Fulbright-Nehru scholar Lalitha Muthuswamy takes Indian music to the world through her performances and research work.
The “violin sisters” Lalitha and Nandini Muthuswamy have been widely deemed as the only female duo in Asia to perform world music, South Indian classical, fusion and Western classical music. Virtuoso performers they may be, but they believe in rigorous practice. “It’s like an exam,” laughs M. Lalitha. “We must always play our best for our audiences.”
A senior violinist as well as a researcher of her art, M. Lalitha was a Fulbright-Nehru visiting scholar at the University of Iowa in 2013-14, where she focused on aspects of South Indian music with emphasis on melodic, rhythmic and musical structures. She is also the director of the Chennai-based MS Academy of Global Music.
The violin sisters have been playing for over 30 years, nationally and internationally, ever since they picked up the instrument as children. They are the fourth generation of musicians in a family that includes internationally-known violinists L.Vaidyanathan, L. Subramaniam and L. Shankar. The sisters’ grandfather, V. Lakshminarayana Iyer, was their first teacher.
“We grew up watching my mother, Subbulakshmi Muthuswamy, and my uncles learning and practicing under him,” says M. Lalitha. To the sisters, “he was a very indulgent grandfather and also an extremely strict teacher.” This inculcated a sense of discipline that the sisters cherish even today.
Their father, K. Muthuswamy, though not from a musical background, was extremely supportive. He also encouraged them to learn different languages, like French and German.
M. Lalitha’s first performance was as a 13-year-old at Alliance Française of Madras in Chennai. Her younger sister, M. Nandini, is her long-time musical partner and collaborator. “We have played together for so long that today, on stage, we can instinctively read each other’s minds,” says M. Lalitha.
The sisters have a deep appreciation for world and fusion music. They specialize in different musical traditions from China, Africa and the Middle East, to name a few. “Fusion helps us take Carnatic music to the world,” says M. Lalitha.
Their fusion concerts usually feature their original compositions. They have experimented with various media like film, theater and dance, and their collaborations include those with the Finnish band Piirpauke and musicians like Shahid Parvez Khan, Paul Peabody and Mike Albert.
Performances are not the only thing M. Lalitha focuses on. Her doctoral dissertation was published as a book, titled “Violin Techniques in Western and South Indian Classical Music: A Comparative Study,” in 2005. Both the sisters received the highest grades in Western violin, in theory and practice, from Trinity College, London. In 2012, M. Lalitha got a production grant from the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, for researching and presenting a series of episodes on rare musical instruments in divinity. The research covered about 250 instruments used in temples, which are now becoming obsolete, some with just about one artist left. The sisters write a column for The Hindu newspaper on these musical instruments and the rituals connected with them.
M. Lalitha is also the head of the department of violin at The Music Academy in Chennai. Researching different musical instruments and genres, and understanding their history and growth are integral parts of her musical oeuvre. “I just love research,” she says. “It gives greater meaning to my art.”
For her 2005 Fulbright Fellowship in Performing Arts at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, M. Lalitha researched “composition writing in fusion music.” In 2013-14, during her second fellowship, she created syllabi to teach Indian music and gave lectures on Carnatic music in different departments at the University of Iowa.
“Iowa [University] has a wonderful ethnomusicology department,” says M. Lalitha. “The students had many questions about the evolution of Indian music and the different features of Carnatic music.” Her knowledge of Western classical helped her explain Indian music in terms that her students could easily understand. She encouraged them to create compositions using their own styles and Indians ragas. This was quite challenging, but “they did some amazing work,” she says. “The students here are taught to question, and this makes classes so much more effective.”
Paromita Pain is a journalist based in Austin, Texas.