Sunday, January 9, 6850

India - The Vedas (150 BC) - Carnatic Music

India is a country in South Asia. It is the seventh largest country by geographical area, the second most populous country, and the most populous democracy in the world.

Bounded by the Indian Ocean on the south, the Arabian Sea on the west, and the Bay of Bengal on the east, India has a coastline of 7,517 kilometers (4,671 mi).

It borders Pakistan to the west; China, Nepal, and Bhutan to the north-east; and Bangladesh and Burma to the east. India is in the vicinity of Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and Indonesia in the Indian Ocean.

Home to the Indus Valley Civilization (c. 3000–1500 BC, Mature period 2600–1900 BC), and a region of historic trade routes and vast empires, the Indian subcontinent was identified with its commercial and cultural wealth for much of its long history.

Carnatic music ( Karnatak music or Karnatik music, and originally called Karṇāṭaka sangīta or is known as one of the two styles of Indian classical music, the other being Hindustani music. Its classical tradition is from the southern part of the Indian subcontinent, and its area roughly corresponds to the four modern states of South India: Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu.

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.

Like all art forms in Indian culture, Carnatic music is believed to have a divine origin -- it is believed to have input from the Devas and Devis.

However, it is also generally accepted that the natural origins of music were an important factor in the development of Carnatic music.

Ancient treatises describe the connection of the origin of the swaras, or notes, to the sounds of animals and birds, and man's keen sense of observation and perception that tried simulating these sounds - after hearing and distinguishing between the different sounds that emanated from bamboo reed when air passes through its hollows, man designed the first flute. In this way, music is venerated as an aspect of the supreme (nāda brāhmam).

Folk music is also said to have been a natural origin of Carnatic music, with many folk tunes corresponding to certain Carnatic ragas.

The Vedas are generally accepted as the main probable source of Indian music. The Sama Veda is said to have laid the foundation for Indian music, and consists mainly of hymns of Rigveda, set to musical tunes which would be sung using three to seven musical notes during Vedic sacrifices.

The Vedas are arguably the oldest sacred texts that are still used. Most Indologists agree that an oral tradition existed long before a literary tradition gradually sets in from about the 2nd century BC.

Due to the ephemeral nature of the manuscript material (birch bark or palm leaves), surviving manuscripts rarely surpass an age of a few hundred years.

Michael Witzel gives a time span of c. 1500 BC to c. 500-400 BC. He gives 150 BC as a terminus for all Vedic Sanskrit literature

India - South - Karnataka Sangita (Vina Lute)

The Yajur-Veda, which mainly consists of sacrificial formulae, mentions the veena as an accompaniment to vocal recitations during the sacrifices.

References to Indian classical music are made in many ancient religious texts, including epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The Yajnavalkya Smriti mentions "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 on music concepts mentioned in Bharata's Natya Shastra.

The Natya Shastra mentions many musical concepts (including swara and tala) that continue to be relevant to Carnatic music today.


Bharata was an ancient Indian musicologist who authored the Natya Shastra, a theoretical treatise on ancient Indian dramaturgy and histrionics, dated to between roughly 400 BC and 200 BC. Indian dance and music find their root in the Natyashastra. Besides propounding the theory of three types of acting Bharata discussed in detail classical Indian vocal / instrumental music and dance since they are integral to Sanskrit drama. The classical dance form Bharata Natyam is codified in the Natya Shastra. Bharata classified Sanskrit theatrical forms (Natya\Rupaka) into ten types; what is known to the west as drama is but one among these, namely, Nataka.

Bharata also outlines a set of rasas or moods / emotions which were to be influential in defining the nature of Indian dance, music, and theater.

The Natya Shastra comprises 36 chapters and it is probable that it was a creation of many more than one scholar. Bharata is considered as the father of Indian theatrical art forms.


A clear demarcation between Hindustani music and Carnatic music can be seen in the latter half of the 14th century, as the word "Carnatic" came to represent South Indian classical music as a separate system of music.

A unique development in the art of instrumental Carnatic music took shape under the patronage of the kings of the Kingdom of Mysore in the 18th through 20th centuries. The composers used to play their compositions on instruments such as the veena, rudra veena, violin, tambura, ghata, flute, mridangam, nagaswara, swarabhat.

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 shruti 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 some 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[22] in Tamil Nadu shows vowel changes to solfege symbols with ra, ri, ru etc. to denote the higher quarter-tones. In one scale, or ragam, 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).

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, phrases should be avoided, and so on.

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 janyaragas (descendant ragas of a particular janaka raga). Janya ragas are subclassified into various categories themselves.

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.

There are four main types of improvisation in Carnatic music, but in every type, adhering to the scale and phrases of the raga is required.

This is the exposition of the ragam of the song that is being planned to be performed. A performer will explore the ragam first by singing lower octaves then moving up to higher ones and touching various aspects of the ragam while giving a hint of the song to be performed. It is a slow improvisation with no rhythm.

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.

This is usually performed by the more advanced concert artists and consists of singing one or two lines of a song repeatedly, but with improvised elaborations. Niraval comes out of manodharma sangeetha, where the selected line is repeated within the tala timing to bring out the beauty of both the raaga, and the line or composition being rendered.

The most elementary type of improvisation, usually taught before any other form of improvisation. It consists of singing a pattern of notes which finishes on the beat and the note just before the beat and the note on which the song starts. The swara pattern should adhere to the original raga's swara pattern, which is called as aarohanam-avarohanam.

This form of improvisation was originally developed for the veena and consists of expanding the raga with syllables like tha, nam, thom, aa, nom, na, etc.

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, and while there are many other types/forms of compositions (including padam, javali, and thillana), the most common forms are the Varnam, and most importantly, the kriti (or kirtanam), which are discussed below.

Varnam 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, including Pallavi -- the equivalent of a refrain in Western music.

Carnatic music concerts are usually performed by a small ensemble of musicians who sit on a slightly elevated stage. Carnatic music concerts can be vocal recitals, accompanied by supporting instruments, or purely instrumental concerts, but irrespective of whether it is a vocal or purely instrumental concert, what is featured in a typical concert are compositions which form the core of this music. The lead-musician must also choose a signature octave based on his/her (vocal) range of comfort. However, it is expected that a musician maintains that same pitch once it is selected, and so to help all the performers maintain the selected pitch, the tambura is the traditional drone instrument used in concerts. However, tamburas are increasingly being replaced by śruti boxes, and now more commonly, the "Electronic tambura"
In a vocal recital, a concert team may have one or more vocalists, accompanied by instrumentalists. Other instruments such as the veena and/or flute can be found to occasionally accompany a lead vocalist, but usually a vocalist is supported by a violin player (who sits on his/her left), and a few percussion players including at least a mridangam (who usually sits on the other side of the vocalist, facing the instrumentalist). Other percussion instruments that are also used include the ghatam, kanjira and morsing, which also accompany the main percussion instrument and play almost in a contrapuntal fashion along with the beats. The objective of the accompanying instruments is far more than following the melody and keeping the beats. The accompaniments form an integral part of every composition presented, and they closely follow and augment the melodic phrases outlines by the lead singer. The vocalist and the violinist take turns while elaborating or while exhibiting creativity in sections like raga, niraval and kalpanaswaram. Unlike Hindustani music concerts, where an accompanying tabla player can keep beats without following the musical phrases at times, in Carnatic music, the accompaniments have to know follow intricacies of the composition since there are percussion elements such as eduppu, in several compositions. Some of the best concerts feature a good bit of interaction with the lead musicians and the accompaniments exchanging notes, and accompanying musicians predicting the lead singer musical phrases.

A contemporary Carnatic concert (called a kutcheri) usually lasts about three hours, and usually comprises a number of varied compositions. Carnatic songs are composed in a particular raga, which means that they do not deviate from the notes in the raga. Each composition is set with specific notes and beats, but performers improvise extensively. Improvisation occurs in the melody of the composition as well as in using the notes to expound the beauty of the raga.

Concerts usually begin with a varnam or an invocatory item which will act as the opening piece. The varnam is composed with an emphasis on swaras of the raga, but will also have lyrics, the saahityam. It is lively and fast to get the audience's attention. An invocatory item, may alternatively, follow the varnam.

After the varnam and/or invocatory item, the artist sings longer compositions called kirtanas (commonly referred to as kritis). Each kriti sticks to one specific raga, although some are composed with more than one raga; these are known as ragamalika (a garland of ragas).
After singing the opening kriti, usually, the performer sings the kalpanaswaram of the raga to the beat. The performer must improvise a string of swaras in any octave according to the rules of the raga and return to beginning of the cycle of beats smoothly, joining the swaras with a phrase selected from the kriti. The violin performs these alternately with the main performer. In very long strings of swara, the performers must calculate their notes accurately to ensure that they stick to the raga, have no awkward pauses and lapses in the beat of the song, and create a complex pattern of notes that an experienced audience can follow.

Performers then begin the main compositions with a section called raga alapana exploring the raga. In this, they use the sounds aa, ri, na, ta, etc. instead of swaras to slowly elaborate the notes and flow of the raga. This begins slowly and builds to a crescendo, and finally establishes a complicated exposition of the raga that shows the performer's skill. All of this is done without any rhythmic accompaniment, or beat. Then the melodic accompaniment (violin or veena), expounds the raga. Experienced listeners can identify many ragas after they hear just a few notes. With the raga thus established, the song begins, usually with lyrics. In this, the accompaniment (usually violin, sometimes veena) performs along with the main performer and the percussion (such as a mridangam). In the next stage of the song, they may sing niraval or kalpanaswaram again.

In most concerts, the main item will at least have a section at the end of the item, for the percussion to perform solo (called the tani avartanam). The percussion performers perform complex patterns of rhythm and display their skill. If multiple percussion instruments are employed, they engage in a rhythmic dialogue until the main performer picks up the melody once again. Some experienced artists may follow the main piece with a ragam thanam pallavi mid-concert, if they do not use it as the main item.

Following the main composition, the concert continues with shorter and lighter songs. Some of the types of songs performed towards the end of the concerts are tillanas and thukkadas - bits of popular kritis or compositions requested by the audience. Every concert that is the last of the day ends with a mangalam, a thankful prayer and conclusion to the musical event.

The audience of a typical concert has a reasonable understanding of Carnatic music. It is also typical to see the audience tapping out the tala in sync with the artist's performance. As and when the artist exhibits creativity, the audience acknowledge it by clapping their hands. With experienced artists, towards the middle of the concert, requests start flowing in. The artist usually plays the request and it helps in exhibiting the artist's broad knowledge of the several thousand kritis that are in existence.

Karnataka Sangita (Venu Flute)