Let’s take a peek into Maestro Kala Ramnath’s ‘singing violin’, fond memories of her grandfather, and more.
The pleasant winter evening turns enchanting as the Mozart of South Asia, violinist Kala Ramnath, smoothly switches between the strings with her violin bow. What better than raga Shyamkalyan, befitting the time. Beautiful sounds of the violin wafting across the pandal.
Ramnath performed at the recently concluded 65th Sawai Gandharva Bhimsen Mahotsav, after a long hiatus of 12 years. We caught up with the violin maestro a day prior to her performance. Hailing from a musicians’ family, she took early lessons in music from her paternal grandfather, Vidwan Narayan Iyer. She explains to us even the finer nuances of music with utter simplicity. Much to my comfort, her heartwarming smile does not fade for even a moment.
Ramnath grew up in a home filled with music day and night. Her doting grandfather taught her not only music but also about life at large. She reminisces how he would wake her up, put her to sleep, drop her to school, teach Math and English, feed her, help her with her homework, and every other daily ritual. The lovely granddaughter admits, “He was my life. If he did not speak to me, I would cry. I learned from him until his last moment.”
Another most treasured heritage is her grandfather’s technique of ‘singing violin’. Ramnath says, “My grandfather taught me the technique where I jump from one note to another. I go up the scale with the same finger at taan’s speed. So it feels like an akar.”
In Indian Classical Music, there are two ang (style), gayaki and tantrakari. The latter is an instrumental style. Further emphasizing on why her violin is called the singing violin, she mentions that she can change direction with the bow seamlessly over the strings. So there is continuity in the notes played.
Ever wondered how a violinist moves each of his hands at different speeds while playing the instrument? Thus, both are at a different tempo. The question of synchronizing the two never arises. Ramnath cites, “You have to move the bow with an even movement and pressure. And you have to use the whole bow. Thus, the number of notes you play are even in movement, while moving the bow forward and backward. If this is not maintained, there is an imbalance; and you can hear the change in the direction of the bow. These are the finer nuances I considered and incorporated consciously. Hence my violin sounds like singing violin.”
She credits her training in vocals with Pandit Jasraj in helping her play gayaki fully on the violin. At this point, we are pleasantly surprised to hear her crooning a classical composition, ‘Sakhi ye ri aali piya bina’. Simultaneously, she demonstrates how she would move the bow to match the varying speed of the gayaki.
On a violin, you can play a range of notes. Hence, it’s called a versatile instrument. Ramnath quips, “Our classical music is in between the notes. Apart from a singer’s voice, it is only the sarangi or violin which can get the micro-tones exactly. So a violin can render everything that a vocalist does. But if I do the tantrakari, it’s very hard for a vocalist to sing.”
This world-famous violinist is the first Indian vocalist to be featured in The Strad, the Bible of the violin. She has also worked with orchestras across the world, including the London Symphony. She believes that her exposure to world music has helped her learn new things.
She shares, “When you listen to an artist you kind of build a relationship with his/ her music. You hear certain aspects and incorporate them into your own music, making it your own.”
Many of Ramnath’s compositions have been featured in Hollywood soundtracks, including Blood Diamond.
How does her foundation in Carnatic music help her associate with an array of music forms across the world? She adds, “While Indian Classical Music is based on micro-tones, Western Classical Music is based on notes. Our classical music is the most ancient form of music, dating back 5000 years. Our training is such that our ears become our eyes. So we start visualizing the placement of the notes when we hear them. In the West though, you read and play.”
Continuing the thread, it’s her training that helps her translate any notes she hears on her violin. That means she can connect the notes of other music styles with Indian ragas, that too within a fraction of a second. Humbly she says, “For an Indian classical musician, and I’m not exaggerating, it’s easy to play with a Western musician. If you have had the right training in our music, you can play in any genre in the West. But to master our music takes a while.”
Strength of our music
It’s interesting to hear her narrate her experience playing with the London Symphony Orchestra. While they had created their own composition, they left a space of 40 bars for her. They gave her the freedom to play whatever she wanted. So, every time she improvised they were stunned. That too, without any written notes, unlike them, yet perfectly in tune.
She elaborates, “Western Classical Music is read and played. But, we hear and play; that helps our mind multi-task. So for us to play with a western orchestra poses no issues. However, for them, it’s difficult to do so. They are not bad musicians; simply their training is different from ours. The strength of our music helps us.”
Music knows no boundaries
As a music teacher, she is associated with famous music institutes across the world. She has also formed three music bands – Raga Afrika, Global Conversation, and Elements – along with some known world musicians.
“My aim has always been to take our classical music all over the world. And bring the world together through music. Whatever you are seeing happening in the world today is not offering anything good to anybody. Music knows no language, no boundaries. So how about if you created one music, one world?” affirms Ramnath.
Further discussing the Gurukul system, she says that earlier there were fewer distractions. Her school of thought shaped her in a way that instead of hoping for instant results she rather played music for the love of it. Here’s her mantra for aspiring musicians- be passionate, disciplined, and put in hard work.
In 2012, Ramnath founded Kalashree, a social foundation, with the motto to educate children from economically weaker sections. “These children get into bad company. Music heals them from their pains, both in their minds and hearts. It develops their personality and gives them a direction in life,” she expresses.
She was inspired by a musician in Venezuela, who created an orchestra with children from the slums. Today, one of the members of the orchestra, Gustavo Dudamel, is the head of Los Angeles Philharmonic. It’s the fifth best orchestra in the world.
Another incident which shook her was when a nine-year-old student of hers died of cancer. Her voice drops remembering him, “That chirpy, little boy started losing interest in life. It was heartrending to see how he passed away. And that’s when I decided to do something for such children. Thus I started reaching these children through my music. Our music has the power to heal the mind. Every other music in the world excites you, but ours brings you peace. These kids cannot sleep in the night; they don’t feel hungry. So our music calms them. What more do you need from music?”