Jagannatha Svami Nayanapathagami Bhavatu Me

Jagannatha, Lord of the universe, in His Form in the great 10th century temple at Puri, Orissa, India

The violin first came to India with the Portugese: they were the first Europeans to set foot on Indian soil. Vasco da Gama sailed from Portugal around the Cape of Good Hope and landed at Calicut in the southern province of Kerala in 1498 AC. Thereafter, the Portugese colonised parts of India and built cathedrals and other monuments. Portugese missionaries brought the violin with them for use in church music and European events. By and by came the Dutch, the French and the English, in that order. The English were successful in driving out the Dutch and containing the Portugese and the French to small pockets in India.

Due to missionary activity, many Indians were converted into Christianity and took part in various church activities, including music. Thus Indians too began to play the violin. From these Indian Christians, other Indians, who were not converted into Christianity, learnt about the possibilities of the instrument and began to learn to play it. In the hands of these (latter) Indians, the violin found immediate use in the regional language theatre. This was because compared with Indian stringed-instruments, the violin had a much greater carrying power. This made it a suitable instrument for the orchestral pit (called Kutupa in ancient musicological texts, referring to the group of instruments accompanying the theatre) in the pre-microphone era.

From theatre to art music was but a step away.

The violin is able to produce all the subtle nuances required for successfully producing Indian art music. As a result, it has become quite popular in India. Most Indian violinists who have not trained in western music hold it in a different way compared to the standard western holding of the instrument. They rest the scroll against the leg and fix it against the body. The theory is that this makes the violin immobile and thus it becomes easy to play fast Gamak on it.

Again, many Indian violinists tune the instrument quite differently. Many tune the instrument in perfect fourths rather than perfect fifths (so as to avoid the use of the little finger, being already inhibited on account of a constricting body position), and that too keeping the tension of the strings very low so as to get low pitched notes.

The downside of these experiments is that the violin in the hands of such musicians suffers in tone and bowing possiblities. However, the players are content to let the microphone amplify their feeble sound and do not particularly care about the many bowing methods at the adept westerner's command.

In a recent (1/1/2007) e-mail to Dr Rath, Mr Chris Haigh (visit his site on violin and fiddle at http://www.fiddlingaround.co.uk) asked: "Does an Indian violinist use third, fifth, seventh position and so on in the same way we do?" Here is Dr Rath's reply to this interesting question:

"This depends on the style of playing and the passage being played.

"Where the playing is Meend (Indian glissando) based, higher positions are used as necessary this can take the violinist to the seventh position and beyond. That having been said, the general run of Indian violinists usually stay within the fifth position. But where the passage is played without Meend, the average Indian violinist will prefer to remain in the first position, shifting to the next higher string rather than to a higher position, taking recourse to a higher position only when the first position on the highest string (which cannot be called the E string because in most cases it is not tuned to E) runs out. The Indian violinist does not exploit the difference in timbre that each string possesses.

"Because most violinists prefer to imitate the human voice and so try to make their music to be little more than a carbon copy of a vocal recital, it is usually not necessary for such violinists to go to a higher position because the first position by itself covers the average vocal register. For example, V G Jog and his followers might have played just as comfortably on a violin with its fingerboard lopped off midway, because they hardly used or use Meend in their playing."

Thanks are also due to Mr Chris Haigh for his bringing to Dr Rath's notice the use of a strange word - "Ravanastron" - in articles to be found on the internet and being represented as a bowed stringed instrument in India around 3,000 BC and supposedly played by Ravanon' (sic), the king of Lanka. Dr Rath has concerns about these articles, as follows:

References for the 'Ravanastrom' articles - See:
http://encyclopedia.jrank.org/PYR_RAY/RAVANASTRON.html
http://www.1911encyclopedia.org/Ravanastron
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ravanastron
etc.


These articles seem to suffer from a few inaccuracies.

The correct name of the king was 'Ravan' and not 'Ravanon' - refer to any ancient Sanskrit Text such as the Ramayana. In Sanskrit grammar, the suffix 'am' (apparently used in these articles as 'on' - thus, 'Ravanon') is used for inanimate objects only. For masculine nouns (such as 'Ravan', the correct suffix is 'aha' or 'uha' ('u' as in 'but') for third person, singular noun, used as subject - thus, the correct usage will be 'Ravanaha', if Ravan is referred to (in the context of the usage) as third person, singular and as the doer of something). There is no Sanskrit word such as 'Ravanon'.

Secondly, 'Ravanastron' (referred to in these articles) is not a proper word in Sanskrit at all. As used in the articles, it appears to be a compound ('Sandhi' in Sanskrit) of two words - 'Ravana' and 'Astram' (incorrectly changed to 'astron' in the articles). 'Astram' means 'instrument', 'implement', 'tool' or 'weapon'. Care must be taken to note, however, that its meaning 'instrument' does not mean 'musical instrument'.

Thirdly, there is not a single ancient or medieval musical text in Sanskrit that contains a reference to 'Ravanostron'. This strange word seems to be a concoction from a less-than-authentic and indeed sadly uninformed source.

In the folklore of western India, there is reference to a bowed instrument known as 'Ravanhatta'. 'Hatta' refers to something used (or played) with the hands. 'Ravan', of course, is the name of the King of Lanka, of Ramayana fame. The exact location of Lanka is still the subject of debate, with the people of modern day Sri Lanka (erstwhile Ceylon) claiming that island was the Lanka of Ramayana. But other scholars have advocated other places (such as the land to the south of the confluence of Ganga and Jamuna in central India) as Lanka. Anyway, it is not the location of Lanka that is the subject of these articles, so this interesting debate is not pursued here. What is interesting is that Ravanhatta is a bowed stringed instrument and there is a bowed stringed instrument used even today in rural Rajasthan of India people still call Ravanhatta.


Dr Rath plays both western classical and Indian classical music, having been formally trained in both disciplines. He prefers the western tuning and holding for all occasions and uses the full range afforded by the fingerboard.