The South Indian Fine Arts Academy presented master violinists Vidwan V. V. Subramaniam and V. V. S. Murari in recital at the Raleigh Little Theatre, accompanied by Tiruvarur Bhaktavatsalam, mridangam. The classical music of North India (also known as Hindustani classical music) has become widely known to Western audiences over the last half-century or so, through the touring and teaching of such figures as sitarist Ravi Shankar, sarodist Ali Akbar Khan (founder, in 1967, of the Ali Akbar Khan College of Music, in California) and tablist Zakir Hussain, who appeared to a capacity audience at Duke’s Page Auditorium in March. In contrast, the music of South India, supported since 2002 in the Triangle and Triad of North Carolina by the work of the South India Fine Arts Academy, is known to fewer listeners, and the program presented by SIFAA had some of the aura of a family event shared by masters and appreciated by connoisseurs (I was evidently the only non-Indian present).

The music of South India, known as Carnatic music, has some traits in common with North Indian music, but also some important differences. Among the similarities are the modal structures (ragas) so striking to Western ears accustomed to the poverty of classical melodic structures (limited, until dodecaphonic music, to the major or minor modes), and the more complex rhythmic structures known as talas, which may have an uneven number of beats (seven, for example) between each down-beat. A principal difference for Carnatic music is the importance of pre-existing compositions (in contrast to the free exposition of the raga in Hindustani music). Another immediately evident contrast is the use of different instruments – the violin and mridangam, rather than sitar and tabla. The violin is played in a way similar to its use in Europe four centuries ago – that is, held in a comfortable position against the chest, rather than under the chin (which facilitates higher positions on the neck, but which is otherwise debilitating). It is tuned differently, with two sets of interlocking fifths and a fourth (G-D-G-D), rather than four successive fifths (G-D-A-E).

Yet another contrast, and an important one, is the spiritual content of the music. The compositions heard here on violin were originally devotional songs with text by the composers Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar, and Syama Sastri, all active in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century (thus contemporaneous with Beethoven). The three-hour concert included perhaps a half-dozen lengthy compositions in various ragas (Kirwani“for prosperity and mutual understanding between couples,” Hamsadhwani “the sound of inhalation and exhalation,” and Lalitha “the protecting power of the physical heart”).

Violinist V.V. Subramaniam was a past master in these compositions, accompanied expertly by his student and son, who sometimes shadowed his lines an octave below, sometimes echoed his phrases. Tiruvarur Bhaktavatsalam, mridangam, was usually in a secondary role except for a very long solo (tani avartanam) over a seven-beat tala (in contrast to a concert of Hindustani music, the audience members frequently indicate, with hand gestures, the count of the tala).

All in all, this was music at the very highest level, and a concert richly deserving a broader listenership. Congratulations to the SIFAA for their work in bringing these artists to North Carolina, an important addition to the cultural scene.