A Deep Dive into Classical Music of Southern India: What is it?

by Barbara

Classical music in Southern India is known as Carnatic music. It is one of the two main subgenres of Indian classical music, the other being Hindustani music from the North. Carnatic music has a rich heritage and a deep tradition that dates back several centuries. It is characterized by a highly systematized and rigorous framework, emphasizing the importance of composition and the skill of the performer.

I. Historical Background

Carnatic music has its roots in the ancient texts and traditions of India. It is believed to have evolved from the Sama Veda, one of the four Vedas that contain hymns and melodies. Over centuries, it has been influenced by various dynasties, scholars, and saints who have contributed to its development and preservation.

1. Early History

The early development of Carnatic music can be traced back to the period of the Sangam literature (circa 300 BCE to 300 CE). During this time, music was an integral part of the Tamil culture and society. The works of the Sangam poets often describe musical performances, instruments, and the emotional impact of music.

2. The Trinity of Carnatic Music

The period from the 16th to the 18th century saw the rise of three prolific composers, known as the Trinity of Carnatic Music: Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar, and Syama Sastri. These composers not only created numerous compositions but also laid the foundation for the modern Carnatic music tradition. Their works are still revered and widely performed today.

II. Key Elements of Carnatic Music

1. Raga and Tala

The two fundamental elements of Carnatic music are raga (melodic framework) and tala (rhythmic cycle).

Raga: A raga is a specific set of notes with distinct ascending and descending movements. It is more than just a scale; it is a framework for improvisation and composition that evokes particular emotions or rasas. There are hundreds of ragas in Carnatic music, each with its own unique characteristics and mood.

Tala: Tala refers to the rhythmic patterns used in Carnatic music. It is a cycle of beats that provides a rhythmic structure to a composition. The most common tala is Adi Tala, which has eight beats. Other talas include Rupaka Tala, Khanda Chapu Tala, and Misra Chapu Tala.

2. Compositions

Carnatic music compositions are called kritis or kirtanas. They are structured pieces with a fixed format, including sections like pallavi (refrain), anupallavi (second section), and charanam (concluding section). Compositions are often set to specific ragas and talas.

Varnams: These are introductory pieces, often used as warm-up exercises. They are typically in two parts: the purvanga (first half) and the uttaranga (second half). Varnams help in mastering the raga and tala.

Kritis: These are the most popular and widely performed compositions. They consist of the pallavi, anupallavi, and charanam sections. The lyrics often praise deities or convey philosophical messages.

Padams and Javalis: These are shorter compositions, often focused on themes of love and devotion. Padams are more classical and serious, while javalis are lighter and more playful.

III. Instruments Used in Carnatic Music

1. String Instruments

Veena: A plucked string instrument with a rich, resonant tone. It is one of the oldest instruments in Carnatic music and is known for its deep, mellow sound.

Violin: Introduced into Carnatic music in the 18th century, the violin is now a staple instrument. It is usually played while seated on the floor, with the scroll resting on the artist’s ankle.

2. Percussion Instruments

Mridangam: The primary percussion instrument in Carnatic music. It is a double-headed drum, played with both hands, providing the rhythmic foundation for performances.

Ghatam: A clay pot used as a percussion instrument. It produces a unique, metallic sound and is played with fingers, thumbs, palms, and heels of the hands.

Kanjira: A small frame drum with a single pair of jingles. It is similar to a tambourine and is used to add rhythmic embellishments.

3. Wind Instruments

Flute: A bamboo flute, known as the venu, is a popular wind instrument in Carnatic music. It is played horizontally and has a soothing, mellow tone.

Nadaswaram: A double-reed wind instrument, similar to an oboe. It is one of the loudest non-brass acoustic instruments and is often used in temple ceremonies and processions.

IV. Role of Improvisation

Improvisation is a key aspect of Carnatic music. Musicians are trained to improvise within the framework of the raga and tala, creating spontaneous and intricate variations.

1. Alapana

Alapana is a free-form improvisation that explores the raga. It is performed without rhythmic accompaniment and serves as an introduction to the raga’s characteristics. The artist gradually unfolds the raga, moving from lower to higher octaves.

2. Neraval and Kalpana Swaras

Neraval is the improvisation of a specific line within a composition, usually the anupallavi or charanam. The artist maintains the original lyrics while creating melodic variations.

Kalpana Swaras are spontaneous sequences of swaras (notes) sung or played within the framework of the tala. The artist improvises patterns of swaras, creating intricate and dynamic variations.

3. Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi

Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi is a highly complex and elaborate form of improvisation. It consists of three sections:

Ragam: The alapana of the raga.

Tanam: Rhythmic improvisation of the raga.

Pallavi: A short composition that serves as the theme for further improvisation.

This form is considered the pinnacle of a Carnatic musician’s improvisational skill.

V. Global Influence and Adaptation

Carnatic music has transcended geographical boundaries and has found appreciation worldwide. Many artists have performed on international stages, introducing global audiences to the intricacies of this classical tradition.

1. Fusion and Collaboration

Carnatic musicians have collaborated with artists from various genres, including Western classical, jazz, and world music. These collaborations have resulted in unique fusion projects, blending different musical traditions while preserving the essence of Carnatic music.

2. Technological Advancements

The advent of technology has also played a role in the global dissemination of Carnatic music. Online platforms, streaming services, and social media have made it easier for artists to reach a wider audience. Virtual concerts and online music lessons have become more common, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

VI. Challenges and Preservation

1. Preserving Tradition

One of the primary challenges facing Carnatic music is the preservation of its rich tradition. While modern influences and innovations are inevitable, it is crucial to maintain the authenticity and purity of the classical form. Efforts are being made by various organizations and institutions to document and archive traditional compositions and performances.

2. Encouraging the Youth

Attracting the younger generation to Carnatic music is essential for its continued growth and sustainability. Music festivals, competitions, and workshops are organized to encourage young talent and provide them with platforms to showcase their skills.

See Also: What Makes Classical Music Complicated?

VII. Conclusion

Carnatic music, with its deep-rooted tradition and intricate artistry, continues to be a vital and dynamic form of classical music in Southern India. Its rich history, structured framework, and emphasis on improvisation make it a unique and profound musical tradition. As it evolves and adapts to modern times, the essence of Carnatic music remains a testament to the enduring cultural heritage of India. Whether through the compositions of the Trinity, the devotion of the Bhakti movement, or the innovations of contemporary artists, Carnatic music remains a vibrant and inspiring art form, cherished by musicians and audiences alike.

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