Written by 4:53 PM Music

Is the violin a European instrument or an Asian (India)?

Does the violin so well adapted to Carnatic music have its roots in Europe or Asia – India? R…

Most of us from India might have noticed how we try to credit every good thing, be it in science or the arts, for having its roots in India. I haven’t heard anyone say that English has roots in Sanskrit, at least until now. Having a good dose of patriotism is nice, but sometimes it goes to ridiculous lengths.

Now, let us tackle the issue on hand. Is the violin a European instrument, or did it originate in Asia, especially India? Read on, and it shall be revealed!

The violin is tailor-made for Indian classical music. It is not too loud and very expressive, obviously in the hands of talented musicians. The ornamentations in Carnatic music can easily be mimicked by the violin; the gamakas (oscillations), the grace notes, or kan-swars can be reproduced precisely like its rendered by the human voice. For some reason, the violin is not as popular in Hindustani as in Carnatic music. The harmonium still reigns supreme in Hindustani, an instrument that cannot reproduce meends or gamakas. Some virtuosos try to get around this by playing the notes bridging the meend or a gamak, but at the end of the day, it’s like trying to draw an elephant using straight lines. You can try to compensate for it with shorter straight lines, but it’s still straight and not curved lines!

I come in peace to all ye harmonium players, for I am not a violinist but a non-violen-ist. Get it? In Madras, we would call this a kadi joke!

North Indian classical music has adopted the violin as an accompaniment and a solo instrument. However, its use is still far less common than in its Southern counterpart. The sarangi, with its strikingly vocalistic tone, is still the most popular bowed string instrument in the region.

Violins were first incorporated into Carnatic music at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. The violin’s rise to prominence in Carnatic music saw it used as an accompaniment and a solo instrument. Many outstanding violinists dating back to the 19th century have contributed to the refinement of these methods.

At least four musicians are credited for incorporating the violin in Carnatic concerts. One of them is Balaswamy Dikshitar, who belonged to the lineage of Muthuswami Dikshitar, one of the trinities of Carnatic music; the other two are Syama Shastri and Thyagaraja swami. They made the violin famous. After that, it was carried on and improvised by different eminent personalities like Varahappa Iyer, Sri Vadivelu, and Sri Krishna Swamy Bhagavatar.

There is another strain of thought that Balaswamy Dikshitar studied violin with a European violinist in Madras and was inspired by Manali Mudalaichar. Since then, he’s spread the practice of playing the violin in the Carnatic style. His brother and mentor, Sri Muthuswamy Dikshithar, is credited with writing “Nottu Swarams” in the Sankarabharanam Raga for violin practice. Sankarabharanam ragam is all natural notes, like a major scale in Western music.

The ektara, dilruba, and sarangi are all common in Indian music and are bow-played string instruments well-suited for vocal accompaniment. However, the European-style violin found a natural home in the classical music of South India.

The instrument is identical to the ones used by classical Western musicians. Carnatic or South Indian classical music requires a different tuning and playing style, so the violin is adapted accordingly. Although the violin is typically used as an accompaniment to vocal music, it is also played as a solo instrument in Eastern music, albeit with a different grip and technique than in Western classical music.

Violinists from the South Indian subcontinent sit cross-legged on the floor, right foot forward, with the scroll resting on the ankle of the outstretched foot. The violin’s back rests against the player’s left collar bone or shoulder. One of the defining characteristics of South Indian music is the rapid tempo at which musicians play alankarams (ornamentations). This playing position is ideal for Indian music because it allows the hand to move freely all over the fingerboard while keeping the instrument in a steady position to accommodate such rapid tempos.

South Indian Violin as accompaniment
File:Ravikiran 33A.jpg” by Joe Mabel is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Vadivelu (1810-1845) was the youngest member of the famous Tanjore Quartet.

His contribution to South Indian classical dance is as significant as his innovations in music. He is widely regarded as the musician who made the violin an integral part of Carnatic music, to the point where even former purists accepted it as a fully-fledged Indian classical music instrument. Vadivelu, a composer, vocalist, violinist, and exponent of Bharatanatyam dance, is remembered for his early death at 35. He had studied the violin with a European missionary in Tanjore.

So does the violin have its roots in India, or did the East India Company import it?

According to INTO THE EARLY HISTORY OF THE VIOLIN FAMILY BY CARL ENGEL, published in 1883, the violin originates in (drum roll please) India! And here’s the proof!

From the Internet Archives – The early history of the violin family – Carl Engel – 1883
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