I recently received a CD from a record producer who signed his name as Ram Krishnan. When I told him that I might need some information on Karnatik music to review the album he had sent me, he said modestly that he could probably give me the help I needed. I only realized what an understatement this was when I figured out that he was actually the Sriram Krishnan listed as second violin, and that his father, T.N. Krishnan, was the great Karnatik violinist featured on the album. Sriram might appear to some people to be more “modern” than the rest of his family. He is a computer engineer by profession, and recorded this first album on his Kriyative label using the computer program Pro Tools(R). “It was lucky for me that recording went digital, because now I can use my computer engineering skills, without having to learn the details of traditional analog recording” says Sriram. But he also grew up practicing Karnatik music four to five hours a day since the age of six, and if his progress did not satisfy his father and grandfather, it was his homework that had to be sacrificed. And although these two men who guided his life were unconditionally devoted to classical music, Sriram sees his father and grandfather as his primary inspiration for “pushing the envelope.”
Sriram’s grandfather, A. Narayana Iyer, came from a blood lineage of Karnatik musicians which goes back for six generations. He lived mostly in Kerala, far away from any of the major centers of Hindustani music. But this did not stop him from developing an interest in, and eventually learning to play, Hindustani music. It was also extremely rare for women in pre-independence India to have careers as classical instrumentalists. But this did not stop him from training his daughter, and eventually even permitting her to leave and study with another guru when she decided to become a Hindustani musician. She is now internationally known as Dr. N. Rajam, one of the world’s greatest Hindustani violinists. Consequently, Iyer’s lineage now has two branches. Rajam has trained her daughter Sangeetha Shankar and niece Kala Ramnath in the Hindustani tradition. T.N. Krishnan has continued the Karnatik lineage by training not only Sriram, but also Sriram’s sister Viji Krishnan Natarajan. And both sides of the tradition continue with Viji’s son and Sangeeta’s daughters.
“I should note that while these are the individuals who’ve chosen to pursue music professionally, every child in the family has been through some amount of training in music,” says Sriram. “We were taught that whether or not you choose to make your living with music, developing musical understanding and the discipline to master a skill was an essential part of being a fulfilled human being. The credit for this goes to my grandfather.”
“He was a true visionary who not only groomed and nurtured the talents of my father and aunt, but also trained countless children. He was a strict disciplinarian when it came to riyaaz (practice) who would not accept anything less than 150 percent every time. Concurrently he would balance that with words of encouragement and positive reinforcement. My father once told me that he’s never heard my grandfather lose his patience and tell someone that they would never ‘get’ it. Needless to say, my sister, my cousins, and I cherish the memories of our training under him; which is a remarkable legacy to leave behind. It’s quite natural for grandchildren to recall their grandparents with fond memories. But when you combine that with the intense guru-student relationship, you have a feeling that grows more meaningful and relevant over time.”
There’s also no question that this relationship must have been equally close between Iyer and his son T.N. Krishnan. Thanks to Sriram’s sensitivity to the family tradition, the sound of his father’s Karnatik violin has been captured on this recording perfectly. Because Karnatik violin does not use the steady vibrato of the European symphonic violin, it often sounds rather thin when recorded. Because Hindustani music was designed to be heard in intimate house concerts, it is usually recorded without reverb, and the assumption has been that Karnatik music should be recorded the same way. Sriram, however, points out that Karnatik music was often played for huge crowds at temples and the sound carried because the temples had hard reverberant walls. Sriram has duplicated this sound by an artful combination of electronic reverb and the natural resonance of the wood floors and walls of Mambo studios in Los Angeles. The result is a perfect showcase for the many unique nuances of T.N. Krishnan’s playing.
Krishnan was unquestionably an innovator, for it was the new level of virtuosity achieved by him and his contemporaries that elevated the violin to the status of a solo instrument. But his technical accomplishments are the sort which are not mastered by players who equate virtuosity with speed. Karnatik ragas have certain notes called jeeva swara or life notes, which are rather like the vadi and samvadi notes. These notes must be ornamented with particular kinds of gamaka (slides or vibrato), and all improvised melodies should frequently mark the jeeva swara with long held notes. Too many fast passages that scamper from octave to octave blur the jeeva swara and make all ragas in the same scale indistinguishable from each other. Krishnan can play fast when it is musically appropriate, but this is the only time that he plays fast. His awareness of the importance of the jeeva swara put the breath of life into every note he plays, fast or slow, and his command of every aspect of gamaka is truly awe-inspiring.
This recording whets the appetite for the next release of Kriyative records: a north meets south, brother and sister Jugalbandi with Krishnan and Rajan. At the moment we must rely on descriptions by Sriram, who is still mastering this unreleased recording. “One of the many fascinating contrasts between the two traditions is the way they develop the alapana (called the alap in the Hindustani tradition.) “When my aunt develops the raga in Hindustani style, she follows the note progression, lingering and exploring the distinctive mood of each note, while my father in the Karnatik style would use a characteristic “pidippu” (phrase or riff) to unequivocally establish the identity and personality of the raga, and then proceed to express all the various nuances and moods in each jeeva swara. He would play with the pidippu in ways that emphasize first certain notes, then others. Consequently, in both styles we hear the raga unfolding, but the unfolding process takes place in different ways and follows different rules. This is one of the many things which shows that although the traditions have different personalities today, they must have evolved from a single form of music that accounts for the family resemblance. This is why it is good for them to sometimes come together today, so that we can revel in both their similarities and their differences.”
Teed Rockwell has studied Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan and other great Indian musicians. He is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.