Carnatic sangeet, (Karnatik Sangit) is the south Indian system of music. It has a rich history and a very sophisticated theoretical system. The performers and composers have, gained a world class reputation by singing and playing instruments such as veena (vina), gottuvadyam, violin, and mridangam.
In the West, Carnatic Sangeet is not as well known as Hindustani Sangeet (north Indian music). Whenever Westerners think of Indian music, they immediately think of Ravi Shankar and the sitar. Although South Indian music is extremely sophisticated, there has not emerged an artist with the worldwide recognition that North Indians, like Ravi Shankar, have been able to generate.
Carnatic Sangeet is found in the south Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Carnatica. These states are known for their strong presentation of Dravidian culture.
The reasons for the differentiation between North, and South Indian music is not clear. The generally held belief is that North Indian music evolved along different lines due to an increased exposure to the Islamic world. This results from nearly 800 years of Islamic rule over northern India.
Unfortunately, evidence suggests that this answer is a gross over-simplification. For instance, Kerala has an extremely large Muslim population, but virtually no identification with north Indian music. By the same token, the Islamic influence over Orissa was negligible, yet the artistic forms are clearly identifiable as Hindustani. Although there is a poor correlation between the geographical distribution of Hindus / Muslims and the two musical systems; there is an almost exact correlation between the Indo-European/Dravidian cultures and the two musical systems.
Therefore, we come to the politically uncomfortable, yet inescapable conclusion that the differences between North and South Indian music does not represent a differentiation caused by Islamic influence, but instead represents a continuation of fundamental cultural differences.
We can begin our discussion of the history of Carnatic Sangeet with Purandardas (1480-1564). He is considered to be the father of Carnatic Sangeet. He is given credit for the codification of the method of education, and is also credited with several thousand songs.
Venkat Mukhi Swami (17th century) is the grand theorist of Carnatic music. He was the one who developed the melakarta system. This is the system for classifying south Indian rags.
Carnatic music really acquired its present form in the 18th century. It was during this period that the "trinity" of Carnatic music, Thyagaraja, Shamashastri, and Muthuswami Dikshitar composed their famous compositions. In addition to our "trinity". Numerous other musicians and composers enriched this tradition. Some notable personalities were; Papanasam Shivan, Gopala Krishna Bharati, Swati Tirunal, Mysore Vasudevachar, Narayan Tirtha, Uttukadu Venkatasubbair, Arunagiri Nathar, and Annamacharya.
Carnatic music has a very highly developed theoretical system. It is based upon a complex system of ragam (rag) and thalam (tal). These describe the intricacies of the melodic and rhythmic forms respectively.
The melodic foundation is the ragam (rag). Ragam (rag) is basically the scale. The seven notes of the scale are Sa Ri Ga Ma Pa Dha and Ni. However, unlike a simple scale there are certain melodic restrictions and obligations. Each ragam (rag) has a particular way that it moves from note to note.
The ragams are categorised into various modes. These are referred to as mela, and there are 72 in number. The mela are conceptually similar to the thats of North Indian music. There is however, a major difference. South Indian scales allow chromatic forms that are not allowed in Hindustani sangeet. For instance it is perfectly acceptable for the first three notes (i.e., Sa Re Ga to all be roughly one semitone apart. It is these permissible forms which allow there to be so many mela.
The tal (thalam) is the rhythmic foundation to the system. The south Indian tals are defined by a system of clapping and waving, while this is much less important in the north. North Indian musicians define their tals by their theka.
Nomenclature is one of the biggest differences between North and South Indian music. It is normal for a particular rag or tal to be called one thing in the North and something totally different in the South. It is also common for the same name to be applied to very different rags and tals. It is theses differences in nomenclature that have made any theoretical reconciliation difficult.
There are a number of sections to the Carnatic performance. Varanam is a form used to begin many south Indian performances. The word varanam literal means a description and this section is used to unfold the various important features of the ragam. The kritis are a fixed compositions in the rag. They have well identified composers and do not allow much scope for variation. However such compositions are often preceded by alapana. The alapana offers a way to unfold the ragam to the audience, and at the same time, allow the artist considerable scope for improvisation. The niruval and the kalpana swara also provide opportunities to improvise. Another common structure is the ragam, thanam, and, pallavi
The rich tradition of South Indian music is one of the worlds gems. The high performance standards and the well organised theoretical foundation put it on par with anything that world has seen, either East or West.
© 1998 - 2018 David and Chandrakantha Courtney
For comments, corrections, and suggestions, kindly contact David Courtney at [email protected]