Asian Music and Dance

The Singing Violin

Kala Ramnath’s concerts are magical mystery tours with no destination on the front of the bus. Exactly where she will transport and deposit listeners is all down to her spontaneous craft and creativity. Over the course of this performance, the sound that she obtained from her violin went from liquid silk to full-tilt cimbalom. Her ‘Singing Violin’ also whispered and screamed. This concert was part of the London Symphony Orchestra-curated UBS Soundscapes: Eclectica concerts. The first part was a recital of Hindustani violin and tabla, with Sanju Sahai of the Benares gharana (school and style) of tabla accompanying, while the second ran two compositions by Max de Wardener for string ensemble with Kala Ramnath as principal violinist.

The evening opened with an 8 o’clockish rāg ‘Bihag’. From further away, it was tempting to concentrate on the weaving of Ramnath’s bowing; however, close up, it was the extraordinary strength of her left-hand playing that was particularly riveting. At one point, she played an ultrafast triple-stop motif, where the bow was such a blur that I could only register two. Sahai’s subtle yet muscular underpinnings and rhythmic dialogues were the embodiment of less is more. As the first half came to a close it was clear that his was as much a virtuosic performance as hers. Ramnath’s ‘Bihag’ was sprinkled with surprises, witty quips and extraordinary cimbalom-like (as opposed to santoor-like) flourishes towards the end. After announcing rāg ‘Kafi’ as her next piece, Ramnath changed her mind and picked a chaiti instead. Chaiti is a folk-into-semi-classical form with Benares associations, so perhaps the abrupt change was triggered by Sanju Sahai’s roots in Benares. Ramnath asked the audience to imagine it was April since it derives from Chait, the first lunisolar month of the Hindu year (corresponding to March–April in the Gregorian calendar), on the ninth day of which the Ramanavami mela celebrates the birth of Rama. The words which were sung on the violin were ‘Raat hum dekhli sapanva ho Rama saiyan ghar aaye’ – ‘(Oh Rama), I had dreamt in the night that my beloved had come home!’ As she played, the sun was setting and through the high windows behind them there was a movement in the plane tree’s foliage. I couldn’t swear to it – it had the sunset behind it – but it almost looked like a koel.

Ramnath found herself surrounded by a twelve-strong half-circle of violins, violas, cellos and a double-bass for Max de Wardener’s ‘Bilaskhani Todi’ conducted by Duncan Ward. Bilas Khan’s version of Todi was a most remarkable rāg but somehow de Wardener’s take on the tale misplaced the storyline and it needed a stronger narrative. In contrast his ‘Payash’ (“based around the joyful raga Shuddha Kalyan and inspired by the Zimnabwean [sic] mbira song, Nhema Musasa,” the notes explained) brought everything home as Kala Ramnath’s voice dominated with brazen ‘Indianness’ to her playing. This part of the programme reminded me of the South African composer Kevin Volans’ wonderful White Man Sleeps with its mbira (thumb-piano) inspiration and because de Wardener’s ‘Bilaskhani Todi’ should now undergo an overhaul similar to White Man Sleeps. There is a composition in there waiting to grow the wings of the koel.



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