Sunday, August 12, 2007

Aspects of Carnatic music


Carnatic music is taught and learned through compositions, which can be classified into one the forms: Geetham, Swarajati, Varnam, Taana Varnam, Pada Varnam, Padajati varnam, Keerthana, Kriti, Padam, Javali, Thillana, Virutham, etc. Each of these forms emphasize various aspects and encode musical expression at various levels. Although, learning music was a oral tradition, sophisticated notations have been developed by stalwarts of carnatic music, to preserve the details better. In contrast to the Hindustani Music of northern part of India, the carnatic music system developed around the compositions, which encode enormous amount of musical details, also providing scope for free improvization. Nearly every rendition of a carnatic music composition is different, and it has elements of the composers vision, as well as the musician's interpretation, which makes carnatic music very unique.


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 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 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).

RagaThe notes of Carnatic music are not usually fixed. In this sense they are much like the do re mi fa so la ti of western music. A performer tunes an instrument to the desired pitch (accompanists of course tune to the main performer's pitch) or sings at whatever pitch is most comfortable. This is called the kaTTai. Traditionally, the G above middle C is kaTTai 5, F is 4, A is 6, etc. Most Indian instruments do need tuning for each performance, according to the main artists' pitch - even percussion instruments are tuned.The notes used correspond to do re mi, but are called sa ri ga ma pa da ni. Sa is shadjamam, the basic note that exists in all scales. It is used as a drone note (played on a tambura), along with Pa, pancamam, its fifth. In concerts, you will hear sa pa Sa playing in octaves in the background to allow musicians to stay in tune. The other notes are rishabam (ri), gaandaaram (ga), madyamam (ma), daivatam (da), and nishaadam (ni). These notes are called swaras.While all scales have sa, not all have the other notes. Though sa ri ga ma pa da ni sa comprise the main vocalized notes of Carnatic music, the actual notes (relative frequencies) that they form number 12. There is only one sa (not counting octaves) and one pa, but there are 2 types of ma and 3 each of the other notes.As an example, let's take sa as middle C. Pa is then G. From here on out, the notes will be designated by first letter only. R1 is C#, R2 is D natural, R3 is D#. Ga is overlapping, so G1 is D, G2 is D#, and G3 is E. M1 is F, M2 is F#. Similarly, D1 is G#, D2 is A, D3 is Bb, N1 is A, N2 is Bb, and N3 is B. These twelve notes are used in combination to give various scales of ascending and descending order. Some scales (these are ragas) take seven notes in the ascending and seven in the descending, but others remove notes and still others vary the order of the notes. However, because G1=R2 (D), G2=R3 (D#), N1=D2 (A), and N2=D3 (Bb), these do not occur in the same scale successively. These combinations give 72 main ragas and innumerable other ragas from which compositions are composed. (For more information, see Intro to raga).

Raga system

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.
There are potentially hundreds and thousands of ragas, with over 5000 that have been used.

Tala system

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.


Carnatic songs (kritis) are varied in structure and style, but generally consist of three units:
Pallavi. This is the equivalent of a refrain in Western music. One or two lines. Anupallavi. The second verse. Also two lines. Charana. The final (and longest) verse that wraps up the song. The Charanam usually borrows patterns from the Anupallavi. There can be multiple charanas. This kind of song is called a keerthana or a Kriti. There are other possible structure for a Kriti, which may in addition include swara passages named chittaswara. Chittaswara consists only of notes, and has no words. Still others, have a verse at the end of the charana, called the madhyamakāla. It is sung immediately after the charana, but at double speed.


This is a special item which highlights everything important about a raga; not just the scale, but also which notes to stress, how to approach a certain note, classical and characteristic phrases, etc. Though there are a few different types of varnams, in essence, they all have a pallavi, an anupallavi, muktayi swaras, a charana, 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.
There are other kinds of songs such as geethams and swarajatis having their own peculiar composition structures, but are principally meant to serve as basic learning exercises.


Raga Alapana

This is the exposition of the ragam of the song that will 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 ragam.


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.


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

Ragam Thanam Pallavi

This is a composite form of improvisation. As the name suggests, it consists of Raga Alapana, Thanam, and a pallavi line. The pallavi line is sung twice, and Niraval follows. After Niraval, the pallavi line is sung again, twice in normal speed, then sung once at half the speed, then twice at regular speed, then four times at twice the speed. Kalpanaswarams follow.

Talam and rhythm

Rhythm in carnatic music changes for each composition. Songs are set to a specific taaLam, or beat. Each taaLam comes in cycles of a number of beats, called an aavartanam. For example, one of the most common taaLam is called aadi. In aadi taaLam, 8 beats (commonly 4 swaras to each beat) make one cycle. Thus, up to 32 swaras may comprise one cycle, lengthened and shortened to accomodate the taaLam. TaaLam is kept by beating the right hand gently against the right thigh while seated with your legs crossed ("Indian style"). For aadi taaLam, first beat the palm of the hand (1), then tap the fingers pinky (2), ring finger (3), middle finger(4). Then beat palm (5), turn the hand over and beat the back of the hand (6), palm (7), back (8). This is one cycle. This cycle will repeat throughout the song. Although often the number of swaras per beat will change during a carnatic song, the actual beat changes within a song VERY rarely, and even then, it is a fixed change, not a slowing down or speeding up of the beat itself.

The concert and compositions

Compositions are composed in a fixed raga. This means that they do not deviate from the notes in the raga. In carnatic, there are no "accidentals" or variations in rhythm (there are exceptions but rarely). Each composition is set with specific notes and beats, but performers vary widely in their presentation. Improvisation occurs in the MELODY of the composition as well as in using the notes to expound the beauty of the raga.
As you enter the hall, you will notice the main performer(s) sitting in the middle. The musical sound you hear first is the drone (tambura) playing sa, pa, Sa. Accompanists like violin and veena sit to the main performer's left (your right), and percussion instruments are usually to your left. All performers sit on the stage without chairs or stools.
A concert (called a kuTcEri) will usually begin with a piece called a varnam. This piece is composed with an emphasis on swaras of the raga. It is lively and fast to get the audience's attention. Varnams also have words, the saahityam.
After the varnam, compositions are performed called kritis or keertanams. Most often, these compositions are religious in nature. These stick to one raga, although a few have sections composed of different ragas (a raagamaalika).
Many performers first begin main compositions with a section called raagam. In this, they use aakaaram (essentially, using the vowels aa, ri, na, ta, etc. instead of swaras or words) to slowly elaborate the notes and flow of the raga. This begins slowly and then becomes more intense and finally establishes a complicated exposition of the raga that shows the performer's skill. All of this is done without any rhythmic accompaniment. 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 established, the song begins, sung usually only with the saahityam. In this, the accompaniment (usually violin, sometimes veena) performs along with the main performer and the percussion (mridangam, and sometimes ghaTam and ganjeera). A song usually contains 3 parts: pallavi, anupallavi, and caraNam. The pallavi is analogous to a chorus. After the anupallavi, the pallavi is again sung, and again after the caraNam as well. Each phrase is repeated with variations.
Next the performer begins swaram. In this section, swaras are sung separately (as sa ri ga, etc.) 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 saahityam. 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.

The main composition of any concert will have a section at this time for the percussion to perform separately (the tani aavartanam). The mridangam performer alone will perform complex patterns of rhythm and display his or her skill, and if other percussion performers are present on stage, they too will perform, and the percussion instruments engage in a beautiful rhythmic dialog until the main performer picks up the melody once again.

The composition ends with the performing of the main portion of the song. Following the main composition, the performer will play or sing other songs with or without raga and then perform lighter songs that are more catchy and popular. Hindustani pieces are often performed, as well as short westernized songs and other popular pieces. Some performers also take requests at this time.
Every concert that is the last of the day ends with a mangaLam, a thankful prayer and conclusion to the musical event.

1 comment:

SAI said...

Fantastic writing! Very very accurate and to the point. Thanks a lot. Please continue writing more and more.