N Ravikiran


A very colourful introduction by Radio National, Australia (29th Oct, 2002) runs thus: “Our main man Ravikiran – from India’s south – plays what may be the world’s oldest “slide” instrument (sorry, bluesmen & Hawaiians – you came along more than a few hundred years “late”), but until he came along no-one had applied teflon to it! Perhaps the world’s greatest slide player, he’s both revived & updated his ancient instrument.”

The Chitravina is one of the most exquisite of Indian musical instruments. Also referred to as the gotuvadyam, it is a 21-stringed, fretless lute, quite similar in its playing technique to the Vichitra veena of North India. With a history going back to nearly 2000 years, it is one of the oldest instruments in the world, and the forerunner of the fretted (Saraswati) veena.

The external structure of the chitravina resembles that of the fretted veena. The main sound chamber is hemispherical and is connected to a hollow stem, about 32 inches long and four inches wide. The two parts are made out of wood (usually from the jack-fruit tree) and have a flat top. A secondary resonator, made out of dried hollowed gourd (or wood/metal/fibre glass), is attached at the other end of the stem. Metal strings are secured at the right end of the resonating bowl, and at the other end, on wooden pegs along the side of the stem.

It should be noted that Ravikiran has patented the navachitravina, with a slightly different design (see end of article). 

The stringing of both chitravina and navachitravina are unique and done in three distinct layers.

Main strings: In the traditional chitravina which is usually tuned to G#, these consist of six strings that run across an elevated bridge arranged in groups of 3+2+1. The first three (closest to the artiste) comprises two identical steel strings (28-29 in standard gauge steel or electromagnetic OR .014-015 inches harpsichord strings) tuned to the tonic note (Sa) and a bass string exactly an octave lower (recommended: 21 gauge double wound Karuna Brand). The next group consists of two strings  – one steel (26 or .017 inches) and a 19 gauge double wound Karuna tuned to the 5th (Pa) one and two octaves below respectively. The last one is tuned again a bass to Sa (21 gauge double wound Karuna Brand).  This manner of stringing of the top strings produces a beautiful blend of two octaves, which, in some measure, has contributed to the instrument’s reputation of a ‘singing’ tone.

In the Navachitravina which is usually tuned to B or C, the strings can be either the same gauge as the traditional instrument (since the instrument is smaller) or one can go for Flat Wound d’Addario strings from .013 for first 2 (Silver head), .035 for 3rd (Black), .017 for 4th (Purple), .045 for 5th and .055. for 6th.  

Drone-rhythm strings: In both Chitravina and Navachitravina, these consist of three strings that run on a curved bridge that is fixed to the side of the main bridge. These are tuned to Sa in the main octave (top most string, gauge 28/29), Pa (middle 30) and Sa in the higher octave (bottom 31/32).

Resonance strings: This layer runs parallel to and below the melody strings, across a smaller second bridge and consists of 11/12 sympathetic strings, usually tuned to the major scale (Shankarabharanam) or to any other raga that an artiste expects to elaborate for over 15-20 minutes. The tuning can start from the base Pa and go all the way upto the high Sa (PDNSSRGMPDNS) or it can include more of Sa and Pa to create a built-in-tanpura effect (PPSSRGMPDNS). It should be noted that the last layer is optional.

The main tonic note (Sa) of most chitravinas is tuned to G or G# while the tonic note of most nava-chitravinas are tuned to B or C. Thus, the 5th note would be D to D# for chitravinas and F# and G for nava-chitravinas. One can easily determine the keys of the rest of the notes.

The chitravina is played by plucking the melody strings with the index and middle fingers of the right hand and damping them with the third finger when required. The drone strings are activated using the little finger. A cylindrical block made of ebony wood or bison horn is held in the left hand and glided over the main strings. The resonance strings are rarely activated by the artiste as they will vibrate in sympathy to the music that is played on the other strings.

In the late 1980s, Ravikiran switched over to teflon slides at the behest of Mr Hemmige D Varadarajan, a scientist based in California, who pointed out that this material was the smoothest (most frictionless) known to man at that time. This has resulted in minimising the unwanted noise that is inevitable in slide instruments when other materials such as ebony, bison horn, steel or glass slides are used.

The linear sliding movement is the basic playing technique of the chitravina, making the process seem very simple. However, mastering the instrument is quite a challenge, not the least due to the need for great accuracy in placing the slide on the strings to hit the right notes and their microtonal variations. Also, the chitravina is much longer than other fretless instruments like the violin or sarod.

This, coupled with the fact that no elaborate fingering techniques can be employed, make it a great challenge to match the speed and felicity of the other instruments.

An interesting observation about the chitravina was made by Ustad Allauddin Khan (when he heard N Narasimhan in the 1960s) – since the instrument is plucked with a plectrum and played with a slide, there is no direct contact between the players’ fingers and the instrument. Most other fretless instruments are played directly with the fingers; according to the Ustad, this gives the artiste a better “feel” of the instrument.

These challenges have probably made the chitravina somewhat uncommon. However, once they are overcome with diligence and practice (as many artistes have done), the rewards are great. Its continuity and smooth, rich tone make the instrument ideally suited for presenting all facets of Indian music.

The earliest reference to the chitravina is in Bharata’s Natya Shastra, placed by scholars between 200 BC and 200 AD. It is described as a seven-stringed instrument played with fingers and a cylindrical device (kona). The Natya Shastra also refers to a similar instrument with nine strings, Vipanchi vina. Sarngadeva’s Sangeeta Ratnakara, written a few centuries later, also refers to both instruments in exactly the same manner, suggesting that there was no major change in the intervening years. The chitravina has obviously undergone many modifications since, though not much has been documented clearly.

Some scholars believe that the instruments mentioned in the Natya Shastra and Sangeeta Ratnakara were harp-like instruments and not of the lute type. However, it should be noted that today’s chitravina is a combination of the two. While the main playing strings in the top layer form the slide lute part, the harp-like character is provided by the resonance strings a layer below. 

Over a period of time, fretted instruments were tried and held sway for many centuries because of the obvious advantage that the frets ensure a lower margin of error as an artiste can place fingers almost anywhere between two frets and get the right note. In a fretless instrument, even a fraction of a micrometer would produce a note slightly off.  However, the beauty of the fretless chitravina is its ability to produce “microtones akin to the human voice”, as the The New York Times observed. 

Srinivasa Rao, a Maratha who had immigrated to the Tanjavur district in Tamil Nadu, made the pioneering effort towards the reincarnation of the chitravina in modern times. 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 instrument since childhood. He was able to perceive its tremendous potential to produce high-class music.

Sakha Rama Rao re-designed this instrument as a fretless veena with its usual set of seven strings – four strings on the top and three in the side for drone and rhythm. He put in regular and arduous practice on this instrument and gave occasional performances. 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. Vadyam, in Sanskrit and many other languages, means instrument. Thus, gotuvadyam was a literal name for an instrument played with a slide. Several decades later, a few scholars went into the origins of the instrument and have restored the more traditional name, chitravina. Sakha Rama Rao was a “musicians’ musician” and trained many great artistes like Gotuvadyam Narayana Iyengar and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. Soon there were several others who started performing on the gotuvadyam.

The next path-blazer was Narayana Iyengar. A born genius and a performer of the highest order, he enjoyed tremendous popularity. He worked ceaselessly to refine and improve the instrument. His experimentations led to the addition of three more main playing strings and 12 sympathetic resonance strings in a special row below the main strings. The new instrument thus had 22 strings (in the present day, one of the 7 main strings has been discarded, thereby making it a 21-stringed instrument) and a breathtakingly rich tone previously unheard in veena-type instruments.

The Narayana Iyengar method of tuning the chitravina is quite unique. He was among the earliest to make use of the concept of octave strings. He also arranged his resonance strings so as to create a built-in tanpura effect. Some of his other design features included fine-tuning provision for each of the 20 strings, (in itself a very unusual feature in such complex instruments), a standardised pitch, and the types of strings used. His overall contribution to the growth of chitravina is unparalleled.

Son and disciple of Narayana Iyengar, Narasimhan carried on along the lines of his father but also brought in some subtle modifications such as string arrangements and the length of the slide. A wonderful performer, he popularised this instrument all over the country, notably among his fellow musicians. His other great contribution is the training of many successful disciples, several of whom he introduced to the music world as child prodigies.

Budalur Krishnamoorthy Shastrigal, Mannargudi Savithri Ammal, A Narayana Iyer, M V Varahaswami, Gayatri Kassabaum and Allam Koteeshawara Rao are some of the notable exponents of this instrument in the 20th century. Of these, Budalur Krishnamoorthy Shastrigal (who was an outstanding vocalist as well) was steadfast in sticking to the tuning and string arrangement of the veena 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.

In recent times, more effective true quality amplification by mixing transducer/ electro-magnetic pick-ups with condenser mics and by employing higher quality guitar amplifiers enabling 50,000-100,000 people to appreciate even minute nuances in both indoor and outdoor settings. Ravikiran has pioneered techniques to project high level vocal style without sacrificing the instrumental quality. He has also brought in a ‘wow’ factor through breathless slides (playing long passages with just one strum of the strings) and superfast melodic (alapana) or solfa passages (kalpana swaras) in different pulse rates (gatis), enabling the instrument to hold its own in collaborations with any other instrument or orchestra. 

The versatility of the chitravina has been demonstrated through presentations of very complex compositions, including sophisticated ragam-tanam-pallavis. 

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. 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.

According to historians of the Hawaiian guitar, such as Dewitt Scott (Senior) and Chris Morda, the chitravina was taken to America in the 1880s by Gabriel Davion, in a modified form, laying a 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 a similar account.