The Great Violin Maestros Of The Past

Written by V. V. Ramesh for Pallavi's Lalgudi G. Jayaraman Sydney Concert Souvenir, November 1995

The violin is believed to have been introduced into Carnatic music some 190 years ago. Over the ensuing years, many great violinists have adapted this Western instrument to Carnatic music and made it an integral part of the concert stage. On this memorable occasion, it will be only apt to recollect the great contributions made to Carnatic music by the pioneers in the field, who introduced and popularised the violin in Carnatic music. In this article, the life and times of four such pioneers are briefly outlined.

Baluswami Dikshitar (1786 - 1859)

Baluswami Dikshitar is believed to be the pioneer who introduced violin to Carnatic Music.

Baluswami Dikshitar was the son of Ramaswami Dikshitar, the scholar-composer and a brother of Muthuswami Dikshitar, one of the Carnatic musical trinity. He was a multi-faceted personality who could play on the family asset of the veena, besides swarabat, sitar and mridangam.

Baluswami Dikshitar and his brothers received a lot of patronage from Muthukrishna Mudaliyar and Venkatakrishna Mudaliyar of Manali. It is believed that it is at their instance, a visiting European violinist taught Baluswami Dikshitar to play the violin (1806-1814). Later on, Baluswami Dikshitar adapted his violin playing technique to suit Carnatic music. His brother Muthuswami Dikshitar composed "nottuswarams" in Sankarabharanam raga to practice with.

Baluswami Dikshitar was profusely decorated and honoured by the patrons of music. From 1825, he was the Asthana vidwan of Ettayapuram. He was also the music tutor of the Raja of Ettayapuram. Baluswamy Dikshitar gave a number of concerts along with his brother Chinnaswamy Dikshitar. The brothers are stated to be the first among duos of prominence known in history.

Vadivelu (1810 - 1845)

Vadivelu is one of the illustrious members of the famous Tanjore Quartet (Chinniah, Ponniah, Sivanandam and Vadivelu). The quartet were taken by their father (Mahadeva Annavi, himself an accomplished veena player) to Muthuswami Dikshitar for advanced musical training.

After this training from the great teacher, Vadivelu and his brothers became the Asthana vidwans (palace musicians) of Tanjore Court. Later on they moved to Travancore court under the Maharaja Swati Tirunal.

Vadivelu learnt violin under a European missionary at Tanjore. Vadivelu was a musical genius and he popularised the use of violin in Carnatic Music Concerts. He was the best loved of the artistes of Swati Tirunal, and he became the asthana vidwan at the age of 14. A scholar in Tamil and Telugu, he was also a distinguished vocalist, violinist, composer and bharathanatyam exponent.

His musical scholarship drew praise not only from the Kings and other patrons, but also from Saint Thyagaraja himself. It is believed that the saint entered his house and praised him - a gesture rarely extended by the saint. Likewise, the respected Veena Kuppayyar honoured him by giving his own exalted seat to him during Vadivelu's trip to Madras in 1828.

Vadivelu is a composer of rare merit, and he composed a number of kritis and varnams during his tenure as the Asthana Vidwan at the Travancore court. The words "divine dispensation" are used to describe the multi-faceted and unparalleled confluence of gifts and attainments of Vadivelu in the fields of music and dance.

Tirukodikaval Krishna Ayyar (1857 - 1913)

Krishna Ayyar hailed from Tirukodikaval, a small village endowed by nature with exquisite beauty and environment that nurtures culture and music. After initial training from his father Kuppuswamy Ayyar, he later had further training from Kothavasal Venkatarama Ayyar, a renowned composer of tana varnams. He also had the benefit of advanced training from stalwarts like Sathanur Panchanada Ayyar and Fiddle Subbarayar.

Krishana Ayyar is among the few immortals among Carnatic violinists. His playing style was characterised with masculine grandeur and a touch of genius. He used to provide violin accompaniment to great maestros such as Maha Vaidyanatha Ayyar, Patnam Subramanya Ayyar and Sarabha Sastri. He was also one of the pioneers of solo violin playing. He ushered in a technique known as "izhaittu vasippu" and produced ascending and descending glides with great effect.

Krishna Ayyar had a number of illustrious students - Semmangudi Narayanaswami Ayyar (the uncle and guru of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer) and Tirukodikaval Ramaswamy Ayyar, among the notable ones.

He was a very close friend of Maha Vaidyanatha Ayyar and Sarabha Sastri - giants of Carnatic music in those days. With other luminous contemporaries such as Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar and Patnam Subramanya Ayyar, Tirukodikaval Krishna Ayyar can truly be called as one among the greatest musicians who were part of the golden era of Carnatic music.

Malaikottai Govindaswami Pillai (1879 - 1931)

Born at Achyuthamangalam on the banks of river Mudicondan in Thanjavur District, Govindaswami Pillai had his initial training in vocal and violin under Umayalpuram Panchapakesa Ayyar and later under Ettayapuram Kothandapani Bhagavathar, brother of the renowned Ramachandra Bhagavathar.

Renowned for his vibrant playing style, Govindaswami Pillai could also play the flute and the mridangam. His graceful touches, his polished play, the sweetness and purity of his notes, his superb rendering of kritis, his exquisite finish and the ease and freedom in all the three octaves and the three degrees of speed, made him a great violinist of his times. According to the musicologist Prof. P. Sambamurthi:

'Govindaswami Pillai had an innate artistic consciousness and looked both to the intellectual and the emotional aspects of music.'

Pillai's playing style was characterised by sheer brilliance and originality. He brought in the innovation of a full bowing technique. Like vainikas, he used to sing to the tune of his violin play. Govindaswami Pillai's violin play is also marked by his brilliant alapanas and kalpana swaras and he had mastered the technique of tana playing by the undulatory movement of the bow.

His period coincided with the later part of the life of the legendary Tirokodikaval Krishna Ayyar. Papa Venkataramayya was among his important disciples.


Excerpts of the above article are taken from the book, A GARLAND by Sri. N. Rajagopalan and published by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan 1990.

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