Playing the right notes

Soulful music

Distinguished: Violinist T Rukmini.

To be endowed with inborn talent, with encouragement at home, and with the right Gurus at the formative age is something that not every aspiring musician is blessed with. What if all these and much more are showered on one person?

Well, then we have artistes like T Rukmini, one of the seniormost and outstanding lady violinists in the Carnatic music genre. Hailing from Bangalore, her proclivity for music was identified at a very early age by her musically inclined parents, who then arranged for systematic training for her from none other than the violin maestro, R R Keshavamurthy (RRK) of Bangalore.

The RRK school of teaching is well known for the vigorous bowing style and methodical development of the swara patterns. RRK himself was a disciplinarian with a thorough grasp over both the theoretical and practical aspects of music. Noticing her precocity, RRK quickly taught her a number of compositions, which are preserved even today. Rukmini started giving concerts, on special occasions as well as at informal gatherings, where her talent did not go unnoticed.  

Rise to fame

Then came the big break with S V Narayanaswamy Rao, the founder of the Ramaseva Mandali, Chamarajpet and K S Manjunath, the eminent Ghatam vidwan, one day coming to her residence requesting her to provide violin accompaniment to flautist T R Mahalingam at a special concert in the Town Hall, Bangalore. Mahalingam was a genius flautist of whom even seasoned accompanists were wary of.

Young Rukmini passed the test with flying colours with Mahalingam prophesising her rise to fame. Marriage, again fortuitously into a culturally evolved household, saw her moving to Madras, the Mecca of Carnatic music. Exposed to the vibrant cultural atmosphere there, Rukmini’s music was further enriched. Here again, destiny played out its predetermined role when no less a personality than the legendary violinist, Lalgudi Jayaraman, offered to guide her further. That gem which had been unearthed in Karnataka had now come under the master’s chisel on the shores of Bay of Bengal.

The marked vocal style, the characteristic inflexions of the human voice, the oscillations of the swaras on their pivotal points to produce the gamakas so unique to Carnatic music, the elongated bowing, clear understanding of the lyrics of the composition and its underlying import, all the hallmarks of the Lalgudi school or bani as it is known, are reflected in Rukmini’s music.

Matching the mood

As Rukmini says, “Lalgudi Sir says that even the bowing has to be suitably modulated to match the mood or sentiment being expressed. This ensures full justice to the intentions of the composer.”  So complete is Rukmini’s internalisation of this style that when heard without being seen, even hard nosed connoisseurs are confused into believing that it is Lalgudi Jayaraman himself playing the violin.

When accompanying, she is the ideal team player, faithfully following the main artiste and enlivening the concert. As a soloist, she comes into her own, with her creativity coming to the fore. The wide repertoire, the structured construction of the ragas, the authentic versions of the compositions, the improvisations in the swaras, all go to make Rukmini’s music a treat to all categories of listeners. Coming on the musical scene when there were hardly any women violinists, Rukmini is a trendsetter in her own way.

Bold and convincing in her music, demure and deferential in her ways, she sat beside the giants of the Carnatic music world at a time when not many women ventured outside the thresholds of their homes. Semmangudi, Chembai, GNB, MS, MLV, Pattammal, DKJ, Balamuralikrishna and so on. In fact, it would be more appropriate to ask which leading musician she has not accompanied. She has also provided accompaniment to diverse instruments like the nadaswaram, veena, mandolin, etc.

Distinct flavour

Having played for such a vast assortment of styles and approaches, Rukmini’s music has acquired its own distinct flavour, akin to the honey made out of the visits of the bees to a multitude of flowers.

Rukmini’s powers of instant grasping and reproduction of the main artiste’s ideas are best seen in the Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi sections. The RTP is a test of the accompanists’ skill and dexterity, requiring instantaneous response, absorbing and reproducing the mathematical challenges of the lead artiste. In this connection, one remembers the many exciting exchanges between Prof T R Subramanyam, the erudite scholar vocalist known for his on-the-spot creations, and Rukmini’s equally competent and spirited returns.

T Rukmini is also an accomplished vocalist, whose singing prowess was admired by Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer himself, who trained her further. The stamp of classicism in the impromptu developments of selected passages of the song, the sinuous and skipping cadences of the swaras, come through with clarity of diction to the delight of the listener.

Awards and accolades

The first woman recipient of the Sangeet Natak Academy Award for Violin (Carnatic Music) in 1998, T Rukmini has numerous honours and titles to her credit, including the Kalaimamani award and the Sur Singar Tantri Vilas Sanman, among many others. Having toured abroad extensively giving concerts as well as lecture demonstrations, Rukmini remains a much sought after artiste.

All this success sits lightly on her, the regret in her voice clearly evident as she says, ”I haven’t been able to practice since yesterday, after leaving for Bangalore.” Wielding the bow with impeccable clarity and polish to make music that is at once soulful, elevating and educative, T Rukmini remains a shining example of discipline and dedication for the younger generation.

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