Carnatic Music, refers to the classical tradition of the southern part of the Indian subcontinent, including Sri Lanka. Its area roughly corresponds to the four modern Indian states, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Kerala, where the Dravidian group of languages is spoken. Until the 16th century Indian music was not divided into Carnatic and Hindustani (northern) music. The reasons for the divide seem to relate to the increasing Arabic and Persian influences in the north with its Muslim power bases after the 13th century, while the south was largely free of such upheavals and continued to develop its Hindu traditions. It would, however, be simplistic to maintain from this that the Carnatic music of today is inherently older than its Hindustani counterpart, and it is safer to say that more still unites the two traditions than divides them. Carnatic music has changed and developed in its own way. It probably began to take its present form in the Karnataka region (hence its name) in the 16th and 17th centuries, and flourished at the court of Vijayanagar in the Deccan. After its destruction in 1565 the focus shifted to the Tanjore district of modern Tamil Nadu, where, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the majority of pieces in the current repertoire were composed. In Carnatic music, performances are nearly always of pieces by named composers. This would appear, at least superficially, to relate more closely to European music than Hindustani, but both traditions of Indian music give the performer great scope for improvisation, and both eschew notation in the teaching and performance of music. There are several famous Carnatic composers, but by common consent the greatest are the so-called Trinity of Tyagaraja, Dikshitar, and Shyama Shastri, all from the Tanjore area.
The melodic basis of Indian classical music is raga. The Sanskrit treatise, Swaramelakalanidhi, by Ramamatya (1550) not only draws attention to the rift between Carnatic and Hindustani music, but also proposes a classification of Carnatic ragas according to mela (scale). This was later developed by Venkatamakhin in his Caturdandiprakasika (1620) into the modern system of 72 melas. As this suggests, there is an enormous variety of Carnatic ragas, and many different ones will be presented in a single recital. The raga is explored in a largely improvised alapana, but this may not take very long, and is sometimes omitted. A characteristic of Carnatic performance is that hardly a single note is sustained without some sort of gamaka, or embellishment, and extremes of tempo are normally avoided. Rather than develop one raga and tala (time cycle) for an hour or more, as often happens in Hindustani music, the Carnatic musician will present a variety of short pieces, with perhaps one or two extended, in a variety of ragas and talas.
There is also a great variety of song forms, and these are also used in instrumental performances. Many, such as the pada, are associated with dance. The commonest today is probably the kriti, which reached its zenith during the Golden Age of the Trinity of Carnatic composers. It is in three sections, and the words are usually in praise of a Hindu deity. A large-scale form, allowing considerable scope for improvisation, is called ragam-tanam-pallavi, which is based on the exposition of the raga in free time, then with a melodic pulse, and finally around the equivalent of the first section of a kriti, set to a tala and used as a melodic refrain and basis for melodic and rhythmic variations.
In its tala system and rhythmic complexity, Carnatic music is probably without equal. The main set is the 35 talas, which are essentially seven main schemes with five possible variants of the subsection called laghu. The commonest tala from this group, and in Carnatic music as a whole, is the eight-beat adi tala. Other talas frequently performed have five, six, and seven beats. At any performance of Carnatic music it is customary for the musicians and more knowledgeable members of the audience to mark the subdivisions of the tala by hand-claps. A drum, usually the hand-beaten barrel-shaped mridangam, will keep the tala and also provide extraordinarily complex variations within its framework. It is also common to find additional percussion instruments lending further variety and excitement to this important aspect of the music. These include the kanjira, a kind of tambourine, the ghatam, a simple clay pot, and even the mursing, a jew's harp.
The main melodic instrument is the vina, a long-necked fretted plucked stringed instrument। In most performances the European violin, adopted into Carnatic music in the 18th century, will be played as an accompaniment to the main instrument or singer, or on its own. The instrument has not changed, but the tuning and holding position are Indian, and it has become completely adapted to the demands of Carnatic music. The tambura, a long-necked plucked stringed instrument, is the traditional drone instrument, though this function is often taken by a small free-reed instrument, called sruti-petti, which is like a small harmonium without a keyboard, and also exists in an electric version. Wind instruments are becoming increasingly popular in the performance of Carnatic music. The small bamboo flute, kural or venu, is well-established, and the large double-reed nagaswaram has been introduced into classical music, as has the saxophone, with considerable success. It is important to remember that Carnatic music observes the primacy of vocal music, and instrumental performances can be described as the songs without the words.
Tala (Indian music)
Tala (Indian music), the rhythmic system of classical Indian music, which governs compositions and much of the improvised material of a performance. The word itself does not simply mean rhythm, but signifies instead a beating or clapping of time. Put in its simplest way, a tala is a repeating cycle of a number of beats, grouped in a particular way. The concept applies to both the Hindustani (northern) and Carnatic (southern) traditions of Indian music, although there are important differences in the names, organizations, and usages of the talas, and in Carnatic music a greater variety is employed.
In Hindustani music, by far the commonest tala is the one known as Tintal, so it can also be described as the commonest of all Indian talas, and is therefore ideal to exemplify the principles of tala. Tintal has an avarta or avritti (cycle) of 16 matras (units, beats), grouped into 4 vibhags of 4 matras. To ensure that the cycle repeats only after 16 beats, rather than after every 4 beats, 1 vibhag (in this tala the 3rd one) is distinguished from the others, and is known as the khali, which means empty. When the tala is indicated by hand-claps, the 1st matra of each vibhag is marked by a clap, but the 1st matra of the khalivibhag (the 9th matra in Tintal) is marked by a wave, and, in notations, by a zero. The other 3 vibhags are marked on their 1st matra (the 1st, 5th and 13th of the cycle) by a clap, known as tali. The 1st beat of the cycle, in any tala, is crucial. It is known as the sam or sama, and it serves as the focal point of the cycle, where melodic and rhythmic improvisations resolve, although it is not necessarily marked by any special accent.
Other common talas in Hindustani music have cycles of 6, 7, 8, 10, 12, and 14 matras. Some, like Tintal, may be performed in any tempo (laya), and for both vocal and instrumental music, while others may be restricted to a particular tempo and musical genre. An important feature of a Hindustani tala in performance is the articulation of its basic pattern on the drums, in terms of their sounds. This is known as the theka, and it renders hand-claps, or any other way of marking the progress of the cycle, superfluous. The theka becomes easily recognizable to the listeners, and the difference between the tali and khali portions is audible through the presence or absence of the bass sounds of the drums. Thus the “emptiness” of the khali is conveyed by the lack of the strong bass resonances of which Indian drums are capable.
In Carnatic music, the subdivisions of the cycle are still shown in performances by claps, waves, and finger-counts, and the concept of theka does not apply. Carnatic talas are more diverse than those of Hindustani music, and the complexity of rhythmic organization and improvisation is probably unrivalled anywhere on Earth. Amid this greater variety of talas in Carnatic music, one has special prominence: the 8-beat Adi tala. It is marked by a clap on the 1st, 5th, and 7th beats, and belongs to the set of 35 Suladi talas, which is the most important in the galaxy of Carnatic rhythm systems. In concerts of both Hindustani and Carnatic music, the performers usually take turns to maintain the basic shape of the tala or to improvise complex rhythms against it. Common techniques include subdivisions of beats, and all manner of syncopations and cross-rhythms, while a particular favourite, which demands the utmost precision and virtuosity, is the threefold (or even three-times-threefold) repetition of a pattern, calculated to resolve on the 1st beat of the cycle.