An Introduction to Carnatic Music (part1)


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Sep 21, 2009
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Carnatic music is a beautiful system of music commonly associated with the southern part of the Indian subcontinent, with its area roughly confined to four modern states of India: Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. It is one of two main sub-genres of Indian classical music that evolved from ancient Hindu traditions; the other sub-genre being Hindustani music, which emerged as a distinct form due to Persian and Islamic influences in North India. In contrast to Hindustani music, the main emphasis in Carnatic music is on vocal music; most compositions are written to be sung, and even when played on instruments, they are meant to be performed in gāyaki (singing) style.

Although there are stylistic differences, the basic elements of śruti (the relative musical pitch), swara (the musical sound of a single note), rāga (the mode or melodic formulæ), and tala (the rhythmic cycles) form the foundation of improvisation and composition in both Carnatic and Hindustani music. Although improvisation plays an important role, Carnatic music is mainly sung through compositions, especially the kriti (or kirtanam); a form developed between the 16th and 20th centuries by prominent composers, such as Purandara Dasa and the Trinity of Carnatic music.

Carnatic music is usually performed by a small ensemble of musicians, consisting of a principal performer (usually a vocalist), a melodic accompaniment (usually a violin), a rhythm accompaniment (usually a mridangam), and a tambura which acts as a drone throughout the performance. Other typical instruments used in performances may include the ghatam, kanjira, morsing, veena & flute. The most outstanding performances, and the greatest concentration of Carnatic musicians, are found in the city of Chennai. In particular, the six week-long Music Season held in Chennai every December, has been described as the world's largest cultural event.

Origins and history of Carnatic music

Like all art forms in Indian culture, Carnatic music is believed to have a divine origin. It originated from the Devas and Devis (Hindu Gods and Goddesses), and is venerated as symbolic of nāda brāhman. Ancient treatises describe the connection of the origin of the swaras, or notes, to the sounds of animals and birds and man's effort to simulate these sounds through a keen sense of observation and perception. The Sama Veda, which is believed to have laid the foundation for Indian classical music, consists of hymns from the Rigveda, set to musical tunes which would be sung using three to seven musical notes during Vedic yajnas. The Yajur-Veda, which mainly consists of sacrificial formulae, mentions the veena as an accompaniment to vocal recitations. References to Indian classical music are made in many ancient texts, including epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The Yajnavalkya Smriti mentions vīṇāvādana tattvajñaḥ śrutijātiviśāradaḥ tālajñaścāprayāsena mokṣamārgaṃ niyacchati ("The one who is well versed in veena, one who has the knowledge of srutis and one who is adept in tala, attains salvation without doubt"). Carnatic music is based as it is today on musical concepts (including swara, raga, and tala) that were described in detail in several ancient works, particularly the Silappadhikaram, and Bharata's Natya Shastra.

Owing to Persian and Islamic influences in North India from the 12th century onwards, Hindustani music and Carnatic music styles diverged. By the 16th and 17th centuries, there was a clear demarcation between Carnatic and Hindustani music. It was at this time that Carnatic music flourished in Thanjavur, while the Vijayanagar Empire reached its greatest extent. Purandara Dasa, who is known as the father (Pitamaha) of Carnatic Music, formulated the system that is commonly used for the teaching of Carnatic music. Venkatamakhin invented and authored the formula for the melakarta system of raga classification in his Sanskrit work, the Chaturdandi Prakasika (1660 AD). Govindacharya is known for expanding the melakarta system into the sampoorna raga scheme - the system that is in common use today.

Carnatic music was mainly patronized by the local kings of the Kingdom of Mysore and Kingdom of Travancore in the 18th through 20th centuries. The royalty of the kingdoms of Mysore and Travancore were noted composers and proficient in playing musical instruments, such as the veena, rudra veena, violin, ghatam, flute, mridangam, nagaswara and swarabhat. Some famous court-musicians and royalty proficient in music were Veena Sheshanna (1852-1926) and Veena Subbanna (1861-1939), among others.

With the dissolution of the erstwhile princely states and the Indian independence movement reaching its conclusion in 1947, Carnatic music went through a radical shift in patronage into an art of the masses with ticketed performances organized by private institutions called sabhas. During the 19th century, Madras emerged as the locus for Carnatic music.

Nature of Carnatic music

The main emphasis in Carnatic music is on vocal music; most compositions are written to be sung, and even when played on instruments, they are meant to be performed in a singing style (known as gāyaki). Like Hindustani music, Carnatic music rests on two main elements: rāga, the modes or melodic formulæ, and tāḷa, the rhythmic cycles.

Today, Carnatic music is presented by musicians in concerts or recordings, either vocally or through instruments. Carnatic music itself developed around musical works or compositions of phenomenal composers (see below).

Important elements of Carnatic music

Śruti commonly refers to musical pitch. It is the approximate equivalent of a tonic (or less precisely a key) in Western music; it is the note from which all the others are derived. It is also used in the sense of graded pitches in an octave. While there are an infinite number of sounds falling within a scale (or raga) in Carnatic music, the number that can be distinguished by auditory perception is twenty-two (although over the years, several of them have converged). In this sense, while sruti is determined by auditory perception, it is also an expression in the listener's mind.


Swara refers to a type of musical sound that is a single note, which defines a relative (higher or lower) position of a note, rather than a defined frequency. Swaras also refer to the solfege of Carnatic music, which consist of seven notes, "sa-ri-ga-ma-pa-da-ni" (compare with the Hindustani sargam: sa-re-ga-ma-pa-dha-ni or Western do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti). These names are abbreviations of the longer names shadja, rishabha, gandhara, madhyama, panchama, dhaivata and nishada. Unlike other music systems, every member of the solfege (called a swara) has three variants. The exceptions are the drone notes, shadja and panchama (also known as the tonic and the dominant), which have only one form; and madhyama (the subdominant), which has two forms. A 7th century stone inscription in Kudumiyan Malai in Tamil Nadu shows vowel changes to solfege symbols with ra, ri, ru etc. to denote the higher quarter-tones. In one scale, or raga, there is usually only one variant of each note present. The exceptions exist in "light" ragas, in which, for artistic effect, there may be two, one ascending (in the arohanam) and another descending (in the avarohanam).

Raga system

A raga in Carnatic music prescribes a set of rules for building a melody - very similar to the Western concept of mode. It specifies rules for movements up (aarohanam) and down (avarohanam), the scale of which notes should figure more and which notes should be used more sparingly, which notes may be sung with gamaka, which phrases should be used or avoided, and so on. In effect, it is a series of obligatory musical events which must be observed, either absolutely or with a particular frequency.

In Carnatic music, the sampoorna ragas (those with all seven notes in their scales) are classified into a system called the melakarta, which groups them according to the kinds of notes that they have. There are seventy-two melakarta ragas, thirty six of whose madhyama (subdominant) is sadharana (perfect fourth from the tonic), the remaining thirty-six of whose madhyama (subdominant) is prati (an augmented fourth from the tonic). The ragas are grouped into sets of six, called chakras ("wheels", though actually segments in the conventional representation) grouped according to the supertonic and mediant scale degrees. There is a system known as the katapayadi sankhya to determine the names of melakarta ragas.

Ragas may be divided into two classes: janaka ragas (i.e melakarta or parent ragas) and janya ragas (descendant ragas of a particular janaka raga). Janya ragas are themselves subclassified into various categories.
Note: The article has been compiled from different internet based encyclopedias

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