One of the debated topics in Carnatic music is the deviation by musicians from the so-called ‘original’ pathantaram of kriti-s. This article is not an attempt to provide a conclusive answer to end the debate but a constructive provocation and an invitation for opening up the topic for a wider debate. […]
While in matters of art and aesthetics no rule can be imposed on either the artists or their audiences, some relevant considerations in the matter appear to be: Is there incontrovertible proof in all such cases that the ‘versions’—which includes the raga, its arohanaavarohana, mela and musical phrasing—touted as the original or authentic are really the versions composed by their authors? In the case of modern composers there may not be any problem because most of them write them down in notation which, in spite of the inherent limitations of any notation to capture all the nuances of Carnatic music, provides at least a defence against wholesale distortion. In the case of composers who lived during an earlier era of entirely oral transmission of music, there would be real difficulty in ascertaining the authenticity beyond doubt. […]
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.
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).
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:
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;
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;
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 Hindustanitihai 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 >>
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.
to explore the above topics on your own, refer the Indian sources recommended here >>
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 Parurbani (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)
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.
The four strings of the tambura that provide sruthi or the basic swara (pitch) for musicians are considered the life force for any melodic exercise. Fixed in jack wood to enhance the naada, yesteryear musicians were stuck to this pitch provider because there were no alternatives. […]
While many are comfortable with the electronic gadget while practising, how does it feel to have an object there on the concert stage, bereft of human touch, minus the aesthetics of the real thing?
“The digital tamburas are handy for travel, but only a compromise. It’s like decaffeinated coffee,” says vocalist Aruna Sairam.
“Digital versions are comfortable to use, but only a tambura can bring in a tranquil aura.”
“We use both to get an effect. If it is only the tambura, sometimes we don’t hear the strings resonating as an open-air ambience often drowns it, thanks to decibel levels. So a good tambura along with a digital one can strike a good balance,” says Sriram Prasad of Malladi Brothers.
Doyen R.K. Srikantan says: “We were used to visualising a stage only with the traditional tambura both for aesthetics and aural synchrony. There is an art to playing the tambura, we were told, not just wielding one. But we get dependent on those who have to play it for hours. Technology assists us to meet urban demands.” […]
Even so, visually there is something elevating about a beautifully carved tambura, with its mesmeric resonance, being plucked in perfect timing by a resplendently turned out artiste.
And if it is the main artiste who is handing the tambura, nothing matches the picture of his or her face resting against the magnificent tambura, lost in sadhana. Bits and bytes can’t beat such chemistry.
The period 1750-1850 was a golden era in world music, when some of the greatest musician-composers lived and enriched the field. In Europe, Beethoven, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schumann and others lived during this period and created the symphony repertoire. It is a significant coincidence that the Carnatic Music trinity—Tyagaraja (1767-1847), Muthuswami Dikshitar (1776-1835) and Syama Sastry (1762-1827)—lived in a single area in Tanjore District during the same period. As a tribute to Tyagaraja as we celebrate his 250th birth anniversary, we explore Tyagaraja’s compositions, his contribution to Carnatic music, his lyrics from the point of view of literature, prosody and poetics, his creation and craftsmanship of ragas and his devotion to Rama.
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 >>
Review by Vinay Lal (Professor of History & Asian American Studies, UCLA) in Canadian Journal of History: A Storm of Songs: India and the Idea of the Bhakti Movement by John Stratton Hawley: “The idea of a ‘‘bhakti movement’’ has long been one of the largely unexamined verities that have played a critical role in the idea of Indian civilization and, more speciﬁcally, the notion of a composite culture. Bhakti is usually rendered as ‘‘devotion,’’ and in the generally accepted narrative encountered in Indian histories and popular Indian opinion alike, a devotional movement originating in the Tamil country in the eighth century gradually made its way north and eventually engulfed the entire country. […] The fundamental achievement of John Stratton Hawley’s A Storm of Songs is to probe how the idea of a ‘‘bhakti movement’’ came about and what Indian scholars, inspired by nationalism, might have contributed in giving rise to a canonical narrative about bhakti’s place in shaping an Indian sensibility. […] Hawley has succeeded in gifting us an exceptional study of India’s much lauded bhakti movement.” – Read the full review on this author’s blog or here: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/315532465
“In this comprehensive book, Hawley traces the 20th-century history of the notion of the bhakti movement the idea that there was a significant, unified, pan-Indic turn to devotional religiosity in medieval India. The author argues that the invention and promotion of this idea was a key aspect of nation building in that it offered a narrative of Hindu unity despite the vast and disparate set of religious processes ranging over different vernacular languages, regions, and time periods.” – Learn more or find a copy in a library near you: http://www.worldcat.org/title/storm-of-songs-india-and-the-idea-of-the-bhakti-movement/oclc/893099156
To sing just with the tanpura has been revealing: TM Krishna
M Suganth | Times of India | Nov 27, 2014 | To read the full article, click here >>
They had collaborated earlier for Margazhi Raagam, which was a first-of-its-kind Carnatic concert film and now, singer TM Krishna and filmmaker Jayendra have come together for One, a film that they say will be a peep into a musician going through the process of creativity. The two reveal how the project came to be, the challenges they faced and what it means to the viewer. […]
TM Krishna: To be able to sing just with the tanpura is the most revealing thing for me as a singer. It is the most beautiful way to discover music without becoming dependent on the pakkavadhyam or the mic. There is nothing to protect you. It was a very emotional and intimate experience for me. That depth of my experience is revealed in the film. […]
Perfect alignment to pitch, intellectualism and bhava make for great music
Widely varying styles have an equal place under the Carnatic umbrella. Is it at all possible to define a single aesthetic for a genre that ranges from the thrilling and electrifying rhythms of a Trichy Sankaran accompanying the late Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer singing the Tyagaraja masterpiece Dinamanivamsha, to the subtle rendering of a padam by the late T. Brinda? Such contrasts, though they do exist in a genre like Hindustani music, are always less stark. […]
One common aspect of such artistes who were perceived as highly aesthetic in the earlier days of amplification is the scrupulous attention they paid to shruti shuddham or toaligning themselves perfectly to pitch. Arguably, such scrupulous attention to pitch alignmentmay well have had the effect of mitigating the jarring impact of imperfect amplification. Even where there’s a great struggle to maintain shruti shuddham, an exquisite secret leaps out of old recordings of ageing masters who had lost control of their voices. That secret is the pride of place they accorded the tambura and its overall audibility. The aesthetically pleasing aura created by a sonorous and meticulously tuned tambura has a way of gently embracing a singer’s shruti lapses and folding it into the overall sound. Unfortunately, the exact opposite is feared and hence a tendency to relegate the tambura, whether a real one or electronic, to de facto inaudibility for the audience. This only exacerbates the listener’s perception of a lack of shruti shuddham.
Art, as it is normally understood, is first and foremost sensual and emotional before anything else, but Carnatic music has always been seduced by the intellect, resulting in anything from a mild flirtation to a torrid affair. The intellectual, even in musical contexts, need not be disdained but it certainly challenges conventionally held notions of aesthetics. More importantly, such intellectual music may not suffer as much at the hands of bad audio as conventionally aesthetic music, and hence, could induce stagnation in the evolution of better sound. […]
The emotional in the art is what is referred to in the Carnatic world as bhava. Bhava comes from many aspects of Carnatic music but its most serious claimant is the repertoire itself. The bedrock of Carnatic music is its repertoire – the intensely bhava-laden compositions of great masters. The remarkable vibrancy and sustainability of Carnatic music compared to some other genres come from bhava which is certainly the crown jewel. In fact, it could be argued that this alone often compensates for the lack of other aesthetic dimensions in the overall experience. […]
T. M. Krishna (in MOPA “Notes to Myself”): Now here is a fascinating story of a musician born and bred in privilege by his own admission, who enjoyed a liberal, progressive environment both at home and at school that laid the foundations for a fearless, critical mind and outspoken tongue, enjoyed the best of teachers who fostered an abiding love for Carnatic music in his young heart and was one among the band of young musicians who took the Carnatic stage by storm in the 90s. […]
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.”
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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After Partition, Bade Ghulam chose to move to Pakistan, but, finding the audience for classical music limited (in all senses of the word), wished to return to the Indian side of the border. In the 1950s, it was much easier to travel between these two countries than it is now. So Bade Ghulam made a trip to Mumbai, where someone brought his predicament to the attention of Morarji Desai, then the chief minister of the undivided Bombay State. Morarji bhai arranged for a government house for the maestro, while the Central government, headed at the time by Jawaharlal Nehru, smoothed the way for this Muslim from Pakistan to become a citizen of India.
Hamsadhvani is a lovely, melodious, raga in the Carnatic tradition, said to have been originally composed by Ramaswamy Dikshitar in the 18th century. There are many songs set in this raga, such as “Vatapi Ganapathim”, a hugely popular item in the repertoire of (among others) M.S. Subbulakshmi and M.L. Vasanthakumari. At some stage the raga was also adapted by Hindustani musicians for their own use. […]
The celebrated Kannada writer, Kota Shivarama Karanth, once remarked that it was impossible to “to talk of ‘Indian culture’ as if it is a monolithic object”. In Karanth’s opinion, “Indian culture today is so varied as to be called ‘cultures’. The roots of this culture go back to ancient times: and it has developed through contact with many races and peoples. Hence, among its many ingredients, it is impossible to say surely what is native and what is alien, what is borrowed out of love and what has been imposed by force. If we view Indian culture thus, we realise that there is no place for chauvinism.”
To this quote from Karanth let me append one by Rabindranath Tagore. Speaking of our inherited and shared diversity, Tagore once remarked: “No one knows at whose call so many streams of men flowed in restless tides from places unknown and were lost in one sea: here Aryan and non-Aryan, Dravidian, Chinese, the bands of Saka and the Hunas and Pathan and Mogul, have become combined in one body.”
The pluralism and cultural heterogeneity that Karanth and Tagore highlighted mark most spheres of Indian life. And perhaps (as they knew so well themselves) our classical music above all. Whether it be instrument or raga or genre or performer, we cannot say what is Hindu and what is Muslim, which part is native and which alien. […]
For the act of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan singing Hamsadhvani at a Rama Navami concert in Bangalore’s Fort High School in 1956 brings and blends together many languages, religions, regions, political regimes, musical traditions, and architectural styles. It is a glorious tribute to the cultural diversity of our country and our civilization.
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)