Asian Music and Dance

Kala Ramnath – Hindustani violin’s Kishori Amonkar

Ken Hunt paints a portrait of Kala Ramnath, seventh generation in a line of musicians, whose extraordinary intelligence and musicianship is setting new standards.

hat Kala Ramnath is one of her generation’s most consistently illuminating and coruscating Hindustani violinists is a given for rasikas – connoisseurs – of Indian classical music. Her reputation is, after all, built on the soundest of foundations. Not once have I seen her play a classical recital and not been blown away at various points during her performance by the sheer audacity of some unexpected melodic development or sequence of complementary phrases. Kala Ramnath is the Hindustani violin’s Kishori Amonkar. Kala, like Kishoriji, is startling in the maverick yet authoritative surprises she springs. No higher, no more burdensome praise, one might argue.

The subcontinent is home to dynasties of hereditary musicians. Some stretch back for generations. Kala Ramnath was born into, to my mind, one of the most fascinating of them all. From her birth in May 1967 in Madras – post-colonially Chennai – in Tamil Nadu, Kala was weaned on music. Her pupillage began early in the grand Indian tradition of catching them young. Violin was dinned into her by her paternal grandfather, A. Narayana Iyer. He and his wife lived with Kala’s father, T.N. Mani and mother, Malathy Mani and Kala studied with him from 1969 until 1983. “I started training in October 1969. In 1982 my dad died. That was hard on him. By that time he’d gotten too old. In 1983 he (my grandfather) was 86 years old. It affected him.”

“…its [the violin’s] voice suited microtonal tuning and rāgam

The European violin first found favour within the Carnatic art music system, the older of the subcontinent’s two systems, when a younger brother of one of Hinduism’s Trinity of Saint-composers, Muthuswami Dikshitar (1775–1835) took up and championed the foreign instrument. Plainly, generations of European seafarers, musicians and traders must have travelled with kits, viols and suchlike to the subcontinent. But the early modern violins – or fiddles – had many advantages. Violins were eminently portable, structurally relatively simple and, importantly for Baluswami Dikshitar, who played violin in the South Indian style, its voice suited microtonal tuning and rāgam. Dikshitar is considered to have lit the blue touch-paper of Carnatic violin.

Not until the twentieth century did violin begin to make its presence felt in the Hindustani art music system. Part of the reason is down to it competing in the north with the sarangi. Violin was fine in Bombay flicks – a rhapsodic Western-style violinist dominates the poster for the 1953 film Dil-e-Nadaan – but it took the visionary V.G. Jog (1922–2004) to begin to break down the violin’s North-South divide. He had met his future guru, the celebrated multi-instrumentalist Allauddin Khan in 1938; in 1941 Khan honoured him by performing a jugalbandi (duet) with him at the Uday Shankar India Culture Centre in Ranidhara, Almora, in Uttar Pradesh. Hindustani violin had ‘arrived’.

There is one monumental exception to the North-South divide rule: the musical dynasty to which Kala Ramnath belongs. She and her cousin, Sangeeta Shankar represent the seventh generation on the Hindustani side while their cousins Viji Krishnan Natarajan and Sriram Krishnan are the seventh on the ‘southern side’. “Maybe until I was 6 or 7 years old, I did play a bit of Carnatic music in the beginning,” Kala explains. “When I was 7 my grandfather decided that it was Hindustani that I should be doing.”

Kala’s great-grandfather, Appadurai Bhagavathar had been a fourth-generation hereditary musician. He sang and played the violin in the court of Maharaja of Cochin. When he died, his son A. Narayana Iyer was but a boy. By the early 1920s, he was holding down a day job in Bombay as a stenographer and shorthand scribe while attempting to pursue his passion for music. Eventually he broke into Bombay music circles and obtained work as a film industry session musician and concert accompanist. His web of contacts grew to include India’s foremost musicologist of the day, Vishnu N. Bhatkhande (1860–1936). 

He and his wife Ammini Ammal had four sons and one daughter. Each learned violin. When it came to steering the careers of the two siblings who became performers, Kala’s grandfather proved a far-sighted pragmatist. He eventually decided his son T.N. Krishnan (father of Viji Krishnan Natarajan and Sriram Krishnan) and his daughter N. Rajam (mother of Sangeeta Shankar and grandmother of the eighth-generation violinists, Ragini and Nandini Shankar) would never be placed in the invidious position of vying with each other. So he steered Krishnan to Carnatic music and Rajam to Hindustani music.

Kala paints a portrait of her grandfather: “Everything was connected to the violin. The earliest memory of my grandfather is him giving me sugar-coated cumin. It came in different colours – white, red, yellow – and I used to love that sugar-coated cumin. So he would have that with him and he would tell me…” – she giggles – “…that if I cleared one exercise a hundred times without a mistake, then I would get one of those sugar-coated cumin. Without a mistake was important because if I made a mistake once I had to go back to one! I was so anxious to get them.”

In a marvel of understatement, she says, “He never spoiled me. He was very strict. He never used to yell at me or get angry with me, but he would not talk to me. And that would really upset me because I was so attached to him as a child. He would be there for everything. By about eight o’clock I would be done with my homework from school. Then he would make me listen to the radio. We used to have classical music on All India Radio and other stations late at night.

“Otherwise, he would teach me Sanskrit and I would read Kalidasa’s prose and poetry. All those things I’ve read in Sanskrit. He taught me that. I would read it out loud and he would explain it to me. He would sit with me and if I made mistakes he would explain them to me. He would discuss music with me. He would get books about music out and discuss this rāg, that rāg, what the difference was. And he would ask me questions. It was 24-hour, hands-on training.”

For any violinist of Kala’s generation, Hindustani-style violin was in short supply. Gramophone records provided many inspirations. The one she instantly jumps upon as an example is a 1971 Kishori Amonkar album: “I liked her singing a lot. From when I was a child. Especially Bhoop and Bageshri on Gramophone Company of India. That really, really got embedded in my mind. I’ve listened to it thousands of times. It is the kind of patterns she creates in her music.” She spontaneously bursts into singing its ‘Aaj Sahiyo Naa Jaya’ (‘[I Am] Not Able To Bear [The Pangs Of Separation From My Beloved]’). “It is Bageshri but nobody would think of it. It’s a twist on it. It’s perfectly Bageshri. It makes one sit up and say, ‘Yes, it can be sung this way, too!’ It’s like creating a painting note by note.”

Other favourites include(d) Pandit Jasraj, Amir Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Nazir and Salamat Ali Khan and Roshan Ara Begum. “I listened to these people keenly. I carry their music with me wherever I go. On the plane I may be reading something but I’ll still be listening to them.”

“…Clocked her 10,000 hours by a…young age”

The way she talks of her grandfather’s tutelage regime carries echoes of psychologist K. Anders Ericsson’s observations about violinists that informed Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘10,000-hour rule’ in his book Outliers, a cherry-picked spree on the subject of high achievers. Kala would have clocked her 10,000 hours by a relatively young age. More pertinent in Kala’s case, to cite a less publicised factor that Anders Ericsson highlighted, is how her training reinforces the value of having different kinds of teachers at different stages of somebody’s development.

“My only guru has been my grandfather and then Pandit Jasraj”

After studying with her grandfather, the story she has told is that she studied guru-shishya-like with her aunt. She wishes to set the record straight for the first time. “To tell you the truth,” she says, “I haven’t learnt from my aunt at all. My aunt only presented me in concert with her and as a duet with my cousin, Sangeeta – to give me an introduction to the audience. The concerts that I’ve done with both of them are not more than six or seven altogether. Throughout my life, I’m talking about. I only spent two months with my aunt in Benares. That was before she decided to present me. That was ’81 or ’82. That was the only time I’ve been with her. It was at my grandfather’s insistence that, because she presented me, I should give her respect for that and take her name as one of my gurus. She wasn’t my guru. My only guru has been my grandfather and then Pandit Jasraj.”

In the early hours of 13 December 1982 her father suffered a fatal heart attack. He had been working until late the previous night on film music with the tabla player Zakir Hussain and flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia. It wasn’t until the following month that Hussain could return to pay his respects. “Zakirbhai came round in January. He asked me to play the violin. That’s when he heard me and gave me that advice about if I was going to play like my aunt… Just before that, my aunt had presented me and I was playing like her. He said who’d want to listen to me when they could hear the original? And that I should do something original.” She paid heed. To this day, she calls him her most candid critic and sounding board: “The fact that he cares and thinks about my welfare is why he takes it upon himself to tell me something which is bitter. It helps me get better. I have no complaints. I’m very happy even though it makes me cry at the time. But it always makes sense.”

“I have no formal lessons with him,” … “It’s always been concerts”

Pandit Jasraj also entered the picture properly around this same time. “When I gave my first recital in Bombay, it was arranged by Pandit Jasraj. That was ’82. He arranged my first recital. I stayed in his wife’s sister’s house, for fifteen days probably, practising. He would come and listen to me practise. When my dad died, he was one of the people who were very supportive. I was thinking from whom I should learn – and I did like his music very much. I was thinking about if I could blend something from here and something from there and create something of my own that would be good. That was my intention. I requested, ‘Would you teach me?’ He agreed.” She began studying with him in 1989 and underwent the thread-tying – ganda-bandan – ceremony that symbolically bound her to him as her guru in 1994. “I have no formal lessons with him,” she explains. “It’s always been concerts, accompanying him in concerts. He calls me a computer because he just has to tell me once and I remember it.”

There are many aspects of Kala’s art that set her apart. There is the quality of the energy she projects and her improvisational twists and unforeseen developments during a rāg. Less easy to glean is how ably and felicitously she delivers a vocal line or lyric from a setting of Hindu hymnody, for example, maybe a Pandit Jasraj setting of a Surdas lyric. Or how she just transports the listener as she delivers the ineffable. But let’s cut away from the highfalutin and back to basics – and to nothing to do with India – but to the sound that she weaves… 

Dave Swarbrick, unquestionably one of England’s most canonical folk fiddle maestros and a musician steeped in violin lore and experience, was blown away after his baptism in Nectar, her 2005 album. Amid the flurry of questions about tunings – since you ask, DADA with the A, D, G tuned to A in the lower octave and a low C like the viola tuned to D – her choice of strings and similar ‘violin talk’, he wrote: “What a wonderful, moody, sumptuous sound she has!” Amen.



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