Chowdiah is ‘Sound’aiah

Written by Dr. TC Poornima on 18 July 2020

Let us first understand the origin, existence and practice of Violin that will set the context for the article. This may pave the way for understanding some of the research work undertaken by Chowdiah. Considering that the Veena was an accompanying instrument during the period of Samaveda, one can understand the importance of stringed instrument. Dakke, Damaru, flute, khombhu (horn), Veena were all of ancient times and it is difficult to determine or decide their origin and existence. Instead, we can search, research and trace their developments, expansion, conversions and transformations over a  period of time. This applies to violin also.

Around the world, several groups of tribal communities have used violin like instruments. They were all of local origin and very crude without refinement. These were made by using coconut shells, small wooden dish, wires, fibre etc. and played using matching bows. But none of these primitive instruments could be considered as the original shape of violin, since these have not been classified under basic musical traditions. Viewed from this angle, we can categorise and compare Indian origin Dhanur Veena, Koorma Veena and Raavana Hastha instruments which employed the usage of bow to play with violin. 

An arrow fired from a hunter without his knowledge from the thread of the bow producing a melodic sound resulted in the making of Dhanur Veena. Similarly, many instruments have their origin and discovered unexpectedly. In the later stages, Dhanur Veena with only 2 strings have been documented in the India's Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro civilisation period. Further, the Dhanur Veena is documented as part of traditional music.

Although Dhanur Veena’s usage is identified from the period of Harappan culture, in foreign Countries, this type of bow instruments is in use from 15th century onwards. Between 12th and 14th centuries, "Fiddle" with several varieties and types existed depending upon the taste of people's requirements. It was during 1400, the form of modern violin was born and acquired fame universally. An improvised version of violin "Lira da braccio" (Indonesian) resembled the modern violin in many respects though the overall length of the wood was different and had 3 to 5 strings. Its play was similar to that of violin with shoulder support. Similarly, during the 17th century, a bronze instrument known as "Lira de Gamba” from Italy nearly resembled violin. Likewise, many models and types of violin were in use around the world in music and dance fields. “Bumbers" (Germany) was one such instrument. Instead of strings, a rope was used in the instruments originating from Malé, Mozambique, Ethiopia, West Africa. Two stringed “Rebab” from North Africa, “Kamanja” from Persia, “Strike Fiddle” from Turkey, “Rebab" (from Iraq and Syria), Shrungara, Saarangi, Sarinda (India) were all 15 to 17th century instruments. Similar instruments were in vogue in countries like Japan, China, Thailand, Java, Cambodia, Greece, Bulgaria, Norway, Yugoslavia, Poland, England and Ireland. In all these Countries, violin was used as a play back instrument in dances. Later it was adopted in orchestra and for rendering group songs. Strings were used as needed to attain the required volume. Thus there were no restrictions about the number of strings which varied from 1 to 15. During the 16th century, Gabrielle of Italy introduced this violin in an orchestra ensemble and it acquired the name "Violino". The name was inherited by another instrument called "Viola" that existed in England. Another instrument "viol" belonging to the 16th century made its appearance on the stage. In the middle East, Fiddle originated from Spanish guitarists. In India it seems its name remained as Veena.

Thus, after crossing various stages of development according to the changing requirements, the instrument that is played with the bow on strings stand in front of us as "Violin". In Indian Music, that too in Carnatic music system, violin was in the fore front of folk instruments. It is known by several names Kamaicha, Jantar, Chikar, Sareja, Basam, Pullavan kudam, Raavana-hastha etc. The use of these instruments or the improvised version of Dhanur Veena was reused in the 18th century. The current day violin is identified by Piteelu' and 'kamaanu'. The main wooden timbre box, neck, sound holes, keys, finger tape, the horse, the wooden piece (chakke), strings, sound pillar all form parts of the violin besides the main supporting wooden hard stick, jave (horse hairs, a key to arrange the tension of jave, wax to stick together horse hairs gives the complete picture of a violin. In western Countries, it is played in standing posture, whereas in India it is played in sitting position. In India, violin is manufactured in Kolkata. The credit for introducing the European origin violin into karnatik music should go to Baluswami Dikshitar (1756), the younger brother of Muttuswamy Dikshitar. Travancore Asthana Vidwan in Maharaja Swathi Thirunal’s court further popularised the violin. Swathi Thirunal's court Vidwan Vadivelu, younger of the famed natya charyas Travancore Quartet (1830-1845), Natuvanar, Thirukodikaval Krishna Iyer (1857-1913), Fiddler Malaikottai Govindaswamy Pillai (1931) have all developed violin and popularised it.

Sangeetha Ratna Chowdiah belonged to this eminent violinists' group. Had he preferred to remain as a violinist/soloist, he would not have acquired this much of universal recognition and fame. He was far ahead of his contemporaries in his thoughts and innovative mind which was always craving for achieving something new. He never bothered about failure in his efforts. He withstood adverse comments and resisted stiff opposition to his new inventions like a solid rock undeterred. Finally, he emerged victorious with a tag “Sound”iah.

In western countries, 4 stringed violin was in use as an accompanying instrument for its graceful melody and was a main instrument in orchestra ensembles. The number of strings varied depending upon the requirements for achieving required volume. Hence they used between 4 to 14 strings. None of this usage was within the knowledge of Chowdiah.

Prior to Chowdiah several attempts have been made to increase the volume of violin but not by increasing the number of strings. According to Harikatha exponent C Saraswathibai, Marungapuri Asthana Vidwan Gopalakrishna Iyer fixed a 'Horn' to his 4 strings violin called 'Phonoviolin' to enhance the sound which resembled and sound like a gramophone.

The present violin made its entry into Indian classical music 100 years prior to the entry of Chowdiah. A lot of efforts and attempts were made by players to learn the technique of play and to acquire perfect mastery over the instrument to popularise it both as an accompanying and solo instrument in Karnatik music. 

None of these players made any experiments to unearth the scope and potential of the instrument to expand its usage in our music. Even if there were efforts, those were not fruitful. Masalamani Mudaliar in the later part of 19th century fixed 5 strings to his violin and tuned it to 'anu mandra shruthi' and played in the vocal concert of Coimbatore Raghava Iyer. The traditional Tambura with only 4 strings used mainly for Shruthi support was added with another 3 extra strings during the life time of Thyagaraja and was used by Shatkala Govinda Marar but this experiment was never tried on violin before. One cannot conclude whether all these experimentations were within the knowledge of Chowdiah. The experiments conducted by Chowdiah were out of compulsion. Let us understand what those compulsions were.

It was in 1911 that Chowdiah made his entry at the age of 16 to Karnatik music. He made his debut as an accompanist to his Guru Bidaram Krishnappa who was blessed with a powerful resonant voice that could reach a gathering of over 1000 enthusiastic listeners. Like Thyagaraja’s song "Naabhi hruthkanta rasana"(Shobillu sapthaswara in the raga Jaganmohini), he believed in the emergence of melody from the nabhi, passing through heart and coming out of mouth. His supporting accompanying instrument western originated violin was not at all audible to the vast audience in concerts. This always bothered Chowdiah since there was no sound amplification then. By 1924, Chowdiah was a top class violinist regularly accompanying his Guru Bidaram Krishnappa besides Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar and other leading performers. It was difficult for Chowdiah to match Bidaram's voice with his 4 stringed violin to reach the vast gathering of listeners. Frequent change and design of bows were of no use to enhance the violin sound. On his 4 stringed violin he regularly practiced Sarale, janti varisai, alankaras, Varnas in different speeds, speedy neraval using different gamakas two to three hours a day but his bow never rose to his expectations. As a last attempt he thought of modifying the instrument instead of tweaking the bow! As a first step he concentrated on the strings by adding an extra string to the 'panchama' string and tried it as a five string violin. The resulting nada was somewhat satisfying. Enthused by this result, he added two more strings to the other 3 strings. The arrangement was fixing additional strings to 'Shadja' and 'madhya panchama'. He avoided mandhra Shadja. The first set was taara Shadja- mandhra shadja, second set was madhya panchama - mandhra panchama, and the third one was madhya shadja- mandhra shadja. This improved the overall enhancement of the sound of first three strings. He ensured that the pitch of the strings was in arohana system. This resulted in the flow of melody like a stream. He discussed this inventive arrangement with his violin manufacturer Rangappa who was a close friend and never felt tired of implementing Chowdiah's requirement and modification of violin. They spent many days discussing the pros and cons of these modifications and finally formed the seven stringed violin. In proportion to the length and breadth of this new instrument, Chowdiah rigorously practiced fingering and bowing techniques applying equal pressure on the strings and bow. All these developments were out of the notice of his guru Bidaram Krishnappa. The next step was to try it out in concert which was the real proof of the pudding.

In 1924, Krishnappa's concert was arranged in the residence of Veena Sheshanna with Chowdiah providing the violin accompaniment and he had come with the 'saptatanti' violin. Chowdiah was not at ease playing with the modified violin without letting his Guru know. As the concert started, the somewhat unusual increased sound of the violin distracted the concentration of Bidaram Krishnappa. He looked at the instrument and thundered what is it? Chowdiah said he added 3 strings and made a new formation of the violin. Everyone including Veena Sheshanna were expecting a slap from Bidaram Krishnappa to the disciple. That didn't happen. Krishnappa stopped singing and asked Chowdiah to continue playing. He mustered all the courage and played. Bidaram Krishnappa did not speak but started thinking will this new invention be accepted by music world? Will the staunch traditionalist accept this violin? How can I support Chowdiah? Will Chowdiah face the stiff opposition from the traditionalists etc.

It was later Sheshanna who assured Krishnappa not to bother about it as he was fully convinced of Chowdiah's new invention and its overall success in music field. Subsequently Bidaram Krishnappa appreciates Chowdiah and for the rest of his life the new invention becomes a companion. Although leading performers like Ramanuja Iyengar, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer etc. whole heartedly extended their welcome to Chowdiah's new 7 stringed violin, still there were some musicians who vehemently criticised it as unfit to be used in classical music as an accompanying instrument on account of apaswaras it produced. This stiff opposition and criticism emanated out of jealously from those who could not digest Chowdiah's instant popularity and domination over other contemporary violinists of that period. According to writer Rajashri, during the annual music conference under the aegis of Madras Music Academy's morning academic session in 1947, CS Krishna Iyer expressed his opposition to the usage of 7 strings violin in Karnatik music which produces apaswaras and the sound being very harsh, it was fit enough to be deposited to the corner along with clarinet, Jaltarang, Khanjira etc. In his reply, Chowdiah strongly defended his instrument and challenged CS Iyer to play all the gamakas on the 4 stringed violin and that he would precisely reproduce it with accuracy on his 7 strings violin without a single apaswara! If one doesn’t like my invention no problem. When my guru Bidaram and other leading performers have whole heartedly approved my invention, there is no need for me to care and answer sundries, he blasted with full of anger. He challenged his critics to elicit the opinion of leading performers like Ariyakudi, Alathur Brothers, Madurai Mani Iyer, GNB and the conference president Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer who requested Chowdiah on several occasions to accompany him and how come they didn't notice any flaws in his play? If the critics proved right he is prepared to discard his new invention there itself, he challenged. The large gathering gave a thundering applause to Chowdiah's spirited reply silencing his critics. Finally, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer used all his diplomatic skills and vocabulary to console an enraged Chowdiah.

Throughout his long career, Chowdiah dominated the Karnatik music arena like a tiger. By 

sheer hard practice, innovative approach, deep dedication and absolute mastery over the instrument he earned immense popularity in the field. Always attired in spotless white, after occupying the centre stage and passed the bow over the strings to tune the instrument, the audience were eagerly looking forward to relish his play. Many of them returned home disappointed on noticing a substitute violinist in the place of Chowdiah.

Whatever may be the jealous attitude of local players, maestros like Yehudi Menuhin expressed their surprise as to how Chowdiah could so effortlessly play on his 7 stringed violin when they were struggling on the 4 stringed instrument! Once Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar out of curiosity was having a close look at Chowdiah's violin. On inquiry he replied that he wanted to know if any extra strings are attached to the instrument. Chowdiah’s close friend Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar gave him the title "Saptha Tanthi Visharada", GNB gave him the name “Sound"iah, whereas Pudukkottai Dakshina Murthy Pillai called him" Mysore Dore". What more one can expect in life? In the past, Tanjore was hailed as the peak of Karnatik music. Musicians from this area were highly admired by the music world. Chowdiah by his sheer efforts and achievements snatched this credit and elevated the status of Mysore as the prime centre of Carnatic music.

Enthused by the success of his 7 stringed instrument, he tried on a 19 stringed instrument. Before that he made a 9 stringed violin and later 12 stringed instrument. It is only after trying these combinations he took up and tried the 19 stringed instrument. Playing it was not so easy. Each string has to be in perfect unison with the pitch alignment. A slight variation in pitch resulted in apaswaras. Once or twice Chowdiah played on this instrument and gave it up later. RR Keshava Murthy also played on this violin.

Chowdiah used main instruments like Veena as his accompanying instrument. Whenever he was invited for solo concert, he used to have either a Veena or Harmonium as his accompanying instrument along with percussive support. The credit of introducing Jugalbandhi goes to Chowdiah who used to occupy the centre seat on the dais and his co players on both the sides. Delivering his Presidential address in 1957 music conference under the aegis of Music Academy, Madras, he justified the seating of his co-players by his side. He called upon the main performers to give up professional jealousy towards accompanists and to develop co-operative attitude. Performers should not convert the stage into a battling ground. Should never develop the intention of dominating over other co-artists. Violinist should follow the main performers like a shadow he suggested.

Chowdiah during his lifetime made lot of sound and justified his name “Sound"iah given by GN Balasubramaniam.