The art of Violin playing in North India has been wholly transformed through the music of N. Rajam and her family in recent times. First introduced into colonial India in the early nineteenth century when Baluswami Dikshitar learned the instrument from the army bandmaster at Fort St.George in Madras, the Violin, enthusiastically embraced in the Southern part of India, soon became an integral part of Carnatic music (South Indian) performances. A whole new technique almost indistinguishable from its Western counterpart was perfected to suit a totally new type of music.
In India violin is played sitting down on the floor, the neck of the instrument pointing to the ground resting firmly on the ankle with the base of violin resting against the chest. Traditionally fingering is based around the middle finger (which slides up), and the index finger (which slides down), and there is extensive use of the use of micro-tones and grace notes. Open tunings, such as DADA are commonly used in order to incorporate the drones which are such an important part of Indian music.
The reception for the violin was on the whole cooler in the northern part of India, many considering the sound too thin for its Hindustani music compared to the sonorous Sarangi.
All this changed when N.Rajam first appeared on the scene at the age of fifteen. Having studied intensely with Pandit Omkarnath Thakur, one of India's most revered vocal masters, she developed a unique style of playing which captured all the nuances of North Indian vocal music, and brought the violin to the fore of the Indian classical music repertoire. Her early performances were so inspiring that many emerging violinists dropped the prevailing gatkari (instrumental) approach.
Born into an illustrious family with musical roots that reached back several generations, N.Rajam was initiated into music and violin technique by her father A. Narayana Iyer. Having already prepared one child for greatness in the Carnatic tradition (TN. Krishnan), the farsighted Narayana Iyer guided his daughter towards the Hindustani tradition and helped invent a fingering technique that would revolutionize the role of violin in the North Indian music form. In her formative years, N. Rajam had the good fortune of meeting and studying with the great doyen of Hindustani vocal music, Pandit Omkarnath Thakur. The maestro was so impressed by the talent and virtuosity of the young prodigy that he took her under his wing and helped to shape her signature ‘gayaki ang.’. Over fifteen years of rigorous study her guru encouraged her to emphasise the emotional aspect of her music and together they strived to produce a unique style. Her total involvement with the music and relentless pursuit of perfection, impeccable adherence to classical purity and precision of notes make her recitals stand out as unique in the festivals she participates in. It is rare for any artist to have such a mastery of both the Hindustani and Carnatic music systems. Though inevitably entwined they demand separate attention and different practice routines.
Sangeeta Shankar began her musical training at the tender age of four. Initiated and trained by her illustrious mother Dr. N. Rajam, she quickly mastered the intricacies of playing the violin and started performing concerts when she was only thirteen. Her career in music has been outstanding, the fruit of several years of long, arduous and dedicated training.
Sangeeta has recorded music from both traditions with her mother, a rare feat for an Indian musician. Her academic distinctions are in keeping with her illustrious professional career. Sangeeta's doctoral thesis from the Benares Hindu University is the culmination of detailed and dedicated research on the contribution of violin and violinists to Indian music. She is the founder of Vidyaa Niketan, a proposed cultural centre for the cultural education of women and children.
In Indian classical music successful duet playing, or jugalbandi, demands spontaneous musical improvisation with a high level of mutual understanding and aesthetic rapport, and takes on a special significance when performed by mother and daughter.
Throughout the recital both musicians demonstrate the breadth of their individual skills, at the same time inspiring each other to create a performance that forms one seamless whole. Rhythmic accompaniment is provided by Ramkumar Misra, a senior disciple of Chotalal Misra, a legendary figure from the Benares tradition of tabla playing.
This recording features a live performance given on the evening of the 12th January 2005, the final night of Saptak, India's finest Music Festival held annually in Ahmedabad, Gujarat.
Raga Bageshri is a popular late night raga which carries a distinctly romantic quality. The recital begins with a soulful, contemplative alap, played without meter, outlining the main melodic phrases that shape the personality of the raga. The first composition (track 2), in the manner of classical khayal vocal music, is set to a deliberately slow paced twelve beat rhythmic cycle (ektaal). The tempo is set at a rate so that each cycle takes approximately one minute to elapse, allowing both musicians generous scope to improvise freely and extensively before re-emphasising the main phrase of the composition (mukra) towards the conclusion of each cycle. The following two compositions set in faster tempo serve to give us a complete picture of Bageshri, bringing out the more playful nature of the raga.
The second and final raga, Misra Khamaj (track 5) is played in a style known as 'light classical' which gives license for the artists to approach the raga in a more relaxed fashion, skilfully introducing notes and phrases from complimentary ragas. The composition is set to teentaal, a sixteen beat rhythm played this time with a melodious lilt in a style sometimes referred to as Sitarkhani or Punjabi theka. Towards the end of the piece the tabla player enjoys the opportunity to display his virtuosity with a small tabla solo.