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Playing The Violin Is A Family Affair For Ragini Shankar

Shuchita Rao

The first of the 2017 concert series presented by Learnquest Baithak featured Hindustani violinist Ragini Shankar accompanied by Shri Nitin Mitta on tabla on March 25 in an intimate setting. Starting the evening with two melodious compositions in the popular Raga Desh, Ragini went on to play the evocative bhajan (Gandhiji’s favorite) “Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram” in raga Piloo embellishing musical phrases with a variety of pleasing ornaments and imaginative melodic variations. Post intermission, Ragini played a tuneful night raga Bageshri studded with taans (fast melodic phrases) culminating at the accented first beat (sum) with cutting edge finish. She ended with two semi-classical compositions - a Hori in Mishra Khamaj and a bhajan in raga Bhairavi. The ease with which she played difficult passages with a smile and her synergy with the tabla artist Shri Nitin Mitta made the concert a very enjoyable experience for the audience.

A mechanical engineer by education, Ragini hails from a family of great violinists. Her mother Smt. Sangeeta Shankar, her grandmother Padmabhushan Dr. N. Rajam and her younger sister Nandini Shankar are all well-known performers specializing in the gaayaki-ang style of playing the violin.

Shuchita Rao of Lokvani spoke to the artist after the concert.

Q. Where were you born and at what age did you start playing the violin?

A. I was born in Varanasi. My grandmother Dr. N. Rajam was a professor of music at the Banaras Hindu University and my mother Smt. Sangeeta Shankar had spent over 20 years of her life in the city. We moved to Mumbai soon after my birth. It is our family’s tradition to initiate a child early into music. I began my lessons at the age of three.

Q. Being born in Varanasi (Banaras), do you have any special memories of the mighty river Ganga?

A. River Ganga is very powerful and there is a powerful energy in the city of Banaras.  We would visit Banaras often from Mumbai. I have wonderful memories of the city and the river. Recently, I had a chance to play very close to the banks of River Ganga. It was a very special experience for me.

Q. Did you love the violin from the very beginning or did you gradually develop a love for the instrument over the course of time?

A. When I was three, I did not have much of a choice. Around the age of 11, I suddenly realized the seriousness of what I had taken up. At that point, I decided that all I wanted to do was to play the violin and assumed responsibility for my lessons and daily practice.

Q. Was it difficult to balance engineering college studies with your interest in music?

A. It was difficult. I used to leave home at 7:30AM only to return at 6:30PM in the evening. I would be tired at the end of the day and practice would happen sometimes and sometimes I would skip it. I therefore got up at 5:30AM each morning to do my riyaaz before I left for college.

Q. Did you learn mostly from your mother or grandmother? Tell us about their teaching methods.

A. I had the privilege of learning from both – my mother as well as my grandmother. My grandmother was stricter than my mother. She was loving as a grandmother, but as a Guru, she was unhappy if I did not put my efforts into daily riyaaz. Being a perfectionist, she always pushed us to give our best. The teaching method was very grounded and rooted to the ragas that were being taught to me and my sister. She would teach us the rules around ragas but also demonstrate the freedom to improvise and expand within the confines of the rules. She sang often and also showed all of us fingering techniques on the violin. Both my mother and grandmother are great Gurus and have been very instrumental in shaping us into what we are today.

Q. What do you find to be the most appealing feature of your instrument? Does the specific instrument you play have a special history associated with it?

A. The violin I play is a European violin (English and French background). We have several violins in our family. This violin that I am currently playing belonged to my grandmother – she played it as a child. I like the acoustic resonance of this traditional violin. It is a very difficult instrument because there are no frets on it. I have to rely on my ear training to know where exactly to place my finger to get the right pitch.

Q. Do you also play the electric violin? What factors do you consider in deciding which instrument to play?

A. All of us in our family own atleast one acoustic violin and one with an electric setup.  Both instruments have their unique sounds. The electric violin is generally chosen when playing with fusion bands so that we can be heard in the band.

Q. How many ragas would you say you know?

A. I am unable to give you a number because I have not counted the ragas I know. I have knowledge of many ragas and can identify many of them. I do not play all the ragas that I have knowledge of.

Q. You played a Hori in your concert. Which of the genres in semi-classical Hindustani music would you say is your favorite?

A. I love the thumri especially the ones sung by Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. Yaad Piya ki aaye is a popular thumri but I also like another one Naina More in raga Bhairavi a lot.

Q. Can you tell us about any exciting musical project that you are currently working on?

A. My mother, sister and I have formed a band called InStrings along with percussion artists. We take popular tunes and give them a grand sound. It is not hardcore classical music but incorporates elements of Hindustani, Carnatic, Western classical (Mozart), Jazz, patriotic, Spanish tunes and Indian film songs. We are currently working on an exciting promotional video to introduce the band.

Q. What are your future plans? Where do you see yourself in the coming decades?

A. I am a very open person. Every day in life I look forward to meeting new people and learning new things. I will be continuing to play classical music but I would like to work with musicians of different backgrounds. For me, music has no boundaries.


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