Raga, Tala and Pedagogy: On the First Steps in Carnatic Music

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Raga, Tala and Pedagogy: On the First Steps in Carnatic Music by Jeremy Woodruff

The system by which any music is taught is the key to what is preserved, and how, in a musical tradition. I chose to research the basics of instruction in South India,both as an entry point for some practical knowledge on the South Indian flute, and as away of examining basic tenets of karnatic music. Using advanced knowledge of a foreign music without having prior knowledge of its basic pedagogy is a bit like attempting to build a chair without a seat for one’s backside. Only by studying the basic assumptions of the music, may we identify what techniques are useful to us, or not, because only then we carefully consider for what they were originally intended. […]

All melodic instrumental training in karnatic music is focused on reproducing subtleties of vocal performance. As imitating singers was the main way that instrumentalists from the time of ‘the Trinity’ updated, preserved and greatly enriched what is now known as karnatic music, it is natural that it is considered the greatest means to accomplishment in instrumental training. Where schools mainly disagree is on how (and how far) these vocal subtleties should be imitated. […]

Gitas are the first pieces to be learned after the rigorous basic exercises outlined above. The Gita, ‘Sri Gananatha’ is the first of these Gitas to be learned by any student. Maybe it is the ‘Für Elise,’ or ‘Minuet in G’ by Bach of karnatic music. It is therefore a special case, but it can still serve well as a concrete demonstration of how gamakas of a single raga, on a single song can differ radically from teacher to teacher. The gita is given in fig 2.1 in Indian notation.

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Read the full paper A Western composer’s view of early music education in Carnatic music on Academia.edu >>

Video | Flute recital by JA Jayant

The Music Academy Madras presents it’s HCL Concert 2021 featuring

JA Jayant – Flute
L Ramakrishnan – Violin
K Sai Giridhar – Mridangam
Dr. S Karthick – Ghatam

More flute music performed by his grandfather and guru, TS Sankaran, and by JA Jayant >>

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Gudu Gudu for “Happy days ahead”: Carnatic music at its innovative best – KaraikudiVoyage

Gudu Gudu makes wonderful listening, time and again. A rendition by Sreevidhya Chandramouli along with her husband and son as part of their ongoing KaraikudiVoyage.

This song encapsulates the healing power of music waiting to be brought into practice on a more regular base for being rooted in tradition at its very best.

Tips: 1. Search inside this file by first clicking on the (…) Ellipses icon; 2. click eBook title to access [ ] Toggle fullscreen; 3. to Read this book aloud, use the headphone icon.

Translation on Archive.org

  1. NEW FORTUNE TELLER (PUDIYA KONANGI)*
    by Mahakavi Bharati

    Gudu gudu gudu gudu gudu gudu gudu gudu
    Happy days ahead for the people!
    Caste feelings are no more.
    No more are there any conflicts.
    Shakti ! Maha Kali! Speak up.
    Predict good times for the people of Vedapura !

    Poverty is gone.
    Prosperity is in.
    Knowledge is ushered in.
    Sins have vanished in the thin air.
    If the educated try to deceive
    the simple men, they will be ruined in no time.

    Commerce and industry are being learnt.
    Workers flourish.
    Shastras and skills are being learnt.
    Fear is gone. Justice prevails.
    The hour of awakening is come.
    The magic of incantations is working all around us.

Source: Full text of “Poems Subramania Bharati” (National Council of Educational Research and Training, 1982), pp. 147-151 in the text version provided by Archive.org; and from p. 160 in the embedded version displayed above.

* The fortune teller is traditionally depicted as shaking a small hourglass-shaped drum called kudukuduppai in Tamil, and as damaru across India. Two beads attached to it by strings produce the characteristic rattling “kudu kudu” sound evoked in this poem as harbinger of a bright future for all.

Carnatic Singer Manickam Yogeswaran
playing the kudukuduppai (damaru) during a family workshop
at Museum Rietberg (Zurich) in 2008

More about the poet Subramanya Bhaaratiyaar (1882-1921)

Bharati was determined to abolish the caste system in India. He selected an untouchable boy, to prove his principle of “equality” to the society.

Learn more from the Annotated Biography (with a National Historical Background) published by his granddaughter Dr. S. Vijaya Bharati >>

When Bharati’s vision as a poet went to work upon the sober knowledge of national and world affairs derived from his journalistic labors, the result was compelling political poetry of a kind that is rarely found in twentieth-century literature – with, fittingly enough, Russian literature being a notable exception.

Mira T. Sundara Rajan in “Subramania Bharati — The Eternal Revolutionary” (The Hindu, 12 September 2017)
https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/subramania-bharati-the-eternal-revolutionary/article19670435.ece
(The author is a great-granddaughter of Mahakavi Bharati. She holds a DPhil from Oxford University, where her research involved the study of Russian law and history. A wealth of information about the poet may be found on his granddaughter’s blog, https://subramaniabharati.com)

Subramanya Bharathiyar is a renowned poet from Southern India. … His poetry is known for its appeal to the liberty and strength of the people. … His national integration songs earned him the title “DEsiya Kavi” (National Poet). He composed Tamil keertanais on love, devotion, fearlessness, mysticism. | Learn more on karnatik.com >>

For background information on places like Karaikudi, Ettayapuram (the poet’s birthplace) and Chennai (where he died), explore the musical map created for this course. | Tips for using the interactive Carnaticstudent-map >>

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“My music is an extension of my tambura” – Bombay Jayashri

“Tambura is my constant companion – a bridge to my past, keeping the memories of my childhood alive.” – Bombay Jayashri >>
Learn more about the tambura (tanpura) >>

Can digital alternatives substitute the original symbol of sruti?
by Aruna Chandaraju in The Hindu, 29 March 2018 >>

Classical musicians have many concerns. A major one is having a perfectly tuned tambura — when practising and performing. Naturally. The tambura aka tanpura, is the keeper of the pitch. It is the guardian of the right note. The tambura is the drone instrument which keeps the sruti. And sruti is the mother of music. […]

This writer has often wondered why the tambura player’s name is not regularly mentioned in concert invitations along with that of the other accompanying artistes. Maybe, sabhas, organisers and artistes should think on these lines.

Teachers and performers consider playing the traditional tambura early in the morning both calming and even therapeutic and must be part of a student’s training. Pantula Rama believes that a musician’s personal tambura is invaluable and irreplaceable as it comes to life during the long years of sadhana. “Musicians should maintain old tamburas — either their own or inherited — as an extension of the body itself. Sabhas should maintain tamburas of different srutis, make it a point to have traditional tambura for each concert, and have a panel of music students and artistes well trained in this art,” she says and adds that good remuneration and respect on a par with other accompanists will encourage tambura players. […]

Is it time to start tambura academies? Or at least special certificate course only on tambura tuning? Or should tambura artistes have an association of their own to ensure good remuneration?

Radha Bhaskar has some good news: “We, at Mudhra, are thinking of organising a workshop on tambura tuning and playing. Madurai G.S. Mani has offered to conduct it,” she says.

Ravikiran says that AIR should restore the importance of a separate category for the tambura player.

The number of music festivals at various government and private academic institutions has grown over the years. Students of these institutions should be compulsorily trained in this art and encouraged to provide tambura accompaniment. It would give them a great opportunity to be with senior artistes and also provide valuable stage experience too.

Bridge to the past

For Bombay Jayashri, it is a unique relationship with the tambura. Her association goes back to her childhood. “The house would be filled with Omkara naadam as my father sat with his tambura in perfect sruti alignment. That left a deep impression in my mind. My grandfather and mother were also tambura lovers,” says Jayashri, who even wrote a poem, ‘Tambura My Sakhi.’

Naturally, it led to a collection of her favourite instrument — Miraj, Thanjavur, Trivandrum… she has them all. “I buy them in pairs,” she laughs. […]

Jayashri believes that it is the tambura, which inspires the musical phrases when she sings. “As I hold it close to my ear, I find myself completely cut off from the world. The raga draws me in. May be I’m imagining it but my music is an extension of my tambura.” Jayashri has names for her collection. “They are so close to my heart, I thought it was rude to identify them as the light brown, dark brown, white cedar, etc. So they have names — Mithra, Kamakshi, Kathyayini and so on.”

Does she not find them unwieldy especially when travelling?

“They are delicate. So I don’t carry the antique ones. I have compact ones, which I can carry as hand luggage. But I would never travel without one,” she explains. “Tambura is my constant companion – a bridge to my past, keeping the memories of my childhood alive.”

As performers-cum-teachers, we should practise with the traditional tambura and teach music with the same to the students.

Malladi Brothers quoted by Aruna Chandaraju in The Hindu >>
Learn more about the tambura (tanpura) >>

Therapeutic effect

By Rama. Kausalya in The Hindu, 29 March 2018 >>

The Tambura is considered a queen amongst the Suri vadhyas such as Ektar, Dotar, Tuntina, Ottu and Donai. Although tamburas are traditionally made at certain places, the Thanjavur Tambura has a special charm, which makes it a favourite. They are beautifully ornamented like the Thanjavur Veena. Veena Asaris are the Tambura makers too but not all are experts the reason being it requires a special skill to make the convex ‘Meppalagai’ or the plate covering the ‘Kudam’ or ‘Paanai.’ The making and fixing of the Meppalagai must be done with utmost care.

There are two ways of holding a Tambura. One is the “Urdhva” — upright posture, as in in concerts. Placing the Tambura on the right thigh is the general practice. The other is to place it on the floor in front of the person who is strumming it. While practising or singing casually, it can be placed horizontally on the lap, the Kudam on the right side.

The middle finger and index finger are used to strum the Tambura. Of the four strings, the ‘Panchamam,’ which is at the farther end is plucked by the middle finger followed by the successive plucking of ‘Sārani’, ‘Anusārani’ and ‘Mandara’ strings one after the other by the index finger. This exercise is repeated in a loop resulting in the sruti resonating entirely and creating a wholesome musical atmosphere. Playing the Tambura also needs special skill since the plucking should give a sustained sruti guide to the main performer.

The Tambura which gives the sa-pa-sa Sruti notes is pure therapy to the mind and soul. Sit in a quiet place with eyes closed and listen to the notes of a perfectly tuned Tambura — the effect is therapeutic.

Tambura makers rarely get orders. If they did, the preference is for instruments 50 years old since the wood used then was well seasoned and of great quality.

Except a few, the current generation is for electronic sruti accompaniment, including Bluetooth. Portability is the obvious reason for the choice. Besides few music students are taught to tune and play the tambura. Beyond all this what seems to swing the vote is that the electronic sruti equipment with its heavy tonal quality can cover up when the sruti goes astray.

During the middle of the last century, Miraj Tamburas (next only to the vintage Thanajvur) were a rage amongst music students, who were captivated by its tonal quality with high precision and the beautiful, natural gourd resonators.

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Video | Layavinyasam by T.R. Sundaresan and ensemble – Navarasa Navarthri

Doordarshan television 07/10/2019
T.R. Sundaresan Mridangam & Konnakkol, M.A. Sundareswaran Violin, Papanasam Sethuraman Kanjira, Trichy Murali Ghatam, A.S. Krishnan Morsing, Rama Sundareswaran Tampura.

YouTube channels & more

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“Sampradaya is like a broad river and the bani is a tributary”: Umayalpuram Sivaraman on his 75 years of performance >>

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Flute TS Sankaran – Kalakshetra 1988

  • 1. 0:0:00 kAmbhOdi aTa tALa varNam
  • 2. 0:11:11 gajAnanayutam – chkravAkam
  • 3. 0:20:16 sogasu jUDa – kannaDagowLam
  • 4. 0:26:50 nenaruncarA nApaini – simha vAhini
  • 5. 0:34:15 cinna nADE – kalAnidhi
  • 6. 0:45:35 rAgam + manasu swAdhInamaina – shankarAbharaNam
  • 7. 1:20:22 rAgam+ meevalla – kApi
  • 8. 1:35:38 rAgam + parama pAvana rAma – pUrvikalyANi + thani 9. 2:38:34 mariyAda telikanE – suraTi jAvaLi
  • 10. mangaLam

Vidwan TS Sankaran was Flute Mali’s favorite and most trusted disciple. Apart from imbibing many of his guru’s techniques, he has created several of his own. His music also sometimes reflects his passion for the other great genius piper of the 20th century, TN Rajaratnam Pillai, who hails from the same village as Shri Sankaran. His legacy, and that of his guru Mali, is fortunately being continued through his grandson, Flute Jayanth.

Live recording made on 31 December 1988 – shared by Ludwig Pesch under Creative Commons

TS Sankaran – biographical entry in Garland Vol. II by N. Rajagopalan
(Chennai 1992), p.264

Audio tip | JA Jayanth’s grandfather and guru TS Sankaran live at Kalakshetra >>

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“Drinking the ever tasteful essence of raaga, why don’t you rejoice, O mind!” – Tyagaraja’s Ragasudharasa rendered by Flute Jayanth

Yet another proof and a delightful one (if any were needed), that
“Music is the purest form of art, and therefore the most direct expression of beauty, with a form and spirit which is one, and simple, and least encumbered with anything extraneous. … No one of its notes is final, yet each reflects the infinite.” – Rabindranath Tagore (Sadhana, the Realisation of Life)

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Audio tip | JA Jayanth’s grandfather and guru TS Sankaran live at Kalakshetra >>

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“Sampradaya is like a broad river and the bani is a tributary”: Umayalpuram Sivaraman on his 75 years of performance >>

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Video | Carnatic Wave: A journey into the Karaikudi tradition


Carnatic Wave is an aural journey into the Karaikudi Veena tradition, a centuries old practice of Southern Indian classical music being carried on by a group of musicians in Portland, Oregon. This short documentary offers a glimpse into their world of Carnatic music, highlighting the importance and challenge of teaching traditional art forms in our modern society. – Documentary maker David Van Auken

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“Sampradaya is like a broad river and the bani is a tributary”: Umayalpuram Sivaraman on his 75 years of performance >>

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Video | Layavinyasam by TR Sundaresan: Mridangam & Konakkol

More about TR Sundaresan >>

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Audio | What Makes Indian Music Unique – Kennedy Center Education

To listen to the educational resources shown below, click here >>

Source: Music of India, An exploration of Indian music
URL: https://www.kennedy-center.org/education/resources-for-educators/classroom-resources/media-and-interactives/media/international/music-of-india/
Date visited: 2 August 2021

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“Sampradaya is like a broad river and the bani is a tributary”: Umayalpuram Sivaraman on his 75 years of performance >>

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