The Incomparable Chitravina

                                                               - Chitravina N Ravikiran

The Chitravina is one of the most exquisite musical instruments in the world today. Also referred to as Gotuvadyam, it is a 21-stringed fretless Indian lute, quite similar in its playing technique to the Vichitraveena of North India. It is also one of the oldest instruments in the world, enjoying a history of nearly 2000 years. It is the forerunner of many instruments like the fretted veena and is also recognised (in the West) as the prototype of the Hawaiian Guitar. It has also been referred to, at various times, as Mahanataka veena and Hanumad veena.

The chitravina is one of the more popular instruments today, having been featured in several leading festivals like the Millennium Festival, UK, Autumn Festival of France, International Music Festival of Radio France, Brisbane International Festival, Australia, Harborfront Festival, Canada, to name a few. It has been presented in concerts in USA, Canada, Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, Malaysia, UK, Germany, France, Holland, Switzerland, Poland, Yugoslavia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Austria, etc.

The versatility of the Chitravina has been proved through presentations of very complex compositions including sophisticated Ragam Tanam Pallavis. The chitravina has also been a success as an accompanying instrument to stalwarts such as Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Dr Balamuralikrishna, Smt T Brinda, and in jugalbandis with Smt Girija Devi, Pt Vishwa Mohan Bhatt etc. At a global level, collaborations with leading musicians from various cultures like Taj Mahal, Martin Simpson, Glen Velez, Jovino Santos Neto, Alizadeh etc, have proved that the Chitravina can easily play almost any type of music.

INTERNATIONAL AWARDS: The global eminence of the chitravina has been amply accentuated by the fact that concerts or recordings featuring it have won several awards at the international level. In the Millennium Festival in UK in 2000, fusion concerts of the chitravina with instrumentalists from the BBC Philharmonic orchestra were placed among the top five out of nearly 2000 events across the world. The world music CD, Rays and Forays by Naxos records, was selected as the finalist for Best Contemporary World Album of 2001. Several other recordings such as Mumtaz Mahal and Silver Dagger have made it to the Top 10 in world music ratings.

STRUCTURE: The external structure of chitravina resembles that of the fretted veena. It has a hollow stem made of resonant wood, about thirty-two inches long and four inches wide. It has a flat top and is set on two chambers; the main sound chamber is made out of wood and a secondary resonator is made of a gourd. It contains six melody strings and three secondary strings for maintaining drone. The remaining strings are sympathetic and run parallel to and below the melody strings.

PLAYING TECHNIQUE: The technique of playing chitravina is very simple. One has to pluck the melody strings with the right hand while a cylindrical block, made out of ebony, bison horn (which has now been replaced by the smoother Teflon), is glided over them with the left hand. As can be seen, this method eliminates the need for elaborate fingering techniques with the left hand that is so important to handling instruments like the sitar, sarod, violin or veena. This makes chitravina one of the easier instruments to learn, more so for a musically talented person.

However, mastering it can be challenging. This is because of the need for laser sharp accuracy in placing the slide on the strings so as to hit the right note. Even a fraction of a millimetre this way or that would result in a wrong note. Another reason for the challenge is also the length of the chitravina as opposed to smaller instruments like the violin or sarod. A third major challenge is the fact that while most instruments like sitar and flute have three to eight fingers playing in tandem, the chitravina has only a single slide which has to work extra hard to match the speeds and felicity of the other instruments.

Another important fact was noted and mentioned by Ustad Allauddin Khan (when he heard my father and guru Shri Chitravina Narasimhan in the 1960s at his place). He noted that this is one instrument which is not played by direct human contact as opposed to most other instruments. The artiste wears plectrums on the first 2 fingers of the right hand and uses a slide with the left hand. Most other instruments make use of the fingers of the artistes, which, according to the Ustad, gives them a better feel of the instrument. These challenges have made chitravina a trifle uncommon than many other instruments. However, overcoming such odds is not all that difficult – if one is ready to put in the necessary amount of practice under a good guru.

SPECIALITY: The rewards of mastering the chitravina are tremendous as it is undoubtedly a very special instrument with tremendous scope. The Chitravina is a delicate, beautiful instrument, which, in the hands of a master, can express almost all the nuances of vocal and instrumental music. The smooth singing tone of Chitravina is probably its most unique feature. As the New York Times described, the Chitravina has ‘…Infinite capacity for micro-tonal shadings reminiscent of the human voice'. This is not only because of its fretless nature but also because of its unique string arrangement, perfected by Gotuvadyam Narayana Iyengar, its foremost exponent in the first half of the 20th century. In recent times, it has proved to its versatility as a major world instrument in fusion/crossover concerts too.

EARLY HISTORY: The earliest reference to Chitravina is in Bharata's Natya Shastra, placed by scholars between 2nd Cent BC and 2nd Cent AD. It was referred to as a seven-stringed instrument played with fingers and a cylindrical device (kona). The Natya Shastra also refers to a similar instrument with 9 strings, Vipanchi vina. The next main treatise, Sangita Ratnakara by Sarangadeva (written a few centuries later), also refers to both instruments in exactly the same manner, suggesting that there was no real change in between. The Chitravina has obviously undergone many modifications since then though not much has been documented clearly.

There are scholars who hold that the instruments mentioned in the Natya Shastra and Sangita Ratnakara were harp type instruments and not lute type but it is very important to note that today’s chitravina is a combination of the two. While the top layer 6 strings form the lute part, the chitravina sports the harp part by way of bottom layer sympathetic resonance strings.

Over a period of time, fretted instruments were gradually tried and held sway for many centuries. The reasons (some briefly explained above) are not difficult to fathom. The advantage of an instrument with frets is that the margin of error is considerably reduced, as the notes are fixed by means of the frets and the artiste can place fingers almost anywhere between two frets and get the right note. Thus, an artiste playing an instrument like the Vina, Sitar and Guitar, has at least a few centimetres to an inch and more to play the note correctly.

RECENT HISTORY: One of the major contributors to the re-incarnation of the chitravina was Srinivasa Rao, a Marathi who had migrated to the Tanjore district in Tamil Nadu. He was an ardent music lover and an amateur artiste himself. He started experimenting with a slide on the Tanpura. His son Sakha Rama Rao was drawn to this since his childhood as he perceived its tremendous potential to produce high class music.

Sakha Rama Rao: Sakha Rama Rao was soon able to re-design this instrument like the 24-fretted vina, with 7 strings. Thus, from a distance, his instrument looked like a vina without frets. It had 4 strings on the top and 3 in the side for drone and rhythm. He practised regularly for hours on end and started performing on this occasionally. Since he was not aware of the history of the instrument, he gave it a new name – Gotuvadyam. He casually referred to the slide as Gotu and vadyam (in Sanskrit and many other languages) means instrument. Thus, Gotuvadyam was a very clear and ‘scientific’ name to an instrument played with a slide, according to Sakha Rama Rao. (Many years later, a few people went into the origins of this instrument and have restored the more traditional name, chitravina.) Sakha Rama Rao was a musicians’ musician and trained many a great artiste like Gotuvadyam Narayana Iyengar and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. Soon, there were several others who started to play the Gotuvadyam at various levels.

Gotuvadyam Narayana Iyengar: The next pathblazer in this instrument was Narayana Iyengar who was a born genius. His innovations on this instrument were responsible for taking it to tremendous heights and most of those have come to stay. He changed the string arrangements almost totally, giving it a unique tonal depth, hitherto never heard before. A performer of the highest order, he enjoyed tremendous popularity, but was constantly working to refine and improve this instrument all through his life. He experimented ceaselessly and added 3 more strings to the 4 main strings and also brought in 12 resonance strings in a special layer below the main strings. Now the instrument had 22 strings (which has since become 21 as one of the 7 main strings have been discarded later on).

The Narayana Iyengar method of tuning the chitravina is very unique.  He was among the earliest to make use of the concept of Octave strings. The main strings use an arrangement of 3 tonic notes (Sa) plucked simultaneously, one of which is an octave lower than the other two, 2 notes in the fifth (Pa), again in two octaves and 1 string which is tuned to the lower octave tonic (Sa). This gives such a wonderful singing quality to the instrument. (This particular tuning of octave strings was emulated by the Indian violin maestro Mysore Chowdiah who tried 7 to 19 strings on his violin.) Narayana Iyengar's resonance strings were, again, very unique. He arranged them in such a way as to give a built in Tanpura effect. Also the use of the jivalam (a small thread on the bridge which contributes to a qualitative and quantitative enhancement of the tone) to each of the 12 resonance strings made it vibrate much more readily when music was played on top. This in turn added to the overall richness of the tone of the Chitravina.

Narayana Iyengar also designed the instrument very efficiently with fine-tuning provision for each of the strings. The Chitravina is one of the very few instruments in the world (with more than 20 strings) and the only one in India, which has such fine-tuning provision for each of its strings. Narayana Iyengar also standardised the pitch, the types of strings and the many other things on the instrument. His overall contribution to the growth of Chitravina is unparalleled.

Musically, the real edge of the fretless instrument was highlighted by Narayana Iyengar who proved that a fretless instrument could best emulate the vocal (gayaki) style because of the almost total continuity that enables infinite micro tones to be rendered with accuracy and impact. Thus, Narayana Iyengar literally made his instrument sing. But he was also a great artiste who could bring to fore the instrumental delights when he ventured into improvisations such as Tanam (jod and jhala) and Kalpana swaras.

Chitravina Narasimhan: Son and disciple of Narayana Iyengar, Narasimhan carried on along the lines of his father but also brought in his own mind when it came to modification of string arrangements, the length of the slide and other such minute details. A wonderful performing musician himself, he popularised this instrument all over the country. His other great contribution was to spread the name and fame of this instrument among many other fellow musicians and train many successful disciples, several of whom made headlines as child prodigies.

Other stalwarts: Some of the notable exponents of this instrument include Budalur Krishnamoorthy Shastrigal, Mannargudi Savithri Ammal, A.Narayana Iyer M V Varahaswami, Gayatri Kassabaum and Allam Koteeshawara Rao. Of these, Budalur Krishnamoorthy Shastrigal (who was an outstanding vocalist as well) was steadfast in sticking to the tuning and string arrangement of the vina save for an extra string he added at the top, but only to rest his fingers on! He was not keen on the sympathetic resonance strings at all and many of his disciples still follow his pattern.

INTERNATIONAL IMPACT – The Hawaiian Guitar: It has been well established that the chitravina was directly responsible for the origin of the Hawaiian Guitar. According to various historians of the Hawaiian Guitar such as Dewitt Scott (Senior) and Chris Morda, It was taken to America by 1880s by Gabriel Davion, in a modified form, laying foundation for the Hawaiian Guitar. Here are excerpts from Chris Morda’s work, Blues Guitar Primer Series – Development of Slide Guitar Traditions:
“Gabriel Davion is another gentleman credited as a possible originator of the slide guitar in Hawaii. Davion was reportedly an Indian gentleman who had stowed away on a ship on its way for Hawaii. In 1884 Charles King reports to have witnessed Davion playing a guitar laid flat in his lap and using a pen knife laid on top of the strings to sound the notes while he plucked the strings with the other hand. Mantle Hood, in an article published in "The 1983 Yearbook for Traditonal Music", favors this account due to the fact, that coming from India, Davion could have witnessed one of a number of instruments that Indians played with different objects used as sliders, one of which is the gotuvadyam (chitravina).”
In his book, The Art of Slide Guitar, Dewitt Scott also writes much the same. Thus the impact of the chitravina at a global level has been well documented and established.

CHITRAVINA TODAY: Today, quite an amount of effort and energy has been invested towards getting effective true quality amplification with much research carried out using contact mikes, magnetic pick-ups, mixers, equalisers and amplifiers. This has enabled the chitravina to be presented effectively to audiences of over a 1,00,000 (a hundred thousand) people at times in major indoor or outdoor events. Another advance has been towards bringing out vocal style nuances without sacrificing the instrumental quality and playing compositions or improvisations as good as any other instrument, including voice.

THE NAVACHITRAVINA: Ravikiran designed this in January 2001 and the first prototype was specially made as a collaborative venture with the well known instrument makers, Rikhi Ram in Delhi. A few structural modifications have been made to the traditional chitravina, to produce a sharper tone in higher pitches, making this much easier for jugalbandis or collaborative concerts with other instruments such as the sitar and the guitar. The sleek shape and size of the Navachitravina also facilitates easier transportation. The internal design has been kept much the same with just one resonance string less than the original, making this 20-stringed instrument. The Navachitravina has already won much acclaim in various cities in India and USA.

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