Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Its Not the Trains: Ganesh and Kumaresh

Once, in a time that seems almost mythical, I was asked by one of my professors to name Britain’s greatest single contribution to India.  A no brainer.  “The railways,” I said with the sort of cocksure assurance only a shallow minded twit can muster.

My professor was a living legend.  In Calcutta, intellectuals and scholars worshipped his books. His (very un-Indian) name was synonymous in Bengali circles with ‘hero’. If some of his more fervent acolytes had their way his stern face would have been memorialized in marble and planted in the Maidan.  If not that, then front a Rs. 1 stamp.

This great man seemed startled by my response. He sputtered as he exhaled. “Really?”

I sensed something was amiss. My initial certainty suddenly began to crumble. I gulped and breathed a weakish, “Sure.”

Trains was not the answer he was looking for. Railways, were good but not THE GREATEST SINGLE CONTRIBUTION OF THE ENGLISH TO INDIA.  

I should have known. The guy was a recognized global authority on intellectual history.  His life’s theme, his scholarly passion, was the Bengal Renaissance which was not the name of a railway line but the flowering of culture, art and thought and social reform in the early 19th century.   

The answer he was looking for was ‘critical thinking’ or the English language. I might have gotten away with ‘education system’ or possibly ‘universities’. But not railways.

As it turned out I learned a lot from him and we became friends despite my gaff. But today, if we were to meet and he was to pose the same question, my answer would definitely not be ‘railways’. It would be ‘the violin’.

The violin was brought to India by someone from Europe. Most likely some Irish regimental fiddler in the East India Company’s army. Possibly a Portuguese sea captain but the Portuguese came to India seeking ‘Christians and spices’. They were all business and didn’t really have much time for fun things like music.

In Fort St George, (now Chennai), the English set up shop (and arsenals and warehouses) and held military parades. The Irish fiddler probably ventured out into the ‘native’ quarter from time to time for some palm toddy and while inebriated played the violin and did a jig.  On one occasion he was spotted by a young man named, Baluswami Dikshitiar, a Tamil musician, who liked the sound of the drunken man’s instrument. It reminded him in a way of the sound of the ‘veena’ which he had already mastered.  He arranged for a local merchant to procure the instrument from the drunk man, and when he got his hands on it, returned home to his family to try it out.

He sat down, placed the instrument firmly on his right foot and began to play.  What followed was a revolution. 

Suddenly, the classical music of south India, which was essentially a vocal music, had a new voice. An instrument that could not only follow the human voice as it ran up and down scales but that could imitate and even compete with the singer.  Thanks to the unknown British soldier and Baluswami Indian classical music made one of its truly profound discoveries.  The violin in India is no longer considered an ‘import’ but entirely indigenous. India has taken the humble gift of the British and made it one of their finest cultural adornments.   

Ganesh and Kumaresh

The list of master Indian violinists is too long to begin composing, but in the very vanguard of contemporary performers is the sibling pair Ganesh and Kumaresh. The brothers were taught each night by their music loving father who slaved away in the Life Insurance Company of India during the day. Both were prodigies, able to pick out tunes and musical patterns before the age of 5. They were performing publically before they were 10 years old and have continued to dominate their part of the Carnatic music world ever since.

I love this record. Brother Ganesh who is also a fine singer (graded A by All India Radio) sings on one track as well.

So without further ado, the Washerman’s Dog  proudly presents the end result of England’s greatest contribution to India, the violin!

            Track Listing:
            01 Makelara Vicharamu
02 Mampala Velaseda
03 Navaratna Malini
04 Nadopasana
05 Tharikita Thakathom
06 O Rama
Listen here.


Rebecca said...

Beautiful violin-ing!

Apurva Bahadur said...

Thank you Ajnabi - thanks for thinking about the fascinating Indian Railways. Apurva from Pune, India.