Jyotsna Srikanth - making the violin sing

Jyotsna Srikanth gives a great example of the differences between the Indian and western musical traditions. Here in the west, if someone is described as making their instrument sing, it’s high praise. In the Carnatic tradition of the southern Indian states, Srikanth, whose violin recitals during the Edinburgh Fringe in August won exactly this kind of approval, would merely be doing her job.

“Everything in Carnatic music comes from the voice,” she says during a break from the international music festival in London that she organises herself every year. “We don’t have separate music for different instruments the way western music has piano or cello or trumpet concertos, for example. Everything is written for the voice and it’s up to the instrumentalist to learn how to phrase and pitch this music the way a singer would do it. It’s quite a commitment. There are no short cuts.”

Srikanth began her own music training as a singer at the age of five in Bangalore. Her mother, a singer and teacher, put her through a tough programme every day, making sure that Jyotsna practised for six hours. It wasn’t long into this regime, however, that the young student became sidetracked by the violin. As part of her education, her mother took her to concerts at every opportunity and at one of these the five year old heard the virtuoso violinist Kunnakudi Vaiyanathan and was, she remembers, amazed by the sound he made.

“I went home and grabbed two broomsticks and started scraping them together,” she says. “My mother thought I’d gone mad but I was desperate to try and make the sound I’d heard at that concert. So after quite a lot of pleading and carrying on with my improvised bow and string, she got me a violin on the understanding that I would work as hard at this instrument as I had as a singer.”

There was an element of bribery involved in this violin practice. In school term time, Jyotsna put in an hour every day, working on the exercises given to her by her teacher, R R Keshavamurthy, a well-respected violinist in Indian music circles. But during school holidays, her mother, who was determined that Jyostna was going to be a child prodigy, used the aromas from the bakery next door to make sure she put in extra hours.

“By about four in the afternoon, there would be these great smells wafting into our house, so I’d get promised a bun or something else tempting like that if I worked on whatever it was I was concentrating at the time,” she says.

This worked: she made her concert debut at the age of nine and then in her mid-teens, after seeing one of the violin masters who played music for films using western classical fingering, she started her training in these techniques at Bangalore School of Music, going on to gain her grades from the Royal School of Music in London. She might have gone on to become a full-time musician earlier – by now she was playing concerts most weekends and working in film music – but for her medical studies restricting her travelling for concerts. She worked as a pathologist, playing music in her spare time, until 2004 when, by now the mother of two children, she and her husband moved to London.

“Most people in India work two jobs so I worked in medicine and music in Bangalore but when we came to London I was able to concentrate on music,” she says. “I love experimenting and I listen to a wide variety of music – Balkan, Chinese, flamenco, fado, all sorts – and I particularly like jazz violin. Stephane Grappelli is a great favourite because he used his technique to bring out the singing quality in his playing, and I love the way Nigel Kennedy can play classical music and yet be so creative with jazz too.”

On her return to Scotland, which sees her playing two concerts – one in Glasgow, one in Aberdeen – on the same day, she and her musicians will play traditional Carnatic music in the afternoon and something more experimental in the evening.

“I like to appeal to as wide an audience as possible,” she says, “and we’re used to travelling to play our music. So it’s no problem to play in one style and then jump in the car or onto a train and stretch out a bit musically at the end of the journey. My group Bangalore Dreams, although it uses Indian percussion instruments, leans towards jazz and can be quite adventurous but it still has the music I grew up with at its heart.”

From The Herald, November 20, 2013.

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