13 October, 2023

The Artist-Instrument Equation in Indian Music

(Almost everyone who have known me well have sooner or later come to (willingly or otherwise) accept that the most endearing and enduring reality of my life is music and the most precious personal equation I share is with my instrument, the chitravina.  From my earliest days, I have been fascinated by its tremendous tone, challenged by its demands and awed by the scope it offers to produce “microtonal shadings reminiscent of the human voice” as a very astute critic observed once in The New York Times. I’ve repeatedly been asked a few questions relating to this by various members of the media and the article below was probably penned in response to an interview in Times of India a few years ago.)

Any artiste of worth takes exceptional care of his/her instrument.  A few develop deep emotional bonds with it, which manifests itself in various dimensions.  For instance, legendary vocalist-composer Harikeshanallur Muttiah Bhagavatar had twin-tanpuras in his house (named Rama & Lakshmana) that would be so well tuned that one would resonate if the other was strummed!  I have seen superbly maintained tanpuras – both visually and aurally - in the residences of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, T Brinda, K V Narayanaswami.  

Coming from a family where our chosen instrument is venerated like God, I had from my childhood, found it fascinating to observe or learn about the special equations iconic artistes had with their instruments.  

An early inspiration was Veena maestro S Balachander, who had built a tranquil room in his lovely house where his instruments would be kept in high comfort!  Balachander sir also used to take every care to ensure that his veena travelled no less luxuriously as he by booking an additional I class berth in the name “Ms Veena”.  When I tried a similar move in some trains in the II class sleepers (a fiscal model appropriate for me then), a subset of ticket inspectors were more bemused than amused arguing (technically correctly of course) that an instrument could not be given berths when there were people lined up in huge waiting lists!  Undaunted, my father-guru Chitravina Narasimhan (who travelled with me everywhere till I was 18) would offer to sleep on the floor of the train, which I could of course never let happen on 99 out of 100 cases!  These days, on the rare occasions that I take the train, I squeeze myself alongside my instrument in the same AC berth, more to its discomfort!  

Another great who was literally close to his instrument was Karaikkudi Sambashiva Iyer, who was reputed to practice till he literally collapsed right under the veena for his power naps!

Pt Ravi Shankar was another model in instrument care too – it was not beyond him to book an extra First Class Airline ticket for his sitar.  If this was not possible, he would have an instrument maker/repairer tour with him even internationally for months.  Great mrdangists like Palghat Mani Iyer and Pazhani Subramaniam Pillai used to host mrdangam makers in their house for weeks on occasions to set their instruments. 

There are counter-inspirations too.  A well-known artiste had carelessly kept a veena out in the car while taking a lunch break in USA en route to a concert, only to come back and discover that all the frets were in disarray as the holding wax melted away!  

There have been artistes who have earned a reputation of having mastered an instrument.  I have always been hesitant to use or even think this term, as I have seen instances of some artistes taking it very literally and end up treating the instrument like an employee!  Seriously, there is a very fine-line between a feeling of control one may have at certain points of life vs a complacence of self-presumed mastery.  Even the greatest geniuses like T N Rajaratnam Pillai (Nadaswaram) or a Flute Mali used to feel humbled in the context of what their minds aspired for and what their bodies delivered.

My grandfather Gotuvadyam Narayana Iyengar, revered by all for his sublime brilliance, used to lament often that he had not even mastered the seven basic notes!  He was also very possessive of his instrument, not even letting his own children near it!  He would carry it himself for miles for concerts in small (though culturally rich) villages, if no transport was available.  Violin stalwart R K Venkatarama Shastry (grandfather of R K Shriramkumar) once told me how he used to insist on helping out for at least a part of the distance.  I never got to see my grandfather but my father instilled in me the only ritual I have followed from age two, till date – prostrating before the instrument at least twice first thing every morning. 

This extreme reverence may not be displayed obviously by artistes handling smaller instruments like the violin or flute - especially the latter who can almost pack their instruments in their pockets!  But I have seen many of them to be attached to their instruments, sometimes visibly manifest in a bit of sandle-wood paste or vermillion applied on them. 

Despite the heavy emotional investment and all possible professional care, instruments are prone to setbacks, especially travel-related.  Though these would occur in about 1/200 trips, I used to get extremely upset with airlines for their lackadaisical approach to handling sensitive instruments (despite fragile stickers pasted on every possible side of the case).  I have tried to anticipate these and learnt to quickly set the instrument right, if the damage is minor! The good news is that almost across the board, well-travelled artistes have started opting for smarter options such as fiber glass case.  One can never forget that it’s the instrument that takes care of its exponents, rather than the other way round!  

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