Thursday, 28 March 2013

The Singing Violinist

Padma Bhushan Dr N Rajam needs no introduction in the field of Indian classical music. A child prodigy, Dr Rajam has, over her seven-decade musical career, attained a legendary status in the field of classical music. A violinist par excellence and a musician whose name has come to be synonymous with the Violin, Dr Rajam is also acknowledged for introducing the Gayaki Ang and Khayal Gayaki Ang on the Violin. She is also a fabulous and fantastic teacher, and is currently training students at the prestigious The Dr Gangubai Hangal Gurukul at Hubli, Karnataka. Over a Skype interview with Team AALAAP, she shares her musical journey…

N Rajam

First things first; how and where did your love for music stem from?

In my house, right from the day I was born. My older brother, T N Krishnan used to learn music and my father was a teacher of classical music. So, the atmosphere at home was always charged with music. It is impossible then for music not to seep into your system.

So, you had no choice but to pursue music?

In our family, music was a tradition. So the question of choice didn’t even arise; it was always a part and parcel of life. When I turned three, I was handed over the Violin and I began training in it, formally.

As a child, how did the Violin manage to sustain your interest?

My father had an uncanny knack of ensuring I spent enough time on the Violin without ever getting bored. I remember he’d make me play on the Violin for five minutes and then give me incentives to practice and perfect what I had learnt. He knew exactly what he had to do to hold the interest of a child. Having said that, I must add that I was also a very good student.

You were born into a South Indian family, and you grew up learning Carnatic music. What triggered your interest in learning and pursuing Hindustani music?

After I completed my SSLC in 1953, I was really keen to study at the Benares Hindu University (BHU). Owing to an age issue, I had to enlist myself as a private candidate. It was at that point that my father suggested I pick Hindustani music as one of my subjects. That was really the beginning of my journey with Hindustani music.

Was that transition into another genre of music easy?

As far as the music was concerned, making the shift was easy for me. Even before I joined BHU, I had had twelve years of rigorous training in Carnatic music. I had already accompanied M S Subbulakshmi. That apart, even though musically I was trained in Carnatic music, my father ensured my brothers and I listened to a good amount of Hindustani music, either at concerts or on the radio.

But musically, the styles are distinct; how did you pick up those skills?

In terms of the music, Carnatic and Hindustani have the same roots. The difference really lies in the improvisational suggestions, compositions and raga elaborations. By the time I began to learn Hindustani music, I had already mastered the basics and nuances of techniques on the Violin. I was already proficient to reproduce any vocal musician on the Violin.

Is that how you learnt Hindustani music too?

Yes. I learnt to play Hindustani music on the Violin from a vocalist. He would sing and I would play that on the Violin. So, in terms of learning, what I had to imbibe was really the spirit of Hindustani music.

How did you do that?

Although I had an intense training in Carnatic music and learnt the best techniques in the Violin, I realized as time went by, that the techniques I had learnt so far weren’t enough for me to reproduce the intricacies of Hindustani music. It took me nearly 15 years of intensive research to finally create and develop bowing and fingering techniques that enabled vocal Hindustani music to be reproduced on the Violin. Like I said before, I knew I had to create music that preserved the spirit of the genre.

Can you tell us a little about your legendary Guru, Sangeet Marthand Pandit Omkarnath Thakur?

I first heard Panditji sing when I was 12. A friend of mine gave me a set of records by him and even at that young age, I was convinced that if I ever learnt Hindustani music, it would have to be from him. Fortunately, the universe worked in my favour. I had the unique opportunity of realizing my dream. I still remember the first day I met him. He asked me to play the Violin and after I finished, he said I was a good student and decided to be my teacher.

Was it easy learning from him?

It was a pleasure but definitely it entailed a great deal of hard work. Panditji’s music was acknowledged for its emotional content. So, to replicate that on the Violin called for intense bowing manipulation and fingering technique. It also meant that I had to spend several hours training and practicing, after class. Sometimes a phrase took weeks, sometimes, months.

What is the significance of gharana in Hindustani music? Can you briefly describe the Gwalior gharana?

Gharanas are like schools of thought. In the earlier days, students did not get the opportunity to listen to different styles and learn from them. So they belonged to a particular gharana. Nowadays, of course, things are different; an intelligent student will take to a particular style very easily. But even if you belong to a particular gharana, there is nothing wrong in taking inspiration from another. In the Gwalior gharana, the ragas developed systematically.

You learnt the intricacies of raga development from the renowned vocalist, Mussiri Subramania Iyer. Any anecdotes that you can recall…

To be honest, initially I was really scared of him. He however, was very fond of me as a student. Over the brief period of four years that I learnt from him, I began to look up to him like a father. I learnt raga development from him. He has been very influential and inspirational in my musical journey.

What are your favourite ragas?

I particularly like Raag Darbari, Bhairavi and Bageshri.

You are considered a pioneer for developing the Gayaki style on the Violin. Could you tell us a little about it?

In Carnatic music, there is no separate or distinct style for instruments. In Hindustani music, owing to the construction of instruments like the sitar, sarod, etc, there was a need for a Gayaki style to be implemented. When I began learning Hindustani music, I increasingly felt the need to develop a new path wherein we could reproduce the vocal style on a bowed instrument in a way that the continuity of the tone is easily obtained. This style/technique is highly stylized and sophisticated. In my career as a violinist, I have reproduced all the different forms of music, namely, Dhrupad, Khayal, Thumri, Tappa, Bhajan and also the Natya Sangeet of Maharashtra on my Violin.

Apart from being a performer, you are also an amazing teacher. How do you juggle these two roles?

Where there is a will, there is a way. If you have to do something, you’ve just got to do it! Teaching is my passion.

You have been in the field for over six decades now. How has art changed in the world?

Art has to change, constantly. If it doesn’t change, you cannot call it art. Having said that, young musicians seem to be making insignificant, unnecessary changes and I’m not in favour of that. Change is mandatory but it is important to preserve its sanctity.

Do you have a soft spot for Chennai? Tell us a little about your association with the city…

I have performed at several places in India and across the world. The audiences everywhere are different and respond differently to my music. But I must admit that I have a special place for Chennai. I have had so many lovely experiences there. It is rightly called the Mecca of music because the people there are genuinely interested and sensitive towards the arts.

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