Music at her fingertips

Music at her fingertips

She is small and petite. But when she wields the bow, the strength of tone comes as a surprise.

Chin over the instrument, mouth slightly open, A Kanyakumari exercises an extraordinary command over the violin, of which she is one of Carnatic music’s foremost exponents today.  Kanyakumari exemplifies modern psychology’s dictum that creative people tend to be more open to new experiences, more self-confident, more ambitious and driven. As an acclaimed accompanist, a soloist, a teacher, an organiser and an innovator, Kanyakumari balances all these diverse roles with as much dexterity as she plays her violin.  

Striking a chord

Like all other creative personalities, the two common features favouring their rise to acclaim are to be seen in Kanyakumari’s career also, namely heredity and environment. Born in Vijayanagaram in Andhra Pradesh to a musician mother who played the veena and a musically-inclined father, Kanyakumari was exposed to the music lessons of the renowned Ivvaturi Vijayeshwara Rao. Gradually, she was drawn to music and commenced her initial lessons under Rao who was a protégé of the great Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu. Rao groomed Kanyakumari until she could give public performances.

Migrating to Chennai later, she came under the tutelage of violin maestro M Chandrashekaran, whose characteristic tonal flourishes and melody are evident in Kanyakumari’s music too. In due course, she came to be noticed by the music world, and was taken on by the redoubtable musician M L Vasanthakumari as her accompanist.

Playing alongside MLV for more than two decades, Kanyakumari imbibed the salient features like detailed raga expositions interspersed with fast passages traversing the three octaves, the occasional modal shift of the tonic note and the ability to execute complicated pallavis, sometimes with changes in the beats from fours to fives to sevens, backward executions etc.  

Even when she plays fast-paced passages, Kanyakumari’s nimble fingers glide over the strings with an assurance that stems from both innate gifts and practice. Her music has it all-weightiness, childlike abandon and softness. 

New tunes

As a restless explorer, Kanyakumari is always working on some fresh idea. As early as 1988, she combined the violin with the veena and the nadaswaram to form the Vadyalahari troupe.

The high pitch of the wind instrument, in conjunction with the mellow tone of the veena and the violin in the middle, is not an easy combination, but Kanyakumari drew praise for her successful effort. Her innovations are legion. Three violins in three different pitches, ensembles of 25, 50, 75 violins, and a 100 instrument group are some of her daring exploits in the arena, where bringing together musicians with diverse styles to adhere to a disciplined format is easier said than done.

Kanyakumari’s explorations in the melodic aspects of Carnatic music are equally noteworthy. Indian music, more so Carnatic music, is raga-based, where individual creativity comes to the fore in either performing within a fixed scale or creating new ragas by permutation and combination of the notes.

Kanyakumari not only creates new ragas, but strings together many ragas in a virtual cascade of melody. As she segues from raga to raga in her 100-raga Shataragamalika where Carnatic and Hindustani ragas merge seamlessly, or where she suddenly unfolds an unheard Mahalakshmi or a beautiful Saptadri of Sheshadri, Venkatadri, Neeladri group ragas in praise of the Lord of Tirumala or a new three-note raga called ‘Trimurti’, Kanyakumari is a virtual torrent of ideas. 

Top ranking by AIR, the Sangeet Natak Academy Award, the Music Academy Award, the Asthana Vidushi of the TTD are among numerous accolades that have been conferred on her. Intensely religious, she partakes food only after playing Shyama Shastry’s Bhairavi Swarajathi, imploring Goddess Kamakshi to ever dwell in her mind. This staunch devotee of Lord Venkateshwara humbly, unaffectedly places all her achievements at his feet. Kanyakumari’s only wish is to always be immersed in music.

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