The Violin: a Western instrument takes centre stage in Carnatic classical

  • Author: Jameela Siddiqi

The violin is one of the most important instruments in Western classical music, owing not only to a unique strength of tone that stands out among other instruments, but also because of its tremendous musical agility which enables complex sequences of notes to be played in rapid succession. Although India had no shortage of stringed instruments played with a bow and suitable for vocal accompaniment – the ektara, dilruba, saranda and sarangi were all prevalent, albeit mainly in North Indian music – it was the European-style violin that found a natural home in the classical music of South India.

It is, by and large, the same instrument with which Western classical musicians are familiar. but it is tuned differently and played using an entirely different technique to suit the needs of Carnatic or South Indian classical music. The violin is usually used as accompaniment for vocal music but is also played as a solo instrument, although the instrument is held – and handled – differently to Western classical music.

South Indian violinists sit cross-legged on the floor with the right foot pointing out and rest the scroll of their instrument on the ankle of this foot while the back of the violin rests against the musician’s left collar bone or shoulder. This playing position is considered ideal for Indian music as it allows the hand to move freely all over the fingerboard while keeping the instrument in a steady position to be able to play very fast alankar (ornamentations) which are a key feature of South Indian music.

At least four different 18th- and 19th-century musicians are credited with introducing the violin in Carnatic music, among them Balaswami Dikshitar (1786-1859), the younger brother of one of South India’s Trinity of Composers. He is said to have been taken to a concert of a Western orchestra attached to the British East India Company after which he proceeded to study the violin and adapt it for South Indian music.

But, without a doubt, the one musician who made the violin an integral part of Carnatic music – so much so that even former purists accepted it as a fully-fledged Indian classical music instrument – was the musical genius Vadivelu (1810-1845), the youngest member of the famous Tanjore Quartet, and whose contribution to South Indian classical dance is as important as his innovations in music. Studying the violin with a European missionary at Tanjore, Vadivelu, who died at the age of just 35, is celebrated as a composer, vocalist, violinist and exponent of bharatanatyam dance.

The violin is now played in North Indian classical music as both an accompanying instrument and a leader, but is by no means as prevalent as in its Southern counterpart and, in any case, the sarangi's srikingly vocalistic tone remains the preferred string and bowed instrument in the North.


Listen to the music | Ganesh and Kumaresh are South India’s foremost violin brothers. Here they lead the audience through a variety of moods, sampling many different musical colours in a ragamalika (‘garland of ragas’). Performed at Darbar Festival 2009.

Jameela Siddiqi is an author, linguist, and BBC cultural commentator, specialising in postcolonial fiction and the devotional music of South Asia.

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