Etching memories, cultures, and music onto her violin.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Helsingborgs Konserthus
It’s not unusual for children to take up the first instrument that’s placed in their hands by a parent. Sometimes they stick with it out of obeisance or because they find their own love for it, and sometimes they don’t, dropping it as soon as they can assert their own agency. As a first generation South Asian American growing up in the early 1980s, it was rather unlikely that my mother, an immigrant from India whose goal was to expose me to Indian music, would thrust a violin into my six-year-old hands. Unlike string instruments such as the sitar, which is central to Hindustani, or North Indian classical music, or the veena, a staple of Carnatic, or South Indian classical music, the violin is not native to South Asia. Its closest cousin is perhaps the sarangi, a bowed instrument played upside down, more akin to a cello.
However, a few intrepid musical maestros in the North and South, most notably Carnatic musician Lalgudi Jayaraman and Hindustani musician V.G. Jog, masterfully adapted the violin to their respective genres of music. The fluidity of both Carnatic and Hindustani music compared to Western Classical music requires the fingers to perpetually glide up and down the fingerboard mimicking the frenetic vacillations characteristic of singers of both Indian styles. Indian violin players accomplish this by sitting cross-legged while leaning the violin’s scroll on one outstretched foot, a position that enables them to be aided by gravity. In fact, most Indian instruments are played while seated on the floor, often cross-legged.
A South Indian raised in Calcutta, my mother grew up learning Carnatic violin and this passion has followed her since. Her violin is one of the few possessions that accompanied her to England and then New York, where she and my father settled down in 1973. And so it was that I ended up with a violin and my mother’s hopes in my hands.
Then one day, my fingers hit the right notes, my bow flew in the right direction, and I finally heard out loud the music I’d been hearing for so long in my head.
I endured years of forced practice and Suzuki classes, a highly prescribed Japanese method of learning classical music, with its own techniques and terminology. In the beginning we stood on pieces of cardboard, which bore outlines of our feet drawn into the correct position, supporting the proper playing posture. The fingerboard of my tiny 1/8 size violin was lined with colorful stickers telling me where to place my fingers. The same went for my bow.
But the most awkward and uncomfortable aspect of violin playing was having a violin wedged under my chin, poking into the spot where my neck met my jaw. Hours of practice left me with a red mark there and with grooved lines on the sore fingertips of my left hand, carved by my violin’s taught metal strings. Then one day, my fingers hit the right notes, my bow flew in the right direction, and I finally heard out loud the music I’d been hearing for so long in my head. And in that one moment, all the tears of frustration, all the hours spent hunched over this wood and metal contraption, were redeemed.
The summer before eighth grade, we moved from Queens, New York to New Jersey. We left behind the dense streets of New York City and the starched, conformity of Suzuki for the bucolic sprawl of New Jersey and a conservatory-trained teacher, who was as beautiful as she was talented, and whose blackness was a salve to our arrival in white suburbia.
In Suzuki, the emphasis had been on learning and performing pieces prescriptively as a group or solo performer, pieces that were often adapted from the original. It was the musical equivalent of learning about literature by only reading abridged versions of well-known stories and novels. Instead, my new teacher made me do punishing exercises that contorted my hands, the grooves in my neck and fingers deepening as I repeated them countless times. She asked me to play a finger exercise fifty times as she gazed into a mirror across the room, applying electric pink lipstick. When I played it the thirty-ninth time, she quietly said, “wrong.” After I replayed it correctly she remarked, “good,” but restarted the count again at one, her eyes never leaving the mirror. Sometimes, we wouldn’t even touch the violin, singing the melody and penciling in the fingering and bow strokes on the music score. After two strenuous years of lessons with her, I sang through my violin, the vibrato of my fingers, echoing the tremors of a human voice.
When he raised his baton, the room filled with the vacuumed silence of one hundred held breaths.
In the intervening years I had graduated from an eighth size violin to a quarter, to a half, to a three quarter, to finally, a full-size violin. While my mid-size violins were bought locally, when it came time for a full-size violin, I inherited the violin my mother had brought with her from Calcutta. At first it seemed huge and heavy, and my fingers felt overstretched across its fingerboard, while its bow seemed endlessly long. But eventually it came to feel like my fifth limb and I fell in love with its russet color and rich tone. I took special pleasure in knowing that this very same violin, which had always sung the ragas, or moody keys of Carnatic music, was now the conduit for Bach’s Partitas and Vivaldi’s Concertos.
In tenth grade I joined the New Jersey Youth Symphony, a highly selective youth orchestra;.some of its best members were training to be professional musicians, traveling to the city on weekends to study with the most reputable teachers and immerse themselves in programs preparing them for admission to top music conservatories. Even as I felt intimidated and challenged by my orchestral peers, I simultaneously felt like I had found my place, my groove, in the universe. The permanent red scar that now embellished where my left jaw met my neck was no longer ridiculed as a hickie, but celebrated as a battled-honed scar. I felt at home amongst my fellow orchestra geeks and our shared awe for the music we got to play. When the maestro walked toward the center of the room to begin rehearsal, we would scurry to our seats, instruments in hand. When he raised his baton, the room filled with the vacuumed silence of one hundred held breaths. And then we played, each of us singing our respective parts through our instruments. Sometimes the violins played the melody, and sometimes we provided the countermelody, punctuated by the rhythm section. Inevitably, each piece, no matter how calm or raucous, ended in a moment of silence, and then the release of our collective breath once the maestro dropped his baton, and finally a feeling that we had just said everything that needed saying.
Youth symphony bled into the other parts of my life. I was introduced to the beauty and brilliance of Shakespearean English when we read Romeo and Juliet in English class. Meanwhile, in youth symphony, we played Tchaikovsky’s lush Romeo and Juliet Overture, where the violins and other string instruments provide some of the piece’s most robust and poignant melodies, allowing us to use our full musical canvas to illustrate this story of doomed true love, from the sweet romance of long, languorous bow strokes to the breathless intrigue of fast passages. This piece made me relish playing Tchaikovsky, who utilized every instrument in the orchestra to tell his musical rendition of the story, and to this day, he remains my most beloved composer.
I frequently attended and enjoyed orchestra performances, but it just wasn’t the same on this side of the stage.
Over my years in youth symphony, I rose from the second violin section to the first violin section, and eventually to one of the highest spots occupied by a non-aspiring musician. At this point, my mother knew I was ready to try Carnatic violin. We sat cross-legged across from each other on the kitchen floor, she in her trademark sari, me in jeans and a t-shirt, and she showed me how to position my violin on my right ankle. She dabbed my left fingertips with oil to ease their passage up and down the fingerboard. But try as I might, I couldn’t master the required nimbleness. My hands resisted it—they sought to position themselves statically in first or third position rather than vacillating in between. Whenever I drew out a long note, my fingers would instinctively vibrate, but the vibrato, sounded awkward when applied to Carnatic music. Although my mother was disappointed when I soon abandoned my attempts at playing Carnatic violin, she set to work inculcating my younger brother. He had never touched a violin but his fingers would eventually glide across the fingerboard in ways mine never could. Just as my older sister and I bonded over playing western violin and being fellow orchestra geeks, my brother and mother bonded over the unique theory and techniques of Carnatic violin, creating two schools of violin playing under one roof.
My passion for the violin followed me to college , but after freshman year I dropped out of the orchestra and quit taking individual lessons. My violin—my mother’s violin—moved with me from college to graduate school, from state to state, but touched my neck less and less as I moved on to find new grooves through my work in social change, and more recently, writing. A few years ago, I returned the violin to my mother for safekeeping and never took it back. I frequently attended and enjoyed orchestra performances, recalling the vacuum of silence that formed right before the maestro’s baton came down. But it just wasn’t the same on this side of the stage.
A few weeks ago, my mother called. While rummaging through an old purse, she had found the receipt for my three quarter-size violin, bought in November, 1988, when I was just thirteen years old. I learned that the violin shop still exists, and following the passing of the owner, is now being run by his daughter at a new location in New Jersey. Perusing its website, I was pleasantly surprised to note that it caters to players of all types of music, from Western classical, to Bluegrass, to Carnatic.
My mother and I made a trip to the new location of the old shop and the proprietress laid out several violins for me to try, while she and my mother sat across the large room, listening and remarking on the tone of each instrument. I felt ashamed that after more than two decades playing the violin, I could only remember fragments of pieces. The owner reassured me that playing simple scales is the best way to gauge an instrument’s true resonance. Eventually, after trying out ten or so violins, I whittled it down to two, and then finally, one.
The proprietress stealthily retuned the violin to the Carnatic scale and handed it to my mother, asking if she would play. At first my mother balked, saying she was out of practice, but then relented. Gracefully, she seated herself on the floor of the shop and played music at once foreign and familiar. I know my fingers will fumble to find the notes to melodies now mostly lost to memory, but I seek the odd comfort of having a violin tucked under my chin, the feeling of a bow taking flight, and the sensation of strings carving grooves into my fingers.
Kavita Das writes about culture, race, social change, feminism, and their intersections. Her work is featured in several publications including The Rumpus, The Atlantic, VIDA, McSweeney’s,The Margins, Quartz and Colorlines. She was nominated for a 2016 Pushcart Prize, and named a finalist for the 2015 New Delta Review Ryan R. Gibbs Award for Flash Fiction. She’s also at work on a biography about Grammy-nominated Hindustani singer, Lakshmi Shankar, who played a pivotal role in bringing Indian music to the West, to be published by Harper Collins India.