It plays in the family

It plays in the family

String story: Three generations of violinists; varied musical journeys; combined love for the instrument

 Sitting: N Rajam; Standing (from left) Nandini, Sangeeta and Ragini

Completely at ease, extremely confident, and talking pleasantly about their college life and frequent travels abroad, they could be easily be mistaken for any ordinary siblings in their 20s who are entertaining a guest in their flat’s front room, located in a sylvan surroundings of Thane (Maharashtra), while they wait for their mother to arrive, till the conversation veers towards their obsession — violin. Utter the word violin and the scene transforms. The conversation becomes animated and their shared love and passion for the string instrument and the music becomes contagious. 

“In our family, a violin is gifted to us on our third birthday and we are initiated into the world of music. In fact, it’s a special birthday gift. Later on, it is left to us to either take it up or leave it. We very gladly took it up,” says the Shankar sister duo, Ragini and Nandini, the third-generation violinists of the family. Their family genes were evident once the young girls picked up the violin. “I was never forced to take up playing the violin when I was young. Surrounded 24x7 by the soft, rich and mellifluous strains of Hindustani classical music, we all involuntarily fell in love with it,” says Sangeeta Shankar, a second-generation violinist, as she joins the conversation.


“My father Vidwan Narayan Iyer was a vocalist and my brother T N Krishnan,is a Carnatic violinist. I too grew up in an ambiance of music,” says N Rajam, the first-generation violinist of the family, speaking softly about her family’s association with music. T N Krishnan forms one of the trinities of legendary violin players in Carnatic music, the other two being Lalgudi Jayaraman and M S Gopalkrishnan, while Dr Rajam, recipient of the Padma Bhushan, Sangeet Natak Akademi awards and many others.

She performs in a gayaki style and has made sure to train her daughter and granddaughters in the same style; their violins are known as ‘singing violin’.    

Very often, Rajam quotes her guru’s advice, of approaching the musical notes with utmost tenderness, love, and humility, to caress the notes, and to cajole them. And this is what she has taught her daughter and granddaughters.     

“Our grandmother and mom, our gurus, are disciplinarians. But once through lessons, they revert to being our beloved grandma, mom, and our friends,” says Ragini, 28, a mechanical engineering graduate. “Initially, I was more interested in singing, and without embarrassment, I would sing at the top of my voice at home, outdoors and even in the lift. I would sing so loudly that at times, my voice would crack. Because of this, my mother even sent me to train with a soprano singer in Mumbai!” recalls Nandini, 25, a chartered accountant by training, who even practised for a couple of years till violin took over her life. In fact, she is a violinist and a singer.

Besides music, like most South Indian families, education plays an important role in this family of violinists. “I ensured they studied well and got a good academic qualification, always with a thought that if they didn’t succeed as musicians, they could fall back on something. A high pedigree of music is no guarantee of success for the next generation,” says Sangeeta, who performed on Doordarshan at age eight, started accompanying her mother from the age of 13, and got all her degrees in music from the Banaras Hindu University, where her mother Dr Rajam was Professor of Music, HoD, and also held the position of Dean, Faculty of Performing Arts. Even at 80, Rajam heads the music department at MIT-WPU institute in Pune, Maharashtra.  

Even the genes of teaching music continues in the family. Today, Sangeeta heads the music department at Whistling Woods International, a film, communication and media arts institute run by filmmaker Subhash Ghai, and his production house Mukta Arts, and the Film City studio. Sangeeta trains aspiring film-makers and musicians in voice culture and music. Both her daughters, who have post-graduation degrees in music, teach at the institute.


One wonders how the young girls handle students of the film institute because they look like teenagers themselves. With a smile, Nandini, chirpier of the two, says, “From the internet, they see our performances, and so, from the first class they know the command we have on our music.”

From the internet, even their audience knows what to expect from these performers. Many a times, Nandini is requested to sing. Recently while performing in Auckland (New Zealand), she was requested to sing and she sang out Ustad Mehdi Hassan’s famous ghazal, Ranjeesh Hi Sahi… and received quite an applause.

This family benefits from technology, and Sangeeta, Ragini and Nandini, though steeped in traditional classical music, don’t shy away from experimenting. They have formed a fusion band, InString, which combines genres. Nandini is part of another all-girl classical music band, Sakhi. Ragini is part of INK, the poetry and music band.

Nearly 18 years ago, the time of CDs and DVDs, Sangeeta had conceived a 26-episode musical programme, Swara Sadhana, for TV. The same has been released on YouTube in the form of introduction to swara, raga and tala. All four of them conduct online music classes and have students from different parts of the globe.

“We listen to all genres though we play only Indian classical and light classical music. Music has no boundaries. We live in the world of music!” say the violinists in unison.