Indian and Western Violins – A Comparison

Origins of the violin

The violin is an instrument that produces sound through the vibration of its strings. The instrument evolved during the renaissance. The earliest creators were Gasparo da Salo, Adrea Amati and Giovanni Paolo Maggini. Makers such as Antonio Stradivari perfected these early designs, shaping the instruments we know today. Early instruments had a deeply arched belly and back, and a short neck. The strings were gut and bridge was low, making the sound soft and mellow. The bow was shaped outward unlike todays bows. The 19th century ushered in the solo violinist and the big auditoriums, and the violin evolved further.

Entry into India

The instrument came into India in its present form around the 18th century. Probably brought in by the British or Portuguese. The earliest known Indian violinist was Baluswami Dikshitar, who adapted the violin to the Carnatic style.

Differences

The Indian style of playing the violin closely imitates the human voice. Hence there is a lot of ornamentation.
Strings are tuned in 4ths rather than 5th as in Western violin.
Indians play sitting cross legged on the floor. The instrument pointing to the ground with scroll resting on the ankle of the right foot.
A picture of Dr. Mysore Manjunath

Indian violin

There is no physical difference between the Western and Indian violins. However, Indian violinists use varying heights of bridges in order to control the string tension. For example, the violin maybe tuned low in order to match a male vocalist. This would result in low string tension resulting in the use of a high bridge. Conversely, an instrument tuned high has a low bridge height.

Another aspect of Indians playing is the constant use of slides while shifting from one note to another. I have seen many violins that have deep grooves in the hard ebony fingerboard within a year of being replaced! To facilitate the slides many Indian violinist use coconut oil on their fingertips. If not wiped clean after playing, the oil settles on the fingerboard and spreads to the neck and other parts of the violin. It also attracts dust and can cause the violin to become grubby.

6 Responses to “Indian and Western Violins – A Comparison

  • Janardhan Iyer
    2 years ago

    Hello Philip,

    Nice reading your blog. I’m a student of Mysore Nagaraj sir and Dr. Manjunath. I live in Pune and take great interest in Violin construction and related subjects.

    Regards
    Janardhan Iyer
    9822443436

    • Dear Mr Iyer, thank you for your comment. Glad that you find my blog interesting. I hope to add more articles soon. I hope to meet you sometime when you come to Bangalore. Thanks and regards, philip

  • Hi,
    Can you give some insight into why the carnatic style chose to tune strings differently from Western style fifth? Does this tuning make things somehow easier to play this style? If so, what specifically?

    • Tejas mallela
      2 years ago

      They are just different styles of music with different musical aims. The Indian tuning allows for Indian solfege based playing, called the sargam or sapta swaras. And the low tension is preferred to make sliding easier.

  • Krithika
    5 days ago

    Hi!
    Someone I know has a violin that was made by a man in Malleshwaram, Bangalore.
    When she took it to a music school to learn Western classical, they said she couldn’t play because it was a “carnatic violin”.
    What could it mean, since this is an adaptation of the Western instrument?
    I thought only the tuning was different.

  • Philip W Peter
    5 days ago

    Hi Krithika,
    Like you mention, the main difference between Indian and western violin is the tuning. The bridge on Indian violins is sometimes shaped more symmetrically than on the western violin. However, for all practical purposes the same violin can be used for both western and Indian music.

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