Monthly Archives: June 2015

The Unknown Fiddler of Madras

A few years back, I enquired with a friend how it was going with his violin lessons on Skype with Kala Ramnath. He misunderstood my question and related to me that he had just delivered a talk at an ethnomusicology conference on the Carnatic compositions called “Nottuswara.” He explained that Mutthuswami Dikshitar, one of the now immortal “trinity” of Carnatic composers in the early nineteenth century, had taken interest in melodies played by the British regimental bands in Madras and had written Sanskrit devotional text to several dozen of these tunes, creating these wonderful gems of Carnatic music for the benefit of the beginning student. None of the patient souls who had taught me Carnatic music on the violin had ever mentioned these melodies to me, probably because I was so young and bull-headed about wanting to tackle major compositions like “Najeevadhara” right from the beginning.

My interest piqued, I researched the subject on youtube, Wikipedia, and other sources and delighted in finding a couple of fiddle tunes which are commonly played in contemporary Irish traditional pub sessions and sung by large groups of children as well as major concert artists in South Indian devotional concert settings. It has always been personally fascinating to follow the peregrinations of the violin from it’s origin in 16th century Italy through myriad cultures around the planet, establishing itself as a mainstay of various popular and folk music traditions wherever it traveled. Imagine my astonishment when I discovered that Mutthuswami Dikshitar’s brother Baluswamy was given a violin from the regimental band, and furthermore was provided with an instructor on the instrument who, it is now generally accepted, was an Irish fiddler with whom Baluswamy studied for three years! During this period he began developing his skills and conceptualization of playing Carnatic music on the fiddle. This happy meeting in cultural curiosity of two entirely different rich cultures around 200 years ago was the seminal point from whence the violin rose to predominant status as the ubiquitous accompaniment instrument of South Indian classical music as well as coming into it’s own right in all of India as a virtuoso solo instrument. It’s place in Indian classical music is secure.

When the violin first appeared on the scene in 16th century Italy, it was decried as a brash and rude instrument, suitable at best as the tool of the impoverished street minstrel and not at all appropriate for the courtly settings of the day. Of course, it has since distanced itself in western classical music from these humble roots and, along with the pianoforte, has been an indispensable vehicle of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and so many other major composers of this
magnificent tradition, and as such has been welcomed into the finest concert halls and royal palaces around the world. However, those of us who play it as the fiddle still tend to be relegated to it’s original 16th century reputation, a distinction which we wear with a curious pride.

The fiddle is generally played for “fun” only, and even in concert situations is often played in association with songs about overindulgence in alcoholic beverages, brawling, murder, and other general mayhem. On the lighter side, it can be found providing accompaniment to humorous songs or children’s ditties about silly notions or barnyard animals, fully capable of imitating the sounds of donkeys braying, hens cackling, roosters crowing, song birds singing, dogs barking and yelping, and old crank up car engines being started or honking their horns. Hobos, cowboys, drinkers and gamblers are often the protagonist in the lilting melodies of our American tradition.

The fiddle’s domain has typically not been the previously mentioned concert halls or royal palaces, instead providing the main voice for barn dances, pub sessions, street minstrelsy, and late night aggravations to spouses and neighbors. Historically, the fiddle has often been banned from churches and religious gatherings, having the reputation of fostering lascivious behavior, and can still be occasionally escorted out the door in such settings today. During the course of 35 years of violin repair, I have witnessed, among others, fiddles that were victims of gunshot wounds, fiddles that were broken in half from being knocked out of the hands of the player by deliriously twirling dancers, along with cases smashed flat by dancers jumping up and down in their trance, unaware of what was underfoot. All in the name of fun. A fine reputation, indeed!

The English language has firmly cemented the fiddlers’ reputation in our culture. For instance, “fiddling around” and “fiddle-faddle” fondly refer to notions of silliness or wasting time. “Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the violin/ Mozart jumped over the moon…” just doesn’t have the same ring to it. So it comes as no surprise that the fiddler often will maintain a cool distance from the classical players who occasionally attempt to invoke jocularity by referring to their multi-million dollar Stradivarius or Guarnerius violin as a fiddle, and themselves as fiddlers. Since we don’t get to call ourselves violinists, we prefer to maintain the clear distinction between “fiddle” and “violin.” And we have to carry those hundreds, if not thousands of tunes in our heads, because the police have a bad habit of asking us to pack it up and move along…quickly.

So you see, fiddlers are not generally given credit for much of anything of earth shaking importance. Serendipity placed our “unknown fiddler of Madras” at the nexus of two great traditions and helped sow the seed of the magnificent Carnatic violin tradition, astonishing in it’s uniquely Indian approach to this iconic instrument of the West. During the course of researching this subject, I did come across one reference that claimed Baluswamy was introduced to the violin by a western classical violinist in a Maharaja’s palace, but far and away the most popular story of this event as related to me by violin aficionados in India was the tale of the meeting with the Irish fiddler. A fiddler myself, I’m going to run with that story.

When I first encountered Carnatic violinists in 1980, I was struck by the fact that they frequently referred to themselves with pride as fiddlers. They even called the music they played on the violin “Carnatic fiddling.” My own violin teacher in India often used this term to describe his playing and it made me feel like part of a grand, exclusive club of sorts. Nowadays “violin,” and “violinist” are used to describe the artist and instrument, and rightly so, since Carnatic violin playing is a mainstay of Indian classical music, and the term “fiddle” is becoming less common.

When Swami Ananda Nadayogi asked me during our workshop in Chennai to teach him an Irish tune, I remarked that the ornaments unique to this fiddle style usually present difficulties for the novice. He immediately demonstrated that he was already adept at these, having learned them from his guru, none other than Sri Lalgudi G. Jayaraman. Indeed, he could effortlessly play them in positions up and down the fingerboard where many fiddlers can only dream of going. I was stunned, since these ornaments are derived from bagpipe decorative technique, and I had hitherto only known them as unique to Irish and Scottish fiddling.

So, dear “unknown fiddler,” our fiddling hats are off to you. Your accomplishment is mighty, indeed! I wish we could get to know your name, share a brew, a tune or two, and a few outlandish tales. Your influence is still with us, nearly 200 years later. Indian violinists are certainly not waxing jocular when they refer to you. We salute you with “Slainte’ (Irish: “cheers!”), the craic (Irish: “musical magic”) is just getting better and better.” Far better than you might have ever imagined. Alex and I, proud fiddlers ourselves, have arrived in Chennai to assure you that we will keep the instruments necessary to your legacy in India as intact as possible in order that your legend may thrive. Without you, we might not be enjoying the fine adventure of teaching the violin restorer’s art in India today. The blarney has long since departed, but we are happy to report that the fine piping ornaments and the fiddling spirit that you may well have imparted to Baluswamy still live on to lend Carnatic violin just a wee touch of those famous smiling eyes and your very charming Irish accent.

Dear India

Dear India,

It is with great pleasure that I write this letter to you.  Alex and I will admit it; we are positively beside ourselves with excitement!  We will be returning to India this year in November to continue our work in the “Violin Wise” program, teaching repair and restoration of violin family instruments.  During the first program in November 2013, our program participants demonstrated an impressive capacity to learn our exacting craft.  We came to feel like family with them and everyone who gave support to our effort, and we are looking forward to seeing our very extended Indian family again.

I would like to take this opportunity to once more express our gratitude to everyone who pulled together to help make this program happen, most notably  Lalgudi G.J.R. Krishnan, Lalgudi Vijayalakshmi, and the Lalgudi Trust, along with our patrons who wish to remain anonymous.  Their assistance in providing the program participants with specialty tools of our trade was absolutely invaluable.  They also saw to it that we were received with utmost hospitality and very comfortable accommodations.  Because of the vision of the Lalgudi Trust,  this program took on a far grander scale than I had ever imagined possible, with their clear understanding that our craft is best learned in a focused environment over an extended period of time.  The Lalgudi Trust exists to help benefit all of Carnatic music, and it is deeply gratifying to be a small part of this great gift by the founder, the legendary Lalgudi G. Jayaraman, whose name will never fade from the hearts of those who love this music.  With the help of the Lalgudi Trust, we are able to disseminate our art in India, so that hopefully violinists may one day soon be able to access this style of repair without having to travel abroad.

This program would not have been possible without the participants, who on short notice carved out 3 weeks of their busy schedules to take on this very intense course, juggling their schedules to keep their professional lives up and running, or traveling great distances to learn from a couple of foreigners with whom they shared no language in common.  We all enjoyed wonderful, humorous, and often deeply moving moments together.  To them, our dear colleagues, we extend our thanks.

Noted architect Meera Natampally collaborated with architect student Alexandra Armanino to draw a blueprint of my bench in America and email the plans to India and create the most incredible workbench, central to our dream.  The help offered us by Mr. S. Shivkumar of K.S. Engineering Tools was indispensable, keeping us supplied with necessary power tools and custom made hand tools.  I’m certain we’ll be calling him again.

And of course Alex, who knows a great adventure when she sees one coming.  She worked hard and paid her own way to Chennai in order to work hard again, seeing to it that she made herself an integral part of this wonderful project.  When we return, I’m sure she’ll gladly show all of you the exquisite violin she’s made.

To so many others, who drove us around and helped us find things and enjoy your rich culture and cuisine, who offered a sweet smile while keeping me healthy, cleaning the shop, teaching us Tamil one word at a time, and not minding the strange noise that we make when we play the fiddles, we thank you.

So many great musicians coursed through the workshop that it was mind boggling.  Even though you may not realize it, for decades I’ve been listening to any recording I could find of you and it’s a personal thrill to meet you and become part of your musical community.

Special thanks to Mr. V. K. Venkataramanujam, who took me on in 1980 as a violin student despite his better judgement.

Last, but most certainly not least, I owe a debt of gratitude to our dear friend Dr. Saravanapriyan Sriraman, who has been tirelessly promoting Carnatic music in the San Francisco bay area.  When I grew tired after 25 years of trying to make this all happen, he refused to allow me to let go of the idea and kept alive the seed of this program which is now flourishing.   He is a fine violinist and I hope to see him performing in  the Music Academy one day.

Dear India, we can’t wait until we get to have another chat with you over a spicy tea and enjoy your company once more.  You have provided me with so many breathtaking adventures over the past 35 years.   I’ll arrive, hat in hand, ready to go once more.  Thank you all!

With love and devotion…