Introduction | Resources

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These pages are mainly about Carnatic music, because it is probably the least known of the broad streams of music I like. People would attribute the beginning of the evolution of modern Carnatic music to the 14th century. However, it settled into today's form only much later. It shares similarities with the somewhat better known Hindustani (quite a bit) and Jazz (some meters, improvization). The following is background reading material I gave before a lecture on Carnatic music at University of Hawaii.

This document intends to provide some context to what you will see and hear in class. It collects a bunch of articles from magazines that will give you enough exposure to absorb the basic motivations, ideas and terms of Carnatic music---and most importantly, attempts to provide a small window on the people who give life to this art form.

To begin with, like Hindustani music, Carnatic music is raga based.

Carnatic music means different things to different people. It is difficult to escape its influence in South India---among other things, it has been influential on film music in both south and north (particularly the rhythms thanks to AR Rehman), bhava geete (translated approximately to ``mood music'' in Kannada), storytelling (harikatha, yakshagana and kathakali traditions in Karnataka and Kerala), poetry (most poetry in Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu is rhythm based---we will listen to an example in class), devotional music, drama as well as, of course the dance traditions (Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi). Taking a broader viewpoint, Carnatic has both influenced and reflected lot of aspects of social life of modern South India---whether the angle you take is gender, caste, politics, or even expatriate life, particularly in the larger urban centers of the US.

Folk music has had tremendous influence on Carnatic ragas---in fact, a lot of ragas in Carnatic are theoretical formalizations of folk traditions not just in South India, but all over South and SE Asia. Several such ragas still carry the place of origin in their names---Sindhu-bhairavi (for the Indus region), Yadukula-Kambodhi (parts of modern NE Afghanistan), Saurashtram, Surutti (both from modern day Gujarat), Malavi (from central India), Gurjari (in modern day Pakistan), Gowla (modern day West Bengal and Bangladesh), Yamuna Kalyani and Kedaram (North India and Indian Himalayas) to name a few. More keep getting formalized into the Carnatic framework, some like Aarabhi (this is not named for Arabia) are relatively recent additions.

The perspective we will take for the class is that of a rasika, an ``enthusiast''.

Today, the rasika category is perhaps larger than anyone would have expected a couple of decades back. As an anecdotal ballpark: every year, during the month of Marghazhi (approximately Dec-Jan), there are an estimated 1000+ music and dance concerts held in Chennai alone. In addition to sabhas (concert halls), various concerts, lecture-demonstrations, and workshops take place in a variety of venues---even temples, parks, and practically anywhere with a large enough space! Concerts are often packed, and somehow, newspapers find enough critics to actually dissect a large fraction of them. To perform and be appreciated in the Marghazhi season is the hallmark of recognition, and everyone who has passed their arangetram (a term for a public performance that establishes an artist for future performances, originally used for Bharatnatyam but now also used for music) tries to participate. Similar flurry of concerts take place during the Dussehera season and during the Ram-navami period in the Mysore-Bangalore area.

There are other similar music festivals---the biggest of which are the Tyagaraja aradhana and the Dikshitar aradhana. These events are more democratic than the Marghazhi season---and the performances are not just by professional musicians, but also by non-professional rasikas, students and even children. The \emph{aradhanas} are tributes to Tyagaraja and Dikshitar respectively. Their work is considered, along with that of Syama Sastri, to be the cornerstone of the composition repertoire of modern Carnatic music.

Similar events are held for Purandara Dasa (regarded the father of modern Carnatic music). These events are held in several major cities in India, as well as in a few urban centers of the US, some parts of SE Asia, and pretty much wherever else there is a significant South Indian diaspora. In the US, the biggest Tyagaraja aradhana happens in Cleveland, OH, where over 50 concerts, lectures, demonstrations, and competitions are held over a period of about 10 days.

A useful and authoritative book (forward, preface, notation and first page of the table of contents) is the Sangeetha Sampradaya Pradarshini (SSP) by Subbarama Dikshitar published in 1904. The SSP has been translated from Telugu and you can download the entire English version online at no cost. When you go through the book, you will also get an idea of how Carnatic music is written down. You may find the following lecture-demonstration by TM Krishna, another leading musician today, at a conference in Istanbul.


The purpose behind ragas is to classify every possible tune, and therefore systematically study them. It is helpful to think of construction of ragas in two steps.

In the first step, we write out all 12 swarasthanas in an octave (frequency positions of notes---I am going to lie a little and ask you to think of the frequencies associated with the 12 keys of a piano in each octave). Next every mathematically possible permutation subject to certain axioms is associated with a different raga---and these are known as 72 Melakarta ragas or parent ragas. Now each parent raga can have several janya (translated to ``born of'') ragas. The janya ragas borrow the swarasthanas from their parents, but have their own stamp as you will see below. The idea is that sibling ragas (those with the same Melakarta parent) are closely related. But a raga is not just a set of swarasthanas.

In the second step, for each raga, we associate a grammar with its swarasthanas obtained in the last step. The grammar tells us how to shift between the swarasthanas (don't glide, sharp change here, do not touch any swarasthana in between, or touch some other swarasthana while changing, etc), what to play after what, what is important, what must be avoided, which ones to emphasize and how much, and so on. So each raga is like a language---the words of the language being the swarasthanas, and the grammar playing the same role as grammar in spoken languages like English, for example. The grammar of each raga is taught through specific musical compositions, one the first of which is usually a composition form called the varnam. Each varnam would illustrate the major rules and nuances of using the swaras by example. And of course, it is possible to hear a short snippet in a raga and figure out which one it is (just as you could hear a sentence in Spanish or Japanese and identify the language).

Technical description of the system is intricate and sometimes may seem inordinately or even masochistically mathematical when you read texts on Carnatic music, as with the SSP (the first few pages of which are attached in extra.pdf). Yet, the general belief is that the system is robust and natural---very small children with a little bit of training can distinguish between ragas, even when they can barely speak the name of the raga!

To see what I mean, go to the following recording on YouTube. The child in the recording is N. Ravikiran when he was 2 (now a very highly regarded musician and teacher), the eldest brother of Kiranavali. In the clip, Ravikiran's father sings phrases from various ragas, and the infant identifies them. Now that cameras are cheap and every other phone uploads on to YouTube, it is a lot easier to get your precociousness fix---see (in increasing order of age) Syamakrishna, Sivateja, Shivaranjani, Anand, Prachotan and Srinidhi, all in the 2-4 year old range, and all recorded in the last couple of years. There are dozens more if you click through related links on YouTube. Whatever else you do, do not miss seeing the above links---apart from the obvious cuteness factor, the videos demonstrate what I mean by grammar associated with ragas, as well as few names (at least as well as you can decode baby-speak) of ragas.

It is in this context that I want you to read Kiranavali's first article. Secondly, the article provides a window, however small, to life in South India---Kiranavali's autobiographical story would have been set in a lower-middle class or middle class family in the later part of last century. The second article is a tribute to Tanjavur Brinda, who recently passed away. Brinda was a remarkable musician, who through her extraordinary willingness to teach, left something in several top current Carnatic artists today---including Kiranavali, Ravikiran and TM Krishna (the three musicians mentioned thus far).

Instruments and samples

Broadly speaking, Carnatic music is written independently of the instruments it will be played on. While some instruments have endured for a long time, most notably the vina and gottuvadyam, several other instruments also keep getting adapted. The electric guitar and the mandolin are probably the newest instruments to get adapted into the Carnatic mileu.

Here is a sample of what the music sounds like on an electric guitar. This was recorded sometime back when I could not keep beat, so this piece has no beat either. The first 25 secs form the introduction in music, the rest is adapted from Tyagaraja's grand composition Saamajavaragamana. Please bear with the recording quality, but you can do the following to mask some of the recording glitches: (i) the recording volume is low, so please turn up the volume, and (ii) keep a very bass tone. Thanks!

For those in the know, the piece uses chatushruti daivata instead of the usual shuddha daivata. In a recent jugalbandi concert in San Diego, Chitravina Ravikiran mentioned that Tyagaraja also prefered the chatushruti daivata for this compostion. I believe the Brinda school teaches the chatushruti daivata version, which he performed with Akkarai Subbalakshmi. Next time you see him in a concert, try to get him to play this piece---it is really amazing. The raga is called vageha.

The piece above does not attempt to reproduce the vageha version of saamajavaragamana, rather it just replaces every shuddha daivata with chatushruti daivata. But hey, I never claimed to know carnatic in depth---I just enjoy it. Tremendously. That's all!

If you want to know what guitar I use, it is a Washburn WG 587 which you can get from Amazon. This guitar's structure is similar to a vina, it has 7 strings and 24 frets, with a deep sound and beautiful sustain as far as I am concerned.

Drop me a line at nsanthan'at'ucsd'dot'edu if you have comments, want to teach me, or anything else. Of course, replace 'at' and 'dot' by the symbols in the email address above.

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