Striking the right note

Striking the right note

Like New York has its Carnegie Hall, Bangalore has the Chowdaiah Memorial Hall. There is an anecdote about Mischa Elman, one of the greatest violin geniuses of the 20th century.

Walking home one night after a particularly unsatisfactory concert, Elman was accosted by a stranger who, unaware that the concert had ended, was in a hurry to attend it. He asked Elman, “Which is the way to Carnegie Hall?” to which Elman replied, “Practice, Practice, Practice”, and walked on.

Talking to Mysore Nagaraj and Mysore Manjunath, one is reminded of this story, as well as the fact that these brothers have not only entered the portals of the famed Chowdaiah Hall, but also the Royal Albert Hall in London, the Sydney Opera House and countless other auditoria all over the world. And, as Elman put it succinctly, it’s practice, coupled with genius, that has got them there.

Gifted genes

Born to the eminent violinist Prof S Mahadevappa of Mysore, Nagaraj and Manjunath had music running in their veins. And it was music of a high order, with a level of maturity that is associated with one with years of hard practice behind him. But even then, the gems needed to be cut, honed and polished to shine in all glory.

A hard taskmaster, Prof Mahadevappa saw to it that the boys received all-round training in the various facets of Carnatic music, be it theory, instrumental techniques, compositional variety, concert exposure and other related matters. It was not long before the boys were ready to go on stage, donning the roles of accompanists, as well as soloists.

Music enthusiasts still recall the widely popular trio of Prof Mahadevappa, Nagaraj and Manjunath, with Mahadevappa sternly keeping time for a pint-sized Manjunath. Known as ‘Master Nagaraj and Master Manjunath’ in their early years, the duo did indeed emerge as masters of the violin in an astonishingly short period of time.

One of the most ancient stringed instruments, the violin has been so well adapted to Indian music that today it is an indispensable part of any Carnatic music concert. The main reason being its remarkable ability to reproduce all the subtle nuances of the human voice, its tonal qualities, range and the continuity of sound with no staccato. With no frets, the performer must precisely place the fingers at the correct spot on the strings to produce the right notes.

Starting young

At an age when children would be, well, children, Nagaraj and Manjunath at eight were already wielding the bow with a maturity and felicity that left even seasoned musicians and connoisseurs awed. The idiom of Carnatic music itself is such that its highly sophisticated and complexity of expression takes years to fully comprehend.

Add to it the structural form of the violin and the difficulty in achieving control over it, and one would get an idea of the true brilliance of the brothers. Quickly maturing into one of the most polished and accomplished violinists of the country, Nagaraj and Manjunath have excelled mainly due to their technical brilliance, instrumental virtuosity and adherence to the time honoured and established norms of Carnatic music.

At the same time, creativity and innovation have not been sacrificed. The range of creative possibilities for an instrument is much more than that for the human voice. And the brothers fully make use of it. Refined fingering techniques that produce the most subtle of plain notes, as well as the ornamentations like oscillations to bring forth the gamakas, modulated bowing to create tonal imagery of exquisite beauty, soft and silken, bold and striking; their skill with the bow creates music that has aficionados singing panegyrics to their art.

With no a hint of dissonance, even in the higher registers and movements, they segue from note to note, from heavy Todi or Shankarabharanam to light Madhuvanti or Bageshri, creating a tapestry of melody that leaves listeners wanting more of it. With a judicious selection of popular numbers, classical compositions, they attract both the learned and the laymen.

Raga delineations with a curious admixture of chaste Carnatic style and the elongated, plaintive notes of the north Indian genre, calculated displays of mathematical brilliance, flamboyant outbursts of creative imagination, mellow and sedate, their music has something to offer to everyone. As accompanists, their measured and understated style and instantaneous responses to the main artistes’ musical challenges are commendable.

Noted names

While Manjunath is on the faculty of Mysore University in the department of music, Nagaraj works with AIR in Mysore. A case of music being work and work being music. Very early in their career, the duo has shared the stage with maestros of different genres. If V G Jog, Pandit Vishwamohan Bhat, Ronu Majumdar, N Rajam, among others, have been their collaborators in the north Indian style, big names of Western classical, jazz and world music like Mark Wood, Fred Hamilton, the Akamoon ensemble, etc, have partnered with Manjunath.

Manjunath is the first Indian violinist to be invited to the International Violin Conference in San Diego, where he is a regular. Perhaps the most fitting tribute to their artistry was when, at a recent concert there, that patriarch of Indian music, Pandit Ravi Shankar, came unannounced and blessed them.

Honours and accolades have been constant companions to the duo. The Best Violinist Award from the prestigious Music Academy, the Ganakalashree and innumerable other awards sit lightly on their shoulders. With visiting professorship at reputed universities abroad, workshops and presentations, theirs is an ever busy schedule that sees them globetrotting frequently. Perhaps the most befitting recognition to these violinists from Mysore is the Academy of Music’s recent Chowdaiah Award, in the name of that legendary violinist, in the auditorium shaped like a violin.

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