Asian Music and Dance

Chitravina Ravikiran – Musician by Name, Musician by Nature 

For the first in a series of articles about a specific musical instrument and a particular maestro of that instrument, Ken Hunt starts with Chitravina Ravikiran, the foremost and best-known virtuoso of South India’s chitravina.

Chitravina, alternatively known as the gottuvadyam, is an unfretted stringed instrument, elegant in the Indian manner, placed horizontally in front of the cross-legged musician and played with a cylindrical slide. Ancient by any musicological standards and one of the most wondrous (‘chitra’) musical instruments on the planet, it is testimony to human ingenuity.

“…musical voices that people hear in dreams”. 

…Or to wax poetic, how to take the eerie lucidity of the type of musical voices that people hear in dreams and transport those ethereal sounds into our waking hours. On recordings the chitravina’s voice is entrancing. To view Ravikiran do what he does in concert and to begin to grasp how he does it may well trigger a sensory epiphany – lifelong, to be repeated at will.

Organology is the science of musical instruments and their classification. Even if we dip just fleetingly into the foxed pages of that famed imaginary tome detailing the development of the South Asian subcontinent’s instruments, old certainties soon waver. During the twentieth century many of the front-row classical instruments underwent major changes. Intuitive hunches, advances in technology, greater opportunities to travel and discover what others were doing, curiosity, structural or design experimentation and – never forget or underestimate it – rivalry all fed change.

All India Radio became the main patron of the nation’s post-Self-rule musical arts. AIR – or Akashvani – effectively superseded the centuries-old system of courtly patronage that had helped shape, sponsor and underwrite specific styles. Record companies also brought welcome purses; really handsome ones for higher-graded artists. Typically, until musicians’ eyes popped after encountering Western-style royalties and copyrights, these were one-off payments. The norm was for sessions to be buy-outs with no extra revenue based on gramophone sales or compositional creativity. Musicians with new disposable incomes began commissioning instruments with improved, bespoke designs; the better to deliver what they were hearing in their heads.

Let’s time-hop back to 1913. It would have taken a good deal of intellectual straining or opiate-assisted leaps of the mind to predict what the sitar or sarod tadpoles would turn into over the next 100 years. By 1913 the chitravina was pretty much fully mature, supposedly having evolved from a seven-stringed instrument a long, long, long time before; though it, too, would benefit from a little twentieth-century cocktail of know-how and magic.

“It is dated at least before the sitar and vina”.

“The chitravina is one of the oldest stringed instruments of Indian classical music. It is dated at least before the sitar and vina. The technique of playing is very simple,” Ravikiran deadpans. “We just pluck with the right hand and glide using a Teflon slide or ebony piece over the main strings with the left hand.”

As he renders safe in his Appreciating Carnatic Music (Ganesh & Co., Madras, 1997), the instrument “has twenty-one strings – six on top, three for rhythm and drone, and a set of twelve sympathetic strings which resonate automatically when the top strings are used. It produces a smooth, singing tone, with its timbre being especially impressive. The lower ranges are grand and warm; the higher ones are bright and sharp.”

“It produces a smooth, singing tone”.

Nowadays, he is more likely to be seen playing the twenty-string navachitravina, a chitravina for modern times that Rikhi Ram built to his specifications circa 1999–2000. Its design allows for better, amplified projection and is strung with six top, three drone and eleven sympathetic strings.

But before we go too far, it is time for a nomenclature break… “Chitravina is the traditional name for gottuvadyam,” he clarifies. “Both are the same instrument, but it is only the name. The traditional name is chitravina, and gottuvadyam is a recent name.” For a long while gottuvadyam displaced chitravina. He explains the word’s origins: “The name was given about 100 years back by my grandfather’s guru. His name was Sakha Rama Rao. He was the guru of my grandfather as well as Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. He used to call that black piece, that ebony slide, his gottu. That was just an arbitrary name. There is really no meaning to that which can be traced back in any dictionary or anything. Vadyam means ‘instrument’. So gottuvadyam.”

In 1955 microgroove LPs of Indian classical music arrived for the first time. The Hindustani sarodist Ali Akbar Khan became the first principal soloist to make an LP of his own – the Yehudi Menuhin-curated Music of India: Morning and Evening Ragas. That same year France’s Ducretet-Thomson label released a three-volume microgroove crash course into Hindustani and Carnatic music entitled Anthologie de la Musique Classique de l’Inde. Put together by the French musicologist, Hindologist Alain Daniélou, Auvidis reissued it in 1997. One track was by the senior musician Budalar Krishnamurthi Shastri revealing le gottuvādyam, played ‘by sliding a piece of polished wood over the strings’ before Teflon’s invention.

“His grandfather…released some 40-plus 78 rpm”.

Born Narasimhan Ravikiran in February 1967, he is following in his forebears’ footsteps. (“I was born in Mysore but I settled down in Madras when I was 2 at the request of all the Madras music organisations there. It was always the cultural capital of the country so it’s pretty good for a musician to be there.”) His grandfather, the Mysore-based K.S. Narayana Iyengar (also Ayyangar) (1906–1959) and Ravikiran’s father N. Narasimhan (born 1943) went before him. His grandfather who died before his birth released some 40-plus 78 rpm gramophone discs, Ravikiran once told me, on various Indian labels from 1928 over three decades. (Another of India’s lost musical libraries never to have resurfaced commercially.) The rebirth of interest in the instrument has been attributed to Sakha Rama Rao who died in 1930.

While these are all male names, the chitravina’s distaff side was also represented in the grand vina manner by the major-league female player, Mannargudi Savitri Ammal. Ragas from South India (Folkways, 1967) by Gayathri Rajapur, a student of that same Krishnamurti Shastri from Budalar, also made gottuvadyam converts. It carried liner notes by Joseph Byrd. Intriguingly, his later avant-garde rock group, The United States of America, at times conjured sounds electronically that gottuvadyam did acoustically.

Ravikiran was one of the musicians who advocated reverting to chitravina. An ally supporting this move was the Carnatic vocal giant M.S. Subbulakshmi. In the meanwhile, gottuvadyam had gained considerable currency. Certainly older readers will have encountered that name well before chitravina. But, to roil the historical waters still more, like something from that Borgesian-style Book of Imaginary Instruments, there was also the name vipanchi floating about.

“…the lad could distinguish between some 325 ragas and 175 talas”.

Reportedly, Ravikiran started actively responding to music at three months. Having been immersed in music since earliest nipperhood, he learned music like he learned languages. In April 1969 he made his public debut as a vocalist at the Malleshwaram Sangeeta Sabha in Bangalore. That December at the Music Academy in Madras, before Ravi Shankar, Alla Rakha and other leading vidwans (masters), the lad could distinguish between some 325 ragas and 175 talas (rhythm cycles) and answered technical questions. His feat has been somewhat overblown down the years by suggestions that he was naming them too. Barely speaking, he was good at 2 but not that good. (A cut-to-the-chase paraphrase of a conversation in September 2012.) 

He could, however, tell them apart. When Alla Rakha fed him a trick question, with childlike candour Ravikiran whispered, “This uncle [term of respect] knows nothing about rhythms.” It immediately endeared him to the tabla virtuoso. Witnessing such precocity, Shankar supposedly remarked, “If you don’t believe in God look at Ravikiran.” The exact attribution for this quote is hazy. Shankar did, however, confirm the tenor of his words when I attempted to get to the bottom of the matter – the nearest to the source you and I are likely to get.

“The reincarnation of his grandfather”.

As a consequence of his feat, for three years the Academy contributed a special monthly stipend to encourage his phenomenal promise. While scarcely more than a tot he would sit in his father’s lap and play the chitravina, leading to his dad getting him a child-size chitravina. Aged 5 he gave his first proper vocal recital in Bangalore. Within two years he had broadcast as a vocalist and by the age of 12 was giving chitravina recitals. Such was his youth and innate musicality that there was feverish speculation in Hindu and Carnatic circles – where child prodigies have been treated routinely and matter-of-factly as supporting rebirth – about him being the reincarnation of his grandfather.

“Basically the thing came about when I was telling these ragas [apart] when I was 2. At the time the astrological magazine of India carried out some sort of astrological study of my grandfather’s death chart and my birth chart. They did various calculations and came up with…” he paces his words, “this…” (breath) “…thing… I really don’t know much about astrology at all so I wouldn’t feel competent about the accuracy or otherwise of those things.

“That’s when people were talking about [how] I was a reincarnation; I was a freak or whatever it was. My father kept on maintaining that he could do it with any normal child and so he started experimenting on these people – my brother, my sister and my cousin.”

“…when people said I was a ‘reincarnation, a freak’…my father maintained he could do it (teach) any normal child”.

He is more comfortable talking about his father’s modi operandi for training him and his younger siblings and close kin – Ravikiran’s brother, the vocalist Sashikiran; his sister, the chitravina player Kiranavali; and his cousin, to whom Ravikiran acts as guru, Chitravina Ganesh. Ravikiran’s father would apply, refine and repeat his teaching techniques, not so much a cramming course as a get-them-young technique. “Coming back to my father’s teaching method itself, I don’t really remember what he did with me but I noticed what he was doing with my brother and sister and cousin. My father was of the opinion that any normal child can be taught like this – fed information, purposefully exposed and that music can be built in like any other language. He was, of course, of the opinion that it could be a child from any point on the globe and it could be irrespective of caste or birth or diet or region or religion or whatever it is. Any normal human being has a certain amount of natural music ability built into them and all we have to do is channel it out, tap its potential.”

He takes stock. “What I’m trying to say is that the natural talent makes it easier for a parent to teach but any normal child can be taught in this way. That’s what my father’s contention was.”

More pragmatically, less mystically, AIR exempted him from the organisation’s standard minimum age bar, so he was broadcasting from the age of 12 with AIR awarding him senior-grade status one year on. “Ganesh also got an exemption from All India Radio; he got the same exemption [to play ‘underage’] that I got.” And in 2000 the French Buda label released Chitravina Ganesh’s blandly-titled Inde du Sud: Musique Carnatique album.

“…Ravikiran’s technique depends on the unsung”.

Like so many Carnatic and Hindustani instrumentalists, Ravikiran’s technique depends on the unsung. Normally he sings lyrics on the chitravina. In that respect he was assisted inordinately by the vocalist T. Brinda with whom he studied for many years, as did the vocalist Aruna Sairam. Famously, she eschewed making commercial recordings and avoided publicity, quite content to impart what she knew to musicians whom she believed in. 

“…the voice…the grounding side of a great instrumental maestro”.

Less well-known in Ravikiran’s canon is an album called Navaragini (Rajalakshmi Audio, 2004). It lacks all trace of chitravina. It is a full-length, sung rāgam-tānum-pallavi piece, the big cycle of fixed composition and spontaneous composition that counts as one of the pinnacles of Carnatic delivery. It culminates in the full-tilt pallavi movement that takes in rāgams Bhairavi, Ranjani, Janaranjani, Rasikapriya, Varamu, Sri Saraswati, Manohari and Saraswatimonohari. It points to where it all began – the voice – and the grounding side of a great instrumental maestro whose name is synonymous with the instrument he plays.



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