Asian Music and Dance

Chitravina Ravikiran

South Indian music has long-standing naming conventions not encountered in its Hindustani cousin in the north of the subcontinent. In Carnatic music, caste and personal names develop prehensile attributes and grow extensions. One convention places a little geography up front – a birthplace or a work base – such as the violinist Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan’s addition of his birthplace. Another adds their tool of work, such as Mandolin Srinivas. In Ravikiran’s case, his is the comparatively rare instrument with which his family has been associated for several generations.

Chitravina or veena derives from veena, a generic word for a stringed instrument (although it also functions as a proper noun, as in the case of the Hindustani vocalist Veena Sahasrabuddhe), and the adjectival chitra, in a context such as this meaning ‘wonderful’, ‘wondrous’, ‘magnificent’ and the like. (For a while the term gottuvadyam displaced the earlier chitravina.) It is an unfretted instrument with raised strings played with a slide – historically made of buffalo horn or turned ebony, nowadays of Teflon. The right hand uses a combination of digits and metal picks called nahangal in Tamil, meaning ‘nails’. Together they create voices and voicings that are part-human and part-theremin eeriness. Ravikiran introduced chitravina along the lines of closing one’s eyes and hearing a beautiful girl singing, then opening them and seeing him.

When he first performed in Britain in the early 1990s, Ravikiran brought his grandfather’s exquisite chitravina with its carved dragon-like yazhi head – yazhi is a mythical Tamil monster – and delicate voice. At over a century in age, because of frailty and a dislike of travelling long distances, it now resides in Chennai and is only taken out on car or train journeys. At the Darbar Festival he played the navachitraveena, a sturdier, more portable model designed by Ravikiran in 1999/2000 and realised by the Delhi-based instrument-maker Rikhi Ram. It has six main, three drone and eleven resonance strings.

Accompanying on the South’s trademark double-headed barrel drum was the mridangam vidwan (maestro) Dr. Yella Venkateswar Rao (Ravikiran: “a veteran from Hyderabad”) who balances the economical and the ecstatic. His playing proved worth the epithet magical. The third musician on the stage was Jyotsna Srikanth, a violinist whose melodic underpinning, call and response and solos impressed mightily.

The opener was an unnamed Doraisami Iyer composition in ragam Nattai in the all-purpose adi tala (an eight-beat cycle). It worked as a good introductory piece for the chitravina and the ensemble alike. As did the saint-composer Tyagaraja’s unnamed composition in Pantuvamli in a cycle of threes (roopakam, not to be confused with Hindustani music’s rupak taal in sevens) that followed. It included a splendid passage in which the chitravina’s Wild Mouse ride side went on display.



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