had progressed well before you left it. I used to try to understand ragas and except a few I donot know much except to feel the nice music. Wish you all the best in your music search in future. Also I find your English excellent and since I am not very good, I feel my elder brother should see all your writings. Periappa.
Charu said…
i was never really much of a music person and theres hardly anyone who has not asked me "oh u dont know carnatic music????dance?????oh i thought...well u r from a brahmin family...athellam kathu kuduppang illa....":-). God!! So many people....but i never cared...actually i never cud learn it...Even if i do enjoy listening to movie songs now.....its mostly for the lyrics not that i cud identify the raagas anyways....but ur post reminded me of my shloka classes....when i was in madras, i used ot learn shloka fomr on one of our neighour thathas...he used to can memorise so well...and so good pronounciation and he used ot encourage me so i leant so many shlokas rapidly....but as time went by, i lost the penchant for that and used to find excuses to not go...even if he wud request me come by one evening and recite/learn something.....i wud not go...and so many nights after that, i lay on my bed thinking if only i had continued learning, i cud have finished learning all the sahasranamams and wat not....not that i cannot leanr it now, but that phase is gone...u need the interest/motivationa dn the right perosn at the right time and place to teach you there goes one of my other missed opportunities of of the many regrets......
Deepti said…
I can totally identify with you. The same thing happened to me when I was learning dance, Bharatnatyam. IBack then I loved dancing, but I didn't like any restrictions on it (I am still the same person). So I used to dutifully bunk my dance classes to play with my friends (I was 8, what do you expect?) But now, when I see those rhythmic movements of Kathak or Bharatnatyam, the sensuous movements of Salsa, I wonder "why oh why did I ever not take dancing seriously?" But as they say (two things):
1. Ab pachhtaye hot ka jab chidiya chug gayi khet.
2. It's never too late to learn.
abhii said…
All of your posts are so nostalgic! I can just picture you now sitting on a wicker chair in the balcony looking at the sun going down sipping Kaapi and reminiscing the days gone by :)
Deepti said…
Ok... you are scaring me now. Are you the same nitya who did her BE (E&C)in CMRIT with satya and all? If you are not, i am sorry for the misunderstanding. I thought you were the same one. Still It was a pleasure visiting your blogs... even if you are not the intended person cuz you write really well.

Thanks for dropping in a comment.
Rams said…
Nice one, though nostalgic!
Excellent one, Nithya :) Nostalgic, I remembered my childhood days - comedies with Paatu, veenai, and dance maamis...Keep up the great work...Your command over the language rocks!!
Deepti said…
Oh... I thought I had got a wrong number. Anyway, I'll sure be a regular visitor to your blog. Won't let a mistaken identity come in the way of sharing thoughts. :)

Thanks for dropping in a comment.
Ajith said…
Its never late to learn anything :). I dont know violin or music, but I've seen ppl learning it very late in life :)
Anonymous said…
Hey nithya,
was browsing through ur blogs.. Good one..

ur music blog was like watching "Autograph" again. i am a music buff and i repent now that i did not take it so seriously as a kid. I used to think pattu class was for "girls" only!!! and boys are supposed to play cricket in the streets!!! I really repent it now. Wish i had done that when i was 12!! Keep up the writing skills!!
Anonymous said…
good one :)
Ramya said…
Good Blog Truely nostalgic..everyone wud have had such a experience with music learning/instrument learning..i cud clearly identify me with u!! Kudos!!!
Anand said…
I happened to listen to Ishtak Perlman, one of the greatest living violinists, if not the greatest, in a documentary about violin titled "The art of violin". He is asked to give a very general comment abou t the difficulty in mastering the violin. He said, "Think of a kid starting piano lessons. How long it takes for him to play 'Twinkle Twinkle Little star'? Maybe, 1 or 2 weeks. And what about an average kid on the violin? It takes atleast 6 months. " This sums up the difficulty in controlling the queen of instruments. The level of difficulty in playing the instrument is quite unimaginable. It appears simple. A long bow on the right hand and four left hand fingers running on the fingerboard. Its interesting that I have not come across even one famous violinist who plays the mirror-image. That is left for right and vice versa. The order of the strings of the violin has to be reverse. The sound post has to go to the other side. I have not seen such a violin also. I am sure there are such ones. Need to google!

Back to the main point of difficulty, the fingerboard is fretless and very smooth. A small difference in the positioning of fingers can lead to a very large non-linear response from the instrument. Our ears are so finicky, that it tells the brain to instruct the facial muscles to express a bitter frown, when they receive a note that is "out" in musical parlance. The distance between notes decreases drastically as you go up the string. Many a time you wonder whether that distance is lesser than the thickness of your finger. But, the great violinists seem to have a natural landing on the correct notes at the correct time and with the correct bowing technique. Elman had very thick fingers and he used to flatten his fingers on the board . Still he used to produce an amazing tone. Devils indeed!

In carnatic music, the violin is used mainly to play carnatic songs. The range of styles of playing is very limited. In general, there are only 2 positions(1st and 3rd) with the left hand and one single bowing style - legato. Most of the carnatic violinists carry a small container with oil. They apply it on the finger-board before playing to lubricate their fingers' movements on the board, like you would put vaseline on your lips on a dry day! It really affects the board, tone and the instrument. Some artists use an additional string after the E/Pa(1st string) to reach the higher notes in a lower position which would need playing on higher positions in the normal E string. I am sure some western violinist would commented, "Its already so difficult to master the 4 strings. And now the fifth". There are tons of videos in youtube on the greats of the previous century- Menuhin, Heifetz(my favourite), Milstein, Francescatti. There is one by Francescatti where he plays an amazingly fast left hand pizzicato.

I am not trying to show carnatic in poor light. It is a great music stream where the artist the liberty to let flow his imagination like a copious downpour of a fresh southwest monsoon rain. A classic Kamboji elaboration can charge you emotionally and generate tears of a different kind in even the proclaimed unemotionals! But, the improvisation of the violin is still in the primitive form compared to the western classical music. Maybe, we use the violin for the music created to be sung. The west created music for the violin.

Its practice that matters when you want to master an art or an artistic sport like gymnastics. Talent does play a part, but not a major one. Practice normalises the variations in talent. A book had some tips for the beginner. It said, "Knowledge is not very important. But, practice is". I really appreciate this statement and I have felt it. Heifetz once said, "If I dont practise for a day, I come to know of it. Two days, my critics come to know and three days sans practice, the whole world comes to know". To hear this from the violinist many consider as the greatest ever, underlines the importance of pracitce.

People who like to take up the violin on their volition like the outcome of fine violin playing - produce sweet music. As in the case of aspiring rockers, most of whom are merely interested in the lifestyle of the rock stars. But, there is a huge sea of hardwork and determination between the two worlds. You have to enjoy the pain that continuous practice gives, the pain of the fingers, the mark on the neck you get as a result of holding the violin. If you dont challenge yourself, the abilities will stagnate. It has to be continuous and you have to be uncompromisingly strict with yourself!
Having said this, I would like to do the above things, but I end up doing in phases. The result, being a leaky bucket. I would want to play like Heifetz in the next birth atleast! Oh, thats too ambitious. Maybe, more. But, is there re-birth?
Nithya said…

Well, that was longer than the post and better written too :)..Took a fortnight for me to spot this though..

In my opinion, excellence in Art is part innate talent and part practice. If your talent is proportionately greater, you can afford to excel with minimal practice..Parallely, you can make up the trough in talent with a crest in practice...This is not any professional tip, just an amatuer opinion..

Thank you, that was very informative...too good to be called a comment though..
Anand said…
Hi Nithya,
I am not a professional too, but my aspirations are professional though, because we dont have to really work professionally to aspire. Its free. Fame or greatness is not measured by aspirations, dreams and desires!

Back from the digression, I always felt that imagination is the key to art or even science. If you are able to imagine a picture or a scene or a melody or even how a code runs when it gets interpreted, (not compiled), you have almost won the battle of creativity. The rest is the implementation. For the former, you need talent. For the latter, you need practice. One doesnt need the former too much especially in music, because the world of music is brimming with great compositions of the brilliant composers of the bygone eras, be it western classical, carnatic, jazz, country or rock. To play those eternal treasures mellifluously, you need to be able to translate what you have in your mind/brain to your fingers or vocal cords, the transducers! Its like an athelete training his big muscles. Here you train the tiny ones in your fingers, throat to attain perfection in space and time. Both must be equally difficult!

But, I would agree that you need innate talent to create something like Mozart or Thyagaraja or Picasso or Marquez did.
And, to be supremely enchanting when you play and hold an audience in a spellbound trance.
Nithya said…

So I missed out imagination ?:)..I'm bound to agree...
Anand said…
I didnt mean to say that X or Y lacks imagination. Mine were general statements from my observations. I may be completely wrong in my conclusions.
Apologies if I hurt any personal sentiments. After all, music is a big ocean and even the most talented artists claim that they are just probably on the shore and not into the waters. Out of modesty, maybe. Sincere,heartfelt truth, maybe. You never know. No language has words enough to bring out the real feelings of the inner self!

When you start learning music or an instrument, the first aim is to master the techniques needed for playing anything and everything. The infusion of emotions comes from the heart/mind. It takes time to develop the emotional part. By the time it is ready, the mechanical parts of the body in motion should all be well oiled to let flow the emotions uninhibited. The ears which are receptive only to frequencies from 20Hz to 20KHz are very intolerant to deviations from the actual notes(frequencies). Pretty finicky guys, right?

Imagination is akin to drawing the picture of a flower even before it existed. Nature/God/evolution, according to your beliefs, imagined a flower and created it. The artiste who draws it does the job of the player. He has to be good to recreate it perfectly as the original, which is not an easy task in itself. Thats "imagination" for me. So, you dont have to really imaginative to play existing compositions. But, in carnatic there is a heavy emphasis on 'manodharma' during raagam, swaram, niraval that calls upon your imaginative faculties. Its this manodharma/imagination that differentiates a 'sahana' sung by GNB from the one sung by MDR or TNS, or even the when they sing it at a different time for that matter. These south indian stalwarts have really long names. And they are celebrities in the carnatic world to be known just by their abbreviations.

Becoming monotonously boring and long. Yawn! Before I leave, let me quote ABBA, "So, I say, Thank you for the music; for giving it to me"

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