Time theory in Vivekananda’s Concepts of Indian Classical Music

The notion of a particular time prescribed for ragas (gāna kāla) plays a greater role in Hindustani music than for exponents of its southern counterpart where sārvakālika ragas prevail: ragas suited to any day or night time. A few ragas nevertheless continue to be associated with the moods indicated by song lyrics (notably in dance and drama, temple processions and rituals). Think of invoking the power to bring and stop (!) rain associated with a popular Carnatic raga (which is by no means limited by the underlying associations).

As listening habits have changed in ways as profound as the manner music is being taught and performed we may take a prominent voice into account; one that few have associated with music over the past century: Swami Vivekananda who felt that “the suitability of Raga with time or season is not totally unfounded” while asserting that it “has nothing to do with chronological changes [but] change in the atmosphere and natural environment with time and season [that] ushers a change in one’s mood which is suited to the melody of a particular Rag”.

Vivekananda came to inquire into other spheres of modern life – with an open mind yet always critical as far as popular beliefs and trends are concerned: “Most importantly, he demonstrated how South Asian ideas and traditions could be given universal appeal but still retain their identity, rather than simply being assimilated.” – Lalita Kaplish in “Vivekananda’s journey: How a young Indian monk’s travels around the world inspired modern yoga”

In Carnatic music it is experience that stands central in an art closely linked to individual circumstances, tastes or regional conventions rather than dogma: in the words of renowned musicologist S. Seetha, “ragas assume different colours and shades of expression in their attempt to satisfy the musical needs and tastes of the people”. (Tanjore as a Seat of Music)

Noted musicologist V. Premalatha comes to the conclusion that as an “extra-musical factor”, association of time with rāga “survives very strongly in the North Indian system of music and has not affected the South Indian Music“.

Excerpt: “Association of Rasa and Kāla (time) with Rāga-s”

Outside drama, there were other situations when rāga was associated with kāla. These were the temple rituals and social functions. In a temple, the Āgamic texts prescribe rituals which had to be performed during different parts of the day. Invariably with every ritual, there was performance of music, in the form of singing or playing the Nāgasvara and for each part of the day, a particular rāga or some rāga-s were prescribed. In social functions like marriages too, specific rāga-s are prescribed to be played on the nāgasvara during early morning and other times of the day. […]

It is very important to note here that all these texts like Bṛhaddēśī and Saṅgītaratnākara specify that such and such a rāga should be used in such and such a rasa. The manner of specifying this has to be noted carefully. It is never mentioned that a rāga will evoke a particular rasa. It is always stated that in a particular rasa a particular rāga has to be employed. In other words the rasa is created primarily by sthāyibāva which is generated through vibhāva, anubhāva and sañcārībhāva-s. And with the rasa having been created, it is to be reinforced through the song or the rāga. Rāga, in this context, has to be understood more in the sense of a tune. Because today, rāga has the notion of a melodic basis or a melodic type, from which several tunes could be created. If a rāga is prescribed for a particular rasa today, then one could ask which tune based on it should be employed? As for instance, a rāga like kēdāragaula or mukhāri may have two or three tunes, and one may wonder, which one is to used. Hence it is presumed that in the context of drama rāga perhaps denoted a tune. And it has to be borne in mind that it is not the rāga or music that evoke the rasa, but other factors. […]

Thus the association of rāga with kāla had begun with drama, temple and social functions. When dissociated from such contexts, as for instance in art music, association of time with rāga, seems to be an extra-musical factor. […] This association still survives very strongly in the North Indian system of music and has not affected the South Indian Music.

Source: “Association of Rasa and Kāla (time) with Rāga-s” by Prof. V. Premalatha (Central University of Tamil Nadu, Thiruvarur)
URL: http://musicresearchlibrary.net/omeka/items/show/2287
Date Visited: 16 April 2024

Much to ponder on the basis of the present excerpt (see below)!

Tip: for today’s views on this subject among Carnatic scholars and performers search for “gana kala time theory” (go to the research page or in the text-cum-reference book compiled for this course).

*

Vivekananda (born January 12, 1863, Calcutta [now Kolkata]—died July 4, 1902, near Calcutta) Hindu spiritual leader and reformer >>

Note by Swami Prabhananda titled Original Publisher’s Submission dated 12 January 2000

Swami Vivekenanda’s illustrious life is like an open page, known to the world. One of the little known aspects of his life is his contribution in writing the musical Compilation “Sangeet Kalpataru“. He was just 24 years old when he had worked on this Compilation. He was not initiated to sainthood till then. He had collected 647 songs and written a long preface on the grammar of Indian music and on various musical instruments. He was known at that time as Narendranath Dutta. Many Vivekenanda research scholars had discussed this aspect of his life earlier.

Dr. Sarbananda Chowdhury, had collected valuable information and analysed the musical Compilation from different points of view in his article “Prashangeek Tathya O Alochona” (Relevant Information and Discussion). He had also emphasized the role of Narendra Nath Dutta and Baishnab Charan Basak in the Compilation and publication of the volume. He had also revealed the mystery behind how Swami Vivekananda’s name was eliminated as a compiler while the book was published edition after edition. He had made a logical evaluation of the historical importance of the book and its relevance in the world of music and thus earned the gratitude of one and all.

*

Narendranath Dutta (Swami Vivekananda) observes:

The Ragas where all seven notes are used are called Shampurna.

Those which use only six notes are called the Kharab. Those which use five notes are called the Orab.

Let us take the example of Bhairab. This Raga uses all the seven notes. We know from our knowledge of mathematics that the seven notes can be arranged in (7x6x5x4x3x2x1)=5040 combinations. There are different Tals as well. If 5040 combinations of notes are used in each combination of Tal then one person cannot possibly play all possible combinations of one Raga in his lifetime.

Ragas are considered the males and the Raginis the females. It is said that there are six Ragas and thirtysix Raginis. This concept is also not absolute, there are differences of opinion on this. Generally the following are considered the Ragas:

Bhairab, Sree, Malkosh, Basant, Megh and Nat Narayan. The scriptures had identified Ragas and Raginis to be suitably played at a particular time of the day or in a particular season. Ragas like Mallar sound very pleasing in the monsoon. In spring Bahar Basant sound very pleasant.

There are different opinions though. Some say one gets used to listening to a particular Raga in a particular season. That habit makes it suitable for that time. It has nothing to do with chronological changes. We think that the change in the atmosphere and natural environment with time and season ushers a change in one’s mood which is suited to the melody of a particular Raga. Hence the suitability of Raga with time or season is not totally unfounded.

Modern songs do not create such ambience because of a number of reasons. Firstly, the Ragas are not very correctly followed in the tune of modern songs. Secondly, the lyrics of some modern songs do not tally with the mood of the Ragas and Raginis in which the tune is made. For instance, Khambaj is a Ragini of erotic mood. If the lyrics of a song based on Khambaj is composed on pathos, it would result in a terrible mismatch. The song would evoke neither pathos nor eroticism.

The following are the names of different Ragas and Raginis which are sung or played at different hours of the day.

Morning – Bhairab, Lalita, Jogincha, Asha, Bibhas, Todi, Bhairabi, Alaiya, Bangali, Belabati etc.

Midday – Sarang, Gour-Sarang etc.

Afternoon – Multani, Bhimru, Palasree, Baroan, Pilu etc.

Sunset and Twilight – Sree, Purabi, Gouri, Purba etc.

Early night or Evening – Iman Kalyan, Kedar, Hambir, Bagesree, Kanara etc.

Late night – Bahar, Basant, Behag etc.

Source:

Swami Vivekananda’s Concepts Of Indian Classical Music translated by Paras Dutta (Kolkata: Naya Udyog 2008); Bengali title: Sangeet Kalpataru, pp. 14-15

How prehistoric societies were transformed by the sound of music

Amidst lively debates within and beyond India these perspectives on our shared legacy make interesting reading:

  • Vainika Savithri Rajan who believed that Tyagaraja, like other great men, was always meditating, but his medium of expression was nādam, “sound”.
  • In the introduction to his unfinished yet voluminous magnum opus Karunamirtha Sagaram, titled “The Dignity and Origin of music”, Abraham Pandither entices readers to embark on a virtual journey through time and space; a discovery of nature that for him would have gone hand in hand with musical evolution if not advanced civilization itself.
  • A summary of findings by archaeologists titled “How prehistoric societies were transformed by the sound of music”.

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A music for all: How Carnatic music unites and keeps spreading

by Ludwig Pesch

Carnatic music – the classical music of South India – unites people from a variety of social backgrounds. Over two hundred fifty million people now inhabit a region that comprises five modern states (Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Telangana) drawn up on the basis of their respective linguistic majorities. They take pride in regional cultural traditions and festivities in addition to those celebrated all over the country.1

So it hardly surprises that this music has long attracted creative minds from other regions of India; and since the mid-20th century western scholars and performers have marvelled at its capacity for connecting people by overcoming cultural, linguistic, political just as religious divides. Most importantly, all of this often happens in enjoyable, seemingly effortless ways even as “outsiders” have struggled to comprehend the underlying principles or the causes of political strife.2

Not so long ago each manifestation of Indian music was understood to be firmly rooted in a specific context, rarely if ever allowed to transcend “natural”, “sacred” or “social” barriers; in the words of Nazir Jairazbhoy:

Classical music is the most refined and sophisticated music to be found in the subcontinent of India. There are many other forms, however, which have a specific function in the society, and these are by no means devoid of artistic expression. The great diversity of music in India is a direct manifestation of the diversity and fragmentation of the population in terms of race, religion, language, and other aspects of culture. The process of acculturation, so accelerated in modern times, is still not a very significant factor in many areas of the country.3

Listen to a rendition of Intakannaanandam emi by Balamurali Krishna on Youtube >>
Image © Kutcherbuzz.com >>

Even if matters have changed considerably since the advent of the internet, the resilience of Carnatic music seems firmly rooted in local history and mythology just as in the lyrics of composers, or in the styles represented by performers and choreographers of national standing. At the same time, they often stand united by their yearning for “unity“: an identification with something greater than one’s “mortal self”.

As a case in point, we may consider the undiminished popularity of songs written by Sri Tyagaraja (1767-1847) expressing the conviction that “immersion in music” is a potent remedy against bigotry, hypocrisy, self-deception and vanity.4

In this regard it seems as if he anticipated the quest for truthfulness (Satyagraha)5 as expounded by Gandhi, to start with as precondition to peaceful advancement for all of humanity.

Learn more and listen to Savithri Rajan >>

According to Savithri Rajan, this goes beyond a personal fight against self-delusion or structural discrimination of (religious) minorities and instead, amounts to a lifelong quest for a sound understanding of “reality” (be it in utilitarian terms such as general welfare or personal fulfillment):

Savithri Rajan believes that Tyagaraja, like these other great men, was always meditating, but his medium of expression was nādam, “sound” – he was an aspirant who followed nādopāsana, the approach or worship by way of sound. She points out that Tyagaraja composed a song beginning with the word nādopāsana saying there is nothing higher than worship via sound, music is the best vehicle because Brahman is nādam – divine sound – which is the omnipresent, omniscient power, “call it Power with a capital ‘P’, call it God, call it Christ, call it Krsna, call it Rāma.”

“There is music of mind, of the senses and of the heart” – Mahatma Gandhi >>
Photo © Ludwig Pesch
Selected poems
Selected Poems: Subramania Bharati
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Needless to mention that several others have followed in the great composer’s footsteps in a variety of ways and for different reasons, even for causes like India’s independence from colonial rule at a time when this was a dangerous proposition.6 They emulated proven models from different epochs and regions including “folk” music, be it consciously or otherwise. Thanks to the widespread appeal of drama, and the emergence of film as soon as sound technology permitted, several Carnatic musicians and composers crossed into new domains beyond “classical” music (here understood as following, even transcending time proven conventions, local tastes and appreciated by generation after generation).

Such issues are readily addressed in practices akin to “mindfulness”, as one would now describe a remedy that’s freely available to all, young and young at heart. Some are compelled by an irrepressible moral compass that helps them to promote causes including social justice that leaves no room to “untouchability” and other forms of discrimination.

The infinite scope for creativity inherent in this tradition, including self-expression and – most relevant for modern societies the world over – lifelong learning, has ensured that Carnatic musicians has endured; and this even in the face of unprecedented pressures such as those currently debated by way of social media, book writing and commentaries in Indian press.

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Most interestingly some of these issues echo the ideals of India’s founding fathers just as those of their peers, as part of global peace and ecological movements (both inspired by Mahatma Gandhi);7 most notably so in the legacy Rabindranath Tagore bequeathed to many spheres of the arts and sciences that continues to reverberate in our time;8 and Maria Montessori,9 the great educationist he admired for insights that were to took roots in Indian music and dance, notably at Kalakshetra, an institution of national importance founded by Rukmini Devi.

It does not, therefore, come as a surprise that experiencing the beauty and depth of Carnatic music found its congenial expression in the newly emerging practice of an ancient form of dance, today regarded as an integral part of India’s cultural heritage; and accordingly referred to as Bharata Natyam when merging with India’s mainstream culture (from the first half of the 20th century onwards) rather than continuing as the heirloom of a particular “community”.10 As a result, all the strands are united as envisaged in distant antiquity, in the Natya Shastra, a treatise on drama or “total theatre”, ascribed to the legendary sage Bharata and further elucidated in several commentaries and other works on similar lines.11

In short, what should matter most to us today is an open invitation long extended by some of the most talented exponents of this music in and outside India: not merely to appreciate but actively participate in it – all this in a spirit of mutual respect in the face of outward differences, driven by our shared love for lifelong learning; some equally inclined towards critical inquiry (as suggested by many of its poet-composers throughout the ages). So without exaggeration this is all about a music whose exponents have long welcomed new discoveries. And in the meantime, even the “brilliant Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, who was himself deeply religious, clarified that bhakti is essential for a Carnatic music, but this bhakti is for music, not for any personal deity”.12

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  1. Since Independence, these states are known as Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Telangana; see Wikipedia:

    South India, also known as Peninsular India, consists of the peninsular southern part of India. It encompasses the Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Telangana, as well as the union territories of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Lakshadweep and Puducherry, comprising 19.31% of India’s area (635,780 km2 or 245,480 sq mi) and 20% of India’s population. Covering the southern part of the peninsular Deccan Plateau, South India is bounded by the Bay of Bengal in the east, the Arabian Sea in the west and the Indian Ocean in the south. The geography of the region is diverse with two mountain ranges – the Western and Eastern Ghats – bordering the plateau heartland. The Godavari, Krishna, Kaveri, Tungabhadra, Periyar, Bharathappuzha, Pamba, Thamirabarani, Palar, and Vaigai rivers are important perennial rivers.

    The majority of the people in South India speak at least one of the four major Dravidian languages: Telugu, Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam (all 4 of which are among the 6 Classical Languages of India). []

  2. Nobel Awardee Amartya Sen discusses some these issues in his ground-breaking book The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity, “suggesting the ways we must understand India today in the light of its rich, long argumentative tradition [while] appreciating not only the richness of India’s diversity but its need for toleration“. []
  3. “Tribal, Folk and Devotional Music” by Nazir Jairazbhoy in AL Basham (ed.). A Cultural History of India. London: Oxford University Press, 1975, pp. 234-237. Excerpt from Chapter XVI Music (pp. 212-242 []
  4. In Manasu svadhinamaina, Tyagaraja questions the meaning of penances (tapas) when control over one’s mind is all that really matters; and in Intakannaanandam emi he shares his experience of the sprawling universe that loses its diversity in the process of singing and dancing with abandon: “Can there be any Bliss greater than merging heart and soul?”

    Sri Tyagaraja’s search for a greater, universal meaning culminates in Paramatmudu by asserting that a Supreme Being is present “in all that’s made of sky, wind, fire, and water, in beasts and birds and hills and trees by the tens of millions, always in the lifeless and the lively”; an all-embracing – indeed humbling – view of the role human beings play in a larger scheme. Sources: The Spiritual Heritage of Tyagaraja translated by C. Ramanujachari with an Introductory Thesis by V. Raghavan (Madras: Sri Ramakrishna Math 1981), karnatik.com and William J. Jackson in Tyagaraja: Life and Lyrics. []

  5. “Satyagraha is literally holding on to Truth and it means, therefore, Truth-force. Truth is soul or spirit. It is, therefore, known as soul force. It excludes the use of violence because man is not capable of knowing the absolute truth and, therefore, not competent to punish. […] Non-cooperation, too, like Civil Disobedience is a branch of Satyagraha, which includes all non-violent resistance for the vindication of Truth.” – Mohandas K. Gandhi in Young India, 23 March 1921; p. 90 []
  6. Most notably, the lyrics of Subramania Bharati come to mind in the context of South Indian musicians eager to express their love of freedom; an ideal that cannot be realized in the absence of solidarity with those yet to benefit from proper education and health care, the basic preconditions for becoming free citizens of a modern country: “If the younger brother is frail, will the elder enslave him? Will the might of money and muscle frighten us into becoming slaves? Beat the drum! Let it be known that in love lies our deliverance.” Beat the drum translated by Usha Rajagopalan in Selected Poems: Subramania Bharati, Everyman/Hachette 2012, p. 51. []
  7. “It is Gandhi’s profound religious belief and sensibility that made him resolutely secular; his secularism, and his worldly obligations, each of which was but an attempt to strive for self-realization, deepened his religious belief. His veneration for other faiths made him more, not less, of a Hindu. The advocates of a militant and muscular Hindu nationalism are in this matter entirely clueless—scarcely surprising given their ferocious disdain for self-reflexivity or anything that may remotely be called thought.” – Prof. Vinay Lal in Gandhi’s Secularism in the Age of Muscular Hinduism” []
  8. including his “zealous devotion to the ideal of a casteless world, a world without cruel, irrational discrimination between one human being and his fellow men” according to the Director-General of Unesco on the occasion of the Tagore Centenary celebrations in 1961 []
  9. “We also see her strong commitment to bringing progress and fighting illiteracy in India, which grew into an enduring love for the country and its people. Montessori’s colourful descriptions of her journey and life in India, her worries about her grandchildren in war-torn Europe, and her son’s imprisonment make a fascinating read.” – Maria Montessori Writes to Her Grandchildren published by Association Montessori Internationale Montessori (Amsterdam: 2021 []
  10. “If dance and music were so integral to the system that so oppressed a woman, they must be halted too, so that new art could emerge.” – “The Devadasi Question” by V.R. Devika in Muthulakshmi Reddy – A Trailblazer in Surgery and Women’s Rights []
  11. Search for the writings of Tanjore Balasaraswathi, Kapila Vatsyayan and Ananda Coomaraswamy for different perspectives, in addition to those of Rukmini Devi and Muthulakshmi Reddy; and academic papers authored/edited by Davesh Soneji. []
  12. Lakshmi Sreeram in “Carnatic Music Ruminating the Landscape”, Indian Horizons published by The Indian Council for Cultural Relations; it is worth mentioning here that the most prominent musician-activist of our time, TM Krishna, has gratefully acknowledged his indebtedness to “Semmangudi” in interviews. []

Visualising ragas from many places and even future ones “for the benefit of the people”

Venkatamakhi while justifying the derivation of 72 melakartas by permutation and combination interestingly remarks that countries are many with people having variety of tastes and it is to please them ragas have been invented by musicians. Some are already known while some are in the process of being brought to life, while some may be invented in future, while those surviving only in treatises and the ragas not known at all during their time may be brought to life in future, for the benefit of the people.

Therefore his mela arrangement “is intended to visualise all the desi (regional) ragas which differ from place to place, from people to people and which according to the suitability of the voices, must be utilised for practical purposes.”

Table © Ludwig Pesch for
The Oxford Illustrated Companion to South Indian Classical Music >>

As a result, “the melakarta assumes a real scientific meaning during Govindacarya’s time […] and help in the preservation of the identify of many a janya [derived raga]. […]  The ragas assume different colours and shades of expression in their attempt to satisfy the musical needs and tastes of the people. But the 72 melakartas are perhaps ever the same in structure and remain as the material forever out of which the thing of beauty – the raga – is made. […]  Whether the janya is the one derived from the melakarta or vice versa, the existing janaka-janya system of raga classification enhances the paramount importance of the 72 melas as technical facts defining the janyas under them”.

Govindacarya and the present Kanakāngi-Ratnāngi nomenclature

Since Venkatamakhi proposed his original mela arrangement, “varali ma” became known as “prati ma” since the late 18th c. when a scholar known as Govindacarya wrote his treatise, the Sangrahacūdamani

Govindacarya also had good reasons for giving the 72 melas individual names within the famous list, the Kanakāngi-Ratnāngi nomenclature: it helps musicians and listeners “ascertaining the mela and the kinds of notes taken both in the purvānga [Sa-Ri-Ga-Ma] and uttarānga [Pa-Dha-Ni-’Sa]”. 

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As a result, “the melakarta assumes a real scientific meaning during Govindacarya’s time […] and help in the preservation of the identify of many a janya [derived raga]. […] 

The ragas assume different colours and shades of expression in their attempt to satisfy the musical needs and tastes of the people. But the 72 melakartas are perhaps ever the same in structure and remain as the material forever out of which the thing of beauty – the raga – is made. […] 

Whether the janya is the one derived from the melakarta or vice versa, the existing janaka-janya system of raga classification enhances the paramount importance of the 72 melas as technical facts defining the janyas under them”.

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For details, also refer to the Oxford Illustrated Companion to South Indian Classical Music

  • Glossary-cum-index
  • In the following section(s)

What’s the difference between Hindustani and Carnatic music?

At first, this question seems easy to answer: just watch performers from either strand of Indian music and you’ll know Which is Which, merely going by the instruments in use, or how they dress and watching the body language involved: harmonium or sarangi vs. violin for melodic accompaniment for most vocal recitals, and tabla drums rather than a double-faced mridangam.

M.S. Subbulakshmi © Dhvani Ohio
“Even at the peak of her career M.S.Subbulakshmi continued to learn from other musicians”
R.K. Shriram Kumar >>
Young Maestros 2018 © Sangeet Research Academy >>

Even in the absence of other clues, experienced listeners know what distinguishes one concert item from another, in order to immerse themselves in that which endows “classically trained” musicians across South Asia with a deeply felt sense of unity: raga, aptly defined as a “tonal framework for composition and improvisation” by Joep Bor in The Raga Guide.

What binds Hindustani and Carnatic music lovers together is the experience of raga which, given its roots (lit. colour, beauty, pleasure, passion), denotes a cultural phenomenon rather than just a particular combination of notes. This means that raga-based music is more widely shared than one would expect in the modern world due to its capacity to transcend linguistic boundaries. In short, both strands of Indian music, Hindustani and Carnatic music, have absorbed a wide range of regional traditions throughout history. At the same time, “raga music” continues to serve as a vehicle for meaningful lyrics in any conceivable genre in addition to “classical” or “devotional” music. Even when rendered by an instrumentalist or sung without lyrics (as customarily done within both Hindustani and Carnatic recitals) each raga constitutes “a dynamic musical entity with a unique form, embodying a unique musical idea”. […] As regards Hindustani ragas, they “are known to musicians primarily through traditional compositions in genres such as dhrupad, dhamar, kyal, tappa, tarana and thumri. Good compositions possess a grandeur that unmistakably unveil the distinctive features and beauty of the raga as the composer conceived it.” (Joep Bor).

The Carnatic Trinity hailing from Tiruvarur (Tamil Nadu, 18th-19th c.):
the composers most revered and performed by Carnatic musicians
Muttusvami Dikshitar
Sri Tyagaraja
Syama Sastri

Painting by S. Rajam © Sruti Magazine >>
Composers on DhvaniOhio >>

A comparable range of genres is available to Carnatic musicians, including varnam, kirtana, kriti, ragam-tanam-pallavi, padam, javali, tillana with a notable difference: since the 16th century, Carnatic compositions take up more time in order to render the lyrics faithfully, as intended by their composers and jealously guarded by teachers, discerning listeners and critics alike.

It is hard to imagine how such ideas would have worked before the advent of the tambura or tanpura – another feature of Indian music which may explain why older scales and theories have fallen into oblivion ever since – in spite of frequent mentions in text books.

But it’s harder to explain the musical differences in plain language while listening attentively as their respective performances unfold: differences begin to multiply, mostly in ways too subtle for words. Such differences call for probing into the depths of Indian “classical” music in the sense of a particular branch of music that is governed by clearly defined rules as well as unwritten conventions valued by professionals and connoisseurs.

For Indian listeners, such distinctions are mostly associated with a particular region, like the northern Hindustani and southern Carnatic music even if deceptive when it comes to the birth places of noted Hindustani exponents: many famous musicians were born or trained in Bengal in the east, and Dharwad in the south, also known as “Hindustani music’s southern home“. Being associated with a famous regional tradition or lineage is mentioned in most programme notes, like the vocal gharana known as the “Dharwad Gharana” or “Gwalior Gharana” in Hindustani music; and likewise, southern musicians pride themselves for having learned their arts within a bani (“family tradition”) designated by a particular town, for instance Tanjavur (vocal), Lalgudi (violin) and Karaikudi (vina or veena).

Then there are the preferred languages used in song lyrics in the case of vocal music; and certain rhythmic patterns local listeners would instantly feel familiar with or, conversely, associate with “novelty” when first employed beyond their place of origin. The latter is eagerly anticipated toward the end of a recital. In the opening and main parts of a recital, the most obvious differences between Hindustani and Carnatic music include the following traits:

  1. Hindustani musicians prefer “accelerating” almost imperceptibly – from slow to fast tempo – during an alap (raga alapana, the melodic improvisation preceding a composed theme); this preference entails presenting fewer items compared to their Carnatic peers;
  2. many (though not all) adhere to the convention of associating rāgas with a specific time of the day, or a particular season ;1
  3. by contrast, a typical Carnatic or Karnatak concert opens with two or three items in a brisk tempo, including sections in “double tempo”, before elaborating a particular raga in a slow-to-fast format akin to the Hindustani format known as “imagination” (khyal or khayal) traceable to 18th c. court music;
  4. Carnatic recitals are enriched by arithmetic elements derived from the repertoires of temple and dance musicians, and coordinated by visible gestures (something listeners love to emulate for the sake of self-immersion or as a sign of appreciation); and not surprisingly, rhythmic intricacies were successfully adopted and refined as part of Hindustani tihai patterns, most successfully by Ravi Shankar in the course of collaborations with southern instrumentalists (duly acknowledged in Raga Mala: The Autobiography of Ravi Shankar); be it for his solo sitar recitals or novel, mostly temporary jugalbandi ensembles like the one documented on video: recorded in 1974 at the Royal Albert Hall in London: “As far back as 1945, I was absorbing the essence of these from the fixed calculative systems of the Carnatic system.” (To understand their application, watch a tarana on YouTube repeatedly, starting from 3:27) Unsurprisingly this process of give-and-take, once proven successful, has become too common to bother crediting it to any particular source, other than declaring it a “shared heritage” cherished by musicians and audiences all over the world: Unity in Diversity at its very best!

To appreciate some of the aforementioned characteristics in the context of South Indian music, listen to recitals by two of its most beloved exponents:

From the above mentioned differences follows the most important one, namely the amount of time assigned to compositions based on elaborate lyrics: the concise bandish in a Hindustani recital vs. the tripartite kriti several of which occupy pride of place in Carnatic music.

The standard syllabus for South Indian “classical” music is ascribed to 16th c. composer Purandara Dasa of Vijayanagar (modern Hampi in northern Karnataka as indicated on the music map seen below). His method proved so efficient as to provide a common ground for aspiring singers or instrumentalists from many regions and linguistic backgrounds. This may explain how such music invites the convergence of several voices or instruments into one (unison): a soloist accompanied by violin just as two vocalists (popular duos known as “Brothers” and “Sisters”), or pairs of flutes, lutes (vina) and violinists, all capable of achieving perfect alignment at any given moment during a recital; and this not merely for evenly paced motifs but with equal ease in richly embellished passages. For good measure, such feats require neither notation nor lengthy rehearsals but instead combine musical memory with considerable freedom to enrich predictable patterns with one’s own flights of imagination.

As regards inevitable specialization such as a particular vocal or instrumental style, required for mastering certain melodic and rhythmic intricacies and compositions, there is an infinite variety to delve into: variety that explains the evolution of two great music “systems” that kept evolving and intersecting ever since musicologists became obsessed with classifying and validating certain features in the 19th and 20th centuries.

For non-Indian music lovers and students, Yehudi Menuhin’s reminiscences titled “Unfinished Journey” may be a good starting point: the violin virtuoso was among the first to appreciate fact that “Indian musicians are sensitive to the smallest microtonal deviations, subdivisions of tones which the violin can find but which are outside the crude simplifications of the piano (or harmonium)”. His interest in Indian violin music motivated Menuhin to invite the South Indian violin virtuoso Lalgudi Jayaraman to tour the UK and participate in the 1965 Edinburgh music festival.

For a better understanding of what Yehudi Menuhin meant by “smallest microtonal deviations”, listen to the very first composition most learners of Carnatic music have learned – a gitam (didactic song) by Purandara Dasa – in: A brief introduction to Carnatic music >>

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“The classical music of the West has influenced
our musical culture” – Manohar Parnerkar in
Sruti Magazine August 2019 >>

Since then, musicians from various backgrounds have never ceased to contribute to an unprecedented intercultural dialogue: exponents of western classical, ecclesiastical and minimal music just as jazz, pop and film music, all set to explore new horizons together with their Indian peers.

Tips

  1. to explore the above topics on your own, refer the Indian sources recommended here >>
  2. in order to get a clear idea what this means in practice, listen closely to audio and video contents featuring two prominent families of violinists whose roots lie in South India: one known as the Parur bani (brothers M.S. Gopalakrishnan & M.S. Anantharaman), and the other brought into prominence by N. Rajam (Hindustani violin) and her brother T.N. Krishnan (Carnatic violin)

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Michael Zarky (Tuning Meister) for providing valuable tips and corrections for this post and previous Carnaticstudent courses including those offered in conjunction with university eLearning programmes.

More about the above person(s) and topics

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“There is music of mind, of the senses and of the heart” – Mahatma Gandhi >>
Photo © Ludwig Pesch

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  1. Noted musicologist V. Premalatha comes to the conclusion that as an “extra-musical factor”, association of time with rāga “survives very strongly in the North Indian system of music and has not affected the South Indian Music“. []