The singing violin

The violin is the instrument par excellence for approximating the human voice. And nobody can do it better than the Indian violinist Kala Ramnath, a gifted performer of North Indian ragas. She can make her instrument sing and that has earned her the nickname “the singing violin”.   

Kala was born in Madras in southern India in 1967 and now lives in Mumbai. She has been playing violin since she was three. Her first guru was her grandfather Vidwan Narayan Iyer. He introduced her to the ragas, the specific patterns of notes used in Indian classical music, and taught her the basics of violin technique.

Kala also had lessons from her aunt Dr N. Rajam, an internationally renowned violinist. As a teenager she soon mastered her aunt’s vocal style of playing, but she had yet to develop a sound of her own. Kala found her “own voice” on violin with the help of her third guru, the famous North Indian raga singer Pandit Jasraj. Under his guidance Kala’s playing developed a new emotional depth and her violin really began to sing.

Grace notes
“Pandit Jasraj’s singing is full of emotion and full of beautiful grace notes,” says Kala. “His style fits perfectly with how I wanted to sound myself on the violin. In 1989 I went to Mumbai to take lessons from him.” Pandit Jasraj is in turn effusive about Kala:

“What can I say, she is everything in music, no one else playing violin in North India even comes close.”

Derek Roberts, an influential producer of Indian classical music for the Sense World music label, echoes these sentiments:

“We’re dealing here with a really unique violin dynasty. Kala’s aunt N. Rajam is a legendary violinist who has had an enormous impact on the violin in India. She has a highly refined, somewhat subdued style. Kala also has these qualities but at the same time has a very outgoing, adventurous personality. She does wonderfully well in combing both characteristics in her violin playing. That combination of extreme sensitivity and exuberance in her playing is extraordinary. I think that at present Kala is the greatest violinist in Northern India.”

Raga technique
The violin may be a western instrument but when used for ragas the playing technique, the posture (seated on the ground) and the tuning of the instrument are all quite different from western practice. In Indian raga music, embellishments of the melody are often combined with glissandi in which subtle microtonal changes are of vital importance.

Kala has also mastered the art of exactly reproducing long vocal phrases, sung in one breath, on the violin. In order to do this, she developed a perfect bowing technique which enables her to play uninterrupted long phrases without any bow changes being noticeable by the listener.

Touring the world
Kala has not only established a reputation as a formidable performer of raga music, she has also played fusion, working with the best musicians from various genres including African, jazz and flamenco.

In 2006 Kala turned her attention to the Netherlands. She toured concert halls and formed her own group Elements, which currently includes Dutch jazz guitarist Jan Kuiper and a Dutch-based Venezuelan, Latin percussionist Gerardo Rosales. With all these irons in the fire, Kala is now constantly travelling the world, having found her life’s fulfilment in music. As she puts it: “Music is my religion, it’s my prayer, it’s everything for me”.

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The singing violin
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