Indian violin, in a nutshell

Ever wanted to know how the Indian violin differs from the Western violin, in a nutshell?

“The purpose of Indian music is not to create a fine singer or musician who can perform at concerts and make a living. Indian music is a new realisation that dawns on the person seeking peace or tranquillity in his or her life.” ~ Anonymous

Indian violin: Varanasi, Feb. 2012
Indian violin: Varanasi, Feb. 2012

Indian violin: Posture

The Indian violin is played sitting cross-legged. It is held in the same direction (neck down) as the Western violin, but its neck is placed on the right foot and its body is rested against the left part of the sternum. I love this posture, firstly because I find the violin more stable without any strain on the neck, secondly because this gives more freedom for the fingers to slide up and down the strings, and finally because I the sitting position makes my violin practice closer to a form of meditation.

Indian violin: Tuning

Indian violin: Subah-e-Banaras, Dec. 2014, Varanasi
Indian violin: Subah-e-Banaras, Dec. 2014, Varanasi

The notes in the Indian music system are sa, re, ga, ma, pa, dha, and ni, which correspond to the Western notes do, re, mi, fa, sol, la and si. Unlike in the West however, Indian notes are relative, which means that regardless of the key in which any instrument is tuned or in which a singer sings, the first note of the scale is always sa. Basically, sa is the tonic.

Instead of sol (G), re (D), la (A), mi (E) the strings of the violin are set to (relative) sa, pa, sa, pa, and most often tuned in (absolute) re, la, re, la (D, A, D, A) or re#, la#, re#, la# (D#, A#, D#, A#). The Indian violin is thus tuned lower than the Western violin.

Indian violin: Technique

Generally speaking, the particularity of Indian music is the sliding between the notes. The fingers are therefore not so anchored as they are on the Western violin.

We can either slide using different fingers for different notes, or using the index and middle fingers stuck together for all the notes, up and down a string. I absolutely love sliding, because I find it creates an even deeper connection between notes and fingers, between sound and body. To me it makes playing violin closer to singing.

Relationship with the teacher: guru-shishya parampara

Guru-shishya parampara literally means ‘teacher-disciple tradition’. In this ancient Indian tradition, the relationship between teacher and student is a lot stronger than it is ordinarily in the West. The guru is more than just a teacher, and the disciple more than a student. To find out more about my experience of guru-shishya parampara, you can read my post on guru faith.

Essence of Indian music

In her amazingly beautiful book The Music Room (pp.18-19), Namita Devidayal writes:

“Profound differences emerge between the [Western and Indian music systems, which] mirror the opposing thought processes that drive the West and the East.

The ancient western position on music was that it was made up of patterns of sound with regular melodic intervals which reflect the simple ratios by which the world is organized and make sense to our organs of perception. Western theory is thus built around perceptible, rational ideas which the human mind can see, recognize, and find proof for.

Indian music is rooted in a fundamentally different assumption – that there is a continuous, unseen, and constantly changing reality which is the backdrop for all human action and perception. It is what shapes our karma or destiny, and helps explain why seemingly inexplicable things happen to us.

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The notes in Indian music are thus not categorical, separate, self-contained entities, but are connected through a subtle, elusive continuum of notes that can barely be identified by the human ear. They are, in the metaphysical sense, part of that reality which lies beyond perception. These in-between notes are called srutis, and they are the essence of Indian music.

In a very literal sense, these srutis are the half notes and quarter notes that fill the intervals between two notes. But that would be a grossly incomplete description. There is much more to the sruti, for it can entirely change the reality of notes. For instance, how you reach a particular note is as important as the note itself. It may be arrived at from below, or above, after caressing that hidden note that hovers next to it, and it will evoke a completely different sensation than if the musician were to meet the note directly.”


To hear me play violin you can click here.


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