Fingering Techniques in South Indian Violin

his section discusses specific techniques by which the Carnatic violinist executes the various classes of ornament. (The author is a practicing violinist and a longtime student of Carnatic violin. Remarks on technique in this article draw on direct study with, or close observation of, several South Indian artists of the violin--including V. Thyagarajan, T.N. Krishnan, L. Shankar, L. Subramaniam, and Lalgudi Jayaraman.)

According to most accounts, the earliest master musicians to successfully adapt the violin to Carnatic music were Balasvamy Diksitar (1786-1858), disciple and younger brother of the saint-singer Muttusvamy Diksitar; and Vadivelu (1810-1845), one of the Tanjore Quartet (four brothers, all famous musicians). Both men studied the Western style of playing the violin before going on to experiment with applying the instrument to their own music.

The Carnatic violinist, sitting cross-legged, braces the instrument lightly between chest and hollow of the right ankle, where the scroll of the violin rests. The left hand is thus freed from having to support the instrument as in the Western hold, and the player moves with ease among the various positions. (The term "position" on the violin refers to the placement of the left hand relative to the end of the fingerboard. In first position the index finger is at an interval of a second above the open string; in second position it is a third above the open string; and so on.)

Barbara Benary (an accomplished player of both Western and South Indian classical violin) has traced the development of left-hand technique during the century-and-a-half since the violin's assimilation into the Carnatic tradition. She describes a progression from the initial style which used mostly discrete fingered notes in the Western manner (the "four-finger" style), through a slide-based ("two-finger") style, to the sophisticated blend of slides, oscillations, and fingered clusters which is found in the playing of today's concert artists (Benary 1971:38).

C. S. Ayyar comments on a typical method in the preface to his Tyagaraja collection:

The fingering technique with 4 fingers enables one to produce the gamakas . . . highly enriched with a sense of true notes without any dissonance. . . . The 1-finger and the 2-finger technique now-a-days adopted in the first grip position on the four strings, I regret to add, entirely kills the emission of the full and pure tone of the violin. . . . The usual grip positions used by the South Indian in European terminology are the 1st and the 3rd, the fourth being restricted to the steel [i.e., the highest] string only. (Ayyar 1955:iii)

The passage invokes a standard justification for using all four fingers of the left hand: this preserves the integrity of the various svaras in the raga . If only one or two fingers are used, then a slide from one svara to another blurs together all the intervening pitches--destroying by "dissonance" the true colors of the raga . (Of course it could be argued that the voice itself, after which instrumentalists model their playing, has only one "finger," yet this does not prevent vocalists from showing the raga in its true colors.)

Various motions of the hand and fingers are used for the different classes of gamakas . The first class considered here is jaru , the slides; it includes etra-jaru (ascending) and irraka-jaru (descending). These slides vary from quite short to very long, and are usually executed on the violin by one finger as it tracks a movement of the forearm up or down the violin neck. The whole hand, thumb included, moves with the finger in an outright shift from one position to another. A crucial element here is the thumb's movement, although this may not be obvious in very short slides. In some mordent-like ornaments, the hand (with thumb) returns immediately to its former position; in other cases, the slide leads to and ends in a new area of melody elaboration.

Powers calls the ornaments of the second class-- gamaka --"the most characteristic of South Indian music" (1959:1/149). They include nokku , odukkal , kampita , and orikai . These are often termed "deflections," after the associated vina technique of deflecting or pulling the string sideways to modulate the pitch. On the violin no such technique exists; instead these ornaments are produced by short slides up and down the string, or by rolling a fingertip (or a group of adjacent fingertips acting as a unit) forward and backward. The deflections are usually executed without changing position, that is, with the thumb stationary. But some broad kampitas (oscillations) may be played on just one finger, by sliding the entire hand back and forth between two positions.

According to Benary, the wrist is the foremost source of motion for the wide variety of oscillations, rolls, and short slides which comprise the deflection class.

If . . . two svaras are connected by a gamaka , they should blend into a continuous sound. Finger one slides up to cover most of the interval between its former position and the place where finger two will be. But finger two cannot come down sharply. It must take over smoothly from finger one. The fingers are touching sides and their tips are adjacent. The smooth transition between the two fingers is accomplished by a rolling motion of the wrist. It is the same motion by which, in the western technique, hand vibrato is made. Only here the motions are much slower and more deliberate. (Benary 1971:73)

All manner of kampitas are made with this general motion. They range from the microtonal, in which the oscillation is so narrow that (as in Western vibrato) it does not impinge on either of the neighboring half-tones, to the broad wave whose limits are an interval of a third apart. The microtonal kampita may be executed by one finger alone, rolling on its tip, or by two fingers lying very close together. The larger waves may use one, two, or more fingers, depending on the size of the interval and on the player's fingering style. When three fingers are used, the middle one of the three joins in the rolling contact with the string. The goal is always to transform the sequence of finger-contacts into a continuous glide.

This description applies to the playing of most violinists; a variation can be seen in the technique of L. Subramaniam. He strives for less motion in the wrist and hand, and more motion among individual fingers. For instance, in an oscillation between one note and another a whole tone distant, he prefers to keep the lower finger in its place and to slide through the entire interval with the higher finger. His explanation for this technique is that it allows the hand as a whole to remain calm and relaxed, while ensuring accurate intonation by fixing one of the limits of the oscillation (personal communication).

The third class of ornament is janta , the fingered stresses; these include sphurita , pratyahata , ravai , and khandippu . The violinist produces jantas with fingers placed precisely along the string at scale degrees of the raga , rather than placed together with sides touching as for deflections. Thus the different tones involved (in a turn, for example) can be sounded quickly, distinctly, and in tune.

In practice, the ten ornaments do not fall neatly each into one class as depicted in Table 1. For example, nokku and odukkal are described there as stresses, but their typical execution (by rolling or sliding) puts them in the deflection class rather than among the crisp fingered stresses. Orikai , too, has attributes of both deflection and stress. A broad kampita executed on just one finger partakes of slide as well as deflection. And khandippu , a dynamic accent which is classed with the fingered stresses, may be executed on the violin with an explosive slide or roll up and then back down again, rather than by simply fingering the upper limit of the ornament.

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