Though the South Indian violin looks pretty much identical to its Western counterpart, their playing philosophies are worlds apart. For one thing, Carnatic classical violinists improvise most of their music on the spot, with no score or sheet music in sight. For another, they take a different approach to elaborating the notes themselves, focusing on fast, fluid sliding techniques and mellifluous rhythmic phrasings. No other Western classical instrument has found as much success on the Indian classical stage.
Violins reached India a long time ago – possibly by the mid-17th century. This is a long time ago in musical terms – for context, it means that Indian violinists were performing to Indian audiences around the same time Baroque composers such as Antonio Vivaldi and J.S. Bach were writing their masterworks.
Consequently, Carnatic musicians have had centuries to innovate and move in their own collective directions. The resulting playing style is unique, with a different flavour of sound altogether to that of the West. Artists prop the violin up against their knee so the fretting hand can move up and down weightlessly, released of any responsibility to hold the instrument up. The strings are tuned looser too, easing the distinctive slipping-and-sliding techniques which dominate much of the music.
To newcomers, the speed and intricacy of the slides can sound ethereal, even magical, as if emanating from some unseen, supernatural source. But they can equally be listened to in more earthy, mundane terms – the music ultimately seeks to mimic the freedom of the human voice, Indian violinists are above all things judged on their ability to capture a ‘singing style’, even imitating the rise and fall of conversational speech patterns at times (read more about Carnatic vocal music).
The playing style may seem unfamiliar, but from another angle it’s a pretty natural approach – why wouldn’t you capitalise on a lack of frets by gliding around? It definitely looks like a lot of fun…
● Read next: Apocalyptic ambitions: Alexander Scriabin and the Himalayas – another Indo-European meeting point…that nearly ended the world!