Great American composer and musician Terry Riley was greatly influenced by Jazz and Indian classical music. Writing about Indian violin player Kala Ramnath in the San Francisco Chronicle, he said she is “Like an angel in human form,” and “she’s one of the greatest musicians on the planet.” He says she has a tremendously relaxed, sublime way of playing” that draws one immediately. Kala is a seventh generation classically trained musician, hailing from an illustrious family that made both forms of Indian classical music its own. Learning from a young age, with music all around her, she says that “Technique, tunefulness, matter in music and lastly feel in the music” was the lasting legacy she inherited from her family that includes violin vidwan Shri T N Krishan and vidushi Dr N Rajam.
The musical values that lay at the core of this musical tradition, Kala Ramnath says were “Discipline, surrender with no ego to the music, dedication, practice, perfection, being respectful, humble and grateful always.” Apart from her family, she has learnt from one of the doyens of Indian classical music, Pandit Jasraj of the Mewati Gharana. He commented on her name which in Sanskrit means art, and especially fine arts. “She stands true to her name in every way,” said Pandit Jasraj of her. During this mentorship Kala began revolutionizing approaches to vocalized Hindustani violin technique.
The violin is not alien to Indian culture. Asked about the adaptation of the ‘Western violin’ to Indian music, Kala interjects. “I would not call it the western violin. The violin in its present form maybe from the west but its ancestor has been in India from the time of the Vedas and it was called the Dhanur Veena. Later on this instrument got named after the demon king Raavana as Raavan hattha as he was a master of that instrument. And in the 7th century when the Arabs came to trade in India, they took this and it became the Rababeh in Persia. From there it went to Spain during the moors invasion where it got named as the viol. From there it went to Europe and became the viola and then the violin and returned to India in the 17th century as the violin along with the Britishers.”
Kala’s family has played the family in both Karnatik as well as in the Hindustani formats. She says that “hearing us (her family) play the violin does not ever make anyone feel that it's not a native of India because of how we have mastered this instrument according to our music and our tastes. For the west, the music is on the notes which is why you hear a lot of staccato notes on the violin but for us the music is in-between the notes. We created a technique for the glides and gamaks to hit the right microtones. This way of playing the instrument, which is what has intrigued people abroad along with the tone we bring out of the violin.” Read more about the difference between the Indian violin and the Western violin in this article
Kala has innovated with the instrument to create new sounds and depths. She has brought down the pitch of the violin by using viola strings, “so that the violin is not high pitched and is pleasing to the ears when heard for a long time as a solo instrument in concert.”
In an earlier interview she had mentioned that she could easily learn and perform other genres of music because of the way Indian music is learnt by listening rather than written notes, an aspect commented on by many international musicians. “I think that is the hallmark of our tradition. All musicians in our tradition learn to hear and visualize the placement of the notes in their mind due to our specialized system of training thus making it easy to observe and translate what musicians from other genres are doing in a jiffy. The brain starts translating whatever anyone does into notes and figuring out the raag of phrases which are sung or played, to which they correspond to, thus making it easy for us to collaborate with any genre around the world.”
Kala says Indian training pedagogy is the best in the world. “According to me our training is the best. No other system of music has something so immaculate and meticulous. Also this music has not been written down and in fact is passed from generation to generation and is still alive this way. That should speak volumes as to how special our tradition is.”
Her co-musicians have frequently commented on how versatile Indian musicians are due to the systematic training of the tradition. She has passed on to students all over the world this art including violin techniques, the music itself and the art of improvisation.
Improvising spontaneously and effortlessly has won her deep appreciation. She started with the iconic band Doors. “I did not know who the Doors were when I played with Ray Manzarek but that was my first attempt at collaboration and therefore very memorable. Only when I was backstage did I realize how big a musician he was in terms of recognition! So much for my ignorance!!”
Kala is a sought-after artist to work and experiment with such orchestras as the London Symphony and London Philharmonic and world music legends like George Brooks, Kai Eckhart, Bela Fleck, Terry Bozzio, Giovanni Hidalgo Ustad Zakir Hussain, Abbos Kossimov, Ray Manzarek of the Doors, Edgar Meyer and Airto Moreira to name but a few. Raga Afrika, Global Conversation and Yashila are bands Kala has founded with her fellow world music artists. She has played in symphonies, philharmonic and big band orchestras along with Jazz musicians, Flamenco, Celtic, Arabic, Chinese, South American musicians, as well as in background scores for Hollywood films etc. She will be performing the world premiere of her work on Climate with the Seattle Symphony next week at the Benaroya Hall in Seattle.
She refutes the fact that instrumental music is an accompaniment in Indian music. “Instrumental music has been a force from time immemorial. And I do not know where this notion came that instrumental is largely seen as accompaniment. Lord Krishna played the Flute, Ma Saraswati played the Veena, Lord Shiva played the Damru! None of them sang or accompanied anyone! It was only Saint Narada who sang the praises of the Lord! So how and why is instrumental music below vocal music! It's all perception created over time which is wrong. If I talk about the violin, it is an instrument which can do all that a voice can do and even more,” says Kala.
As legends move on, Kala says the future of Indian classical music depends on the government, cultural organisations, universities to promote and preserve it. Technology has played a major role in disseminating it to audiences worldwide. “Today, recording has progressed so much especially during the pandemic, I now do all my audio recordings at home on my laptop with a Logic program. The sound quality is awesome and mostly all musicians have home studios,” Kala strikes a positive note.
“If one has to pick something that bedazzled those who ventured into the subcontinent without being familiar about its peculiarities, it would have to be Indian Classical Music. This art has survived, evolved and adapted as it continues to venture through time, but now as the pace at which history is being created is faster than ever before, it remains to be seen whether Indian Classical Music and everything that it has to offer can keep up,” writes Kala in her blog.