An Introduction to Carnatic Music (part 2)


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Sep 21, 2009
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Tala system

Tala refers to the beat set for a particular composition (a measure of time). Talas have cycles of a defined number of beats and rarely change within a song. They have specific components, which in combinations can give rise to the variety to exist (over 108), allowing different compositions to have different rhythms.

Carnatic music singers usually keep the beat by moving their hands up and down in specified patterns, and using their fingers simultaneously to keep time. Tala is formed with three basic parts (called angas) which are laghu, dhrtam, and anudhrtam, though complex talas may have other parts like plutam, guru, and kaakapaadam. There are seven basic tala groups which can be formed from the laghu, dhrtam, and anudhrtam:

* Dhruva tala
* Matya tala
* Rupaka tala
* Jhampa tala
* Triputa tala
* Ata tala
* Eka tala

A laghu has five variants (called jaathis) based on the counting pattern. Five jaathis times seven tala groups gives thirty-five basic talas, although use of other angas results in a total of 108 talas.


Improvisation in raga is the soul of Indian classical music - an essential aspect. "Manodharma sangeetham" or "kalpana sangeetham" ("music of imagination") as it is known in Carnatic music, embraces several varieties of improvisation. The main traditional forms of improvisation in Carnatic music consist of alapana, niraval, kalpanaswaram, ragam thanam pallavi, and thani avarthanam.

Raga Alapana

An alapana, sometimes also called ragam,is the exposition of a raga or tone - a slow improvisation with no rhythm, where the raga acts as the basis of embellishment. In performing alapana, performers consider each raga as an object that has beginnings and endings and consists somehow of sequences of thought.

The performer will explore the ragam and touch on its various nuances, singing in the lower octaves first, then gradually moving up to higher octaves, while giving a hint of the song to be performed.

Theoretically, this ought to be the easiest type of improvisation, since the rules are so few, but in fact, it takes much skill to sing a pleasing, comprehensive (in the sense of giving a "feel for the ragam") and, most importantly, original raga alapana.


Niraval, usually performed by the more advanced performers, consists of singing one or two lines of a song repeatedly, but with a series of melodic improvised elaborations. The lines are then also played at different levels of speed which can include double speed, triple speed, quadruple speed and even sextuple speed.


Kalpanaswaram, also known as swarakalpana, consists of improvising melodic and rhythmic passages using swaras (solfa syllables). Kalpanaswaras are sung to end on a particular swara in the raga of the melody and at a specific place (idam) in the tala cycle. Generally, the swaras are sung to end on the samam (the first beat of the rhythmical cycle), and can be sung at the same speed or double the speed of the melody that is being sung, though some artists sing triple-speed phrases too.

Kalpanaswaram is the most elementary type of improvisation, usually taught before any other form of improvisation.


Tanam is one of the most important forms of improvisation, and is integral to Ragam Tanam Pallavi. Originally developed for the veena, it consists of expanding the raga with syllables like tha, nam, thom, aa, nom, na, etc.

Ragam Tanam Pallavi

Ragam Tanam Pallavi is the principal long form in concerts, and is a composite form of improvisation. As the name suggests, it consists of raga alapana, tanam, and a pallavi line. Set to a slow-paced tala, the pallavi line is often composed by the performer. Through niraval, the performer manipulates the pallavi line in complex melodic and rhythmic ways. The niraval is followed by kalpanaswarams.

Thani Avarthanam

In contrast to Hindustani music of the northern part of India, Carnatic music is taught and learned through compositions, which encode many intricate musical details, also providing scope for free improvisation. Nearly every rendition of a Carnatic music composition is different and unique as it embodies elements of the composer's vision, as well as the musician's interpretation.

A Carnatic composition really has two elements, one being the musical element, the other being what is conveyed in the composition. It is probably because of this fact that most Carnatic music compositions are composed for singing. In addition to the rich musical experience, each composition brings out the knowledge and personality of the composer, and hence the words are as important as the musical element itself. This poses a special challenge for the musicians because rendering this music does not involve just playing or singing the correct musical notes; the musicians are expected to understand what was conveyed by the composer in various languages, and sing musical phrases that act to create the effect that was intended by the composer in his/her composition.

There are many types/forms of compositions.

Geethams and swarajatis (which have their own peculiar composition structures) are principally meant to serve as basic learning exercises.

Compositions more commonly associated with Indian classical dance and Indian devotional music have also been increasingly used in the Carnatic music repertoire. The performance of the Sanskrit sloka, Tamil viruttam and Telegu padyamu or sisapadya forms are particularly unique. Though these forms consist of lyric-based verses, musicians improvise raga phrases in free rhythm, like an alapana, so both the sound value, and the meaning of the text, guide the musician through elaborate melodic improvisations. Forms such as the divya prabandham, thevaram and ugabhoga are often performed similarly, however, these forms can also have a set melody and rhythm like the devaranama, javali, padam, thillana and thiruppugazh forms.

The most common and significant forms in Carnatic music are the varnam and the

kriti (or kirtanam).

This is a special item which highlights everything important about a raga, known as the sanchaaraas of a raga - this includes which notes to stress, how to approach a certain note, classical and characteristic phrases of a raga, the scale of the raga, and so on. Though there are a few different types of varnams, in essence, they all have a pallavi, an anupallavi, muktayi swaras, a charanam, and chittaswaras. They are sung in multiple speeds, and are very good for practice. In concerts, varnams are often sung at the beginning as they are fast and grab the audience's attention.


Carnatic songs (kritis) are varied in structure and style, but generally consist of three units:

1. Pallavi. This is the equivalent of a refrain in Western music. One or two lines.
2. Anupallavi. The second verse. Also two lines.
3. Charana. The final (and longest) verse that wraps up the song. The Charanam usually borrows patterns from the Anupallavi. There can be multiple charanas.

This kind of song is called a keerthanam or a kriti. There are other possible structures for a kriti, which may in addition include swara passages named chittaswara. Chittaswara consists only of notes, and has no words. Still others have a verse at the end of the charana, called the madhyamakāla. It is sung immediately after the charana, but at double speed.
Note: The article has been compiled from different internet based encyclopedia

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