When Carnatic music legend M. Balamuralikrishna played violin in Lok Sewa Sanchar Parishad’s Desh Raag, a piece capturing a nation’s endless variety in about 13 minutes, it became one of the three bowed instruments to represent India — the sarangi (played by Pt. Ram Narayan) and ravanhatta (played by a folk artiste from Rajasthan) were the other two. It is hard to forget the mesmerising three-octave tihai in the end by Balamuralikrishna, and the follow-up by violinist Lalgudi Jayaraman who articulated some beautiful gamakas (oscillations). If you were to stumble into the tiniest auditorium or a private session during the Margazhi Season in Chennai, there can be no kutcheri, vocal or instrumental, without a violin.
But a look at the GST rates regarding musical instruments, according to which the violin has been left out from the list of 134 indigenous instruments, baffles me. The violin now falls under “western instruments”. The result is a 28 per cent tax on the instrument, even if it is manufactured in India. Under the new rules, handcrafted indigenous musical instruments such as the sitar, sarod, flute and tabla, are exempt from any tax
It’s hard enough to fathom that the government representatives taking decisions on GST for musical instruments haven’t heard of Carnatic prodigy “Mandolin” Srinivas and saxophone maestro Kadri Gopalnath — they contributed to Indian classical music by modifying western instruments to Indian sounds. Their instruments have been left out of the native list. But the violin is a different story altogether. Those making the rules seem to have no idea of the existence of the prominent Chowdiah Memorial Hall, a renowned cultural centre in Bengaluru’s Malleswaram which is built in the shape of an enormous violin, complete with strings, bridge and bow. The hall is a tribute to violin maestro Tirumakudalu Chowdiah. The hall isn’t in Europe and it’s difficult to miss.
But that’s not the only reason why the non-inclusion of the violin is unsettling. The history of the violin in South India goes back further than the 17th-century musician Baluswami Dikshitar — the first known violinist to infuse the instrument into Carnatic music. While the world thinks that the violin was first made known in 16th century Italy, when Andrea Amati created it in 1555 and played by mounting it on the shoulder, Indian musicians think otherwise. In one of the pillars in the praharam of the Thirumukkudal temple, an eighth-century Chola temple near Mysore, a woman sits cross-legged, with her right foot out in front, the scroll resting on it, and is seen playing the violin, exactly how Indian violinists have played for years. The instrument also finds itself being held by a sculpture in the sanctum sanctoram of Thillai Natarajar temple, a 12th-century temple in Tamil Nadu’s Chidambaram. According to David Butler and Keith Miles, Marco Polo carried the instrument to Italy in the 15th century.
I still remember my first tryst with the violin as a six-year-old. A famed Meerabai bhajan, Payo ji maine ram ratan dhan payo, introduced me to the instrument. I’d heard my sitar player mother sing this piece often. So when I heard the only bhajan I knew being played on Doordarshan, my heart swelled. Violinist N. Rajam sat on the floor cross-legged, with her right foot out in front, the scroll resting on it, and played this bowed instrument. She played exactly how my mother sang. Gayaki ang — a technique that captures the intricacies of vocal music on an instrument — I learnt later, was being used. It was that day that this slightly shrill sound, with all the micronotes and meends (slides) in place, became part of my consciousness. This despite the fact that in north India, the violin is hardly used as an accompaniment. Ghazal singer Jagjit Singh tried to use the instrument in his concerts, along with the acoustic guitar and found many takers.
It’s time the government does some research before fiddling with the fiddle and making classifications about what’s native and what’s not. If Mohan veena at number 19 of the GST list — Grammy-winning musician Vishwa Mohan Bhatt’s instrument fashioned from a guitar that he created four decades ago — is indigenous, then so is the violin, or dhanur veena, if you prefer.